Summer 2008

Dictator Regret

– The Wilson Quarterly

Four Middle East dictators, backed by the U.S. for the stability they bring, are getting old, and none have a successor with clear popular support.

Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak turned 80 in May. Saudi King Abdullah will be 84 in August. Tunisian president Zine ­el-­Abidine Ben Ali celebrated his 71st birth­day last September, and Oman’s sultan Qaboos is the youngster of the group at age 67. Official Washing­ton counts these four ­Western-­allied dictators as among the bulwarks of stability in the Middle East. None of them has a clear successor with popular ­support.

Egypt, home to one in three Arabs, has stifled both Islamic and secular alternatives to the Mubarak regime, writes Caroline Sevier, manager of foreign policy and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Mubarak appears to be grooming his son, Gamal, as his successor, despite Gamal’s lack of military and political ­support.

There are nearly 150 official candidates for the Saudi kingship, all descendants of the patriarch Ibn Saud, and any new king must be chosen by consensus of the roughly 7,000 members of the increasingly fractious royal family. In Tunisia, Ben Ali has suppressed opposition, along with almost all civil liberties, and prevented potential rivals from acquiring the skills, experience, and support that might allow them to step into the presidency. And Oman, bordering the vital oil corridor of the Strait of Hormuz, possesses a plan of succession decreed by Sultan Qaboos: Upon his death, his family will decide on a new sultan; if it deadlocks, he’s left an envelope with his ­pick.

Simple biology makes it unlikely that the four leaders will govern for much longer, but there has been little contingency planning in Washington. The Bush administration once made it a priority to promote democracy in the Middle East, Sevier says, but soon retired the rhetoric in favor of promoting stability. Without more focus on the coming successions, that strategy will prove no more successful than the one it ­replaced.

* * *

The Source: "The Costs of Relying on Aging Dictators" by Caroline Sevier, in Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2008.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons