The Costs of Relying on Aging Dictators
Almost as soon as it started, the democratization agenda that the Bush administration hoped would be the lodestar of its post 9-11 foreign policy has been all but shelved. The insurgency and sectarian bloodshed in Iraq, the regional threat posed by an expansionist Iran, and the Palestinian civil war have combined to help resurrect the U.S. embrace of regional stability as a foreign policy priority and have convinced President George W. Bush to reduce his emphasis on transformative diplomacy. Leaders such as Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Saudi King Abdullah bin Abd al-“Aziz, whom many administration officials viewed as embarrassing allies during Bush”s first term, now enjoy a renaissance of U.S. support. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for example, said little as Mubarak crushed liberal dissidents, and shortly before Bush met the Saudi king, he parried questions after a Saudi court sentenced a 19-year-old rape victim to 200 lashes and six months in jail.
But even as U.S. policy once again organizes around the idea that strongmen bring stability, Washington will soon face the downside of such a strategy: Aging rulers die; replacement leaders are frequently weak, and transitions can be volatile. Instability is a looming threat in four Western-allied dictatorships that many in Washington currently embrace as bulwarks of stability: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Oman.
The leaders of these countries have ruled for a combined total of ninety-nine years. Together, they have presided over significant transformations. But, in recent years, each has struggled to enact economic reforms to accommodate growing populations, to contain Islamism, and to encourage their respective societies to reconcile tradition with constructive political and economic pursuits. Amidst dangerous internal and external challenges, and in the absence of transparent mechanisms of succession that enjoy public approval, the inevitable moment of succession risks provoking crises that will challenge new leaders to the fullest.
Egypt: Republican Monarchy?
Egypt is a chief U.S. ally, the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign assistance after Iraq and Israel, and with a population of eighty million, it is home to one out of every three Arabs. Much Egyptian succession speculation centers on Hosni Mubarak”s son, Gamal. A favorite among Western diplomats, Gamal Mubarak was educated at the American University in Cairo, later worked as an investment banker in Cairo and London for Bank of America and founded and chaired a private equity fund, MedInvest Associates, Ltd. In 1998, he created the Future Generation Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that provides job training to young entrepreneurs in Egypt. In April 2007, Gamal married Khadiga el-Gammal, the daughter of a prominent Egyptian businessman.
Gamal”s rise through the ranks of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has been meteoric. In 2000, his father appointed him to the General Secretariat of the NDP. In September 2002, at the NDP”s eighth annual congress, Gamal became head of the newly created Policy Secretariat, a group of young, Western-educated economists, businessmen, and academics. After only six years in the NDP, Gamal became assistant secretary general to the party. The state-controlled press has kept Gamal and his projects in the spotlight. In 2003 as policy secretariat head, he introduced and passed legislation to abolish Egypt”s state security courts, remove the penal code”s labor penalty, and create a National Council for Human Rights. In recent years, Hosni and Gamal Mubarak have appeared together in public and on television at state events, fuelling Egyptian speculation about Gamal”s future role.
Gamal”s succession is far from assured, though. Egyptian politicians resent the political manipulation that has enabled Gamal”s rise. An internal document of the leftist National Progressive Unionist Party (Tagammu) scornfully cites “hidden attempts to bequeath the regime to President Mubarak”s 39-year-old son, Gamal.” On March 26, 2007, Hosni Mubarak”s rubber-stamp parliament passed an amendment to Egypt”s constitution empowering the vice president to assume the role of president should the president die or become incapacitated. This has led to speculation that Gamal Mubarak might become vice president, a position left unfilled since Mubarak ascended from the vice presidency to succeed President Anwar Sadat after his assassination in 1981. “He is the son of the president, the most powerful man in the group. Tell me one person who can say he will nominate against him,” warned George Ishak, deputy coordinator of the opposition Kifaya movement.
Nor does Gamal necessarily enjoy the support of the military, many of whose officers view the president”s son as young, inexperienced, and not representative of their ranks as he has never served in Egypt”s military. Since the Egyptian military, led by Gamal Abdul Nasser, overthrew the monarchy in a 1952 coup, the republic”s three presidents have emerged from the army”s ranks, and the military has played an integral role in Egyptian state and society. Gamal has no formal military background. While loath to make public statements against the government, former military officers have expressed their concerns on the question of presidential succession. “It will be Mubarak”s mistake of a lifetime if an inheritance of power took place,” said former defense minister and intelligence chief Amin Hewaidy. If Gamal attempts to become an economic reformer, he will face further military opposition, given how the Egyptian military profits from its tax-exempt status, which enables it to compete with private entrepreneurs, and from its use of conscripts as low-cost labor.
Despite the passage of constitutional amendments ostensibly aimed at promoting democracy, the Egyptian government continues to employ business-as-usual tactics to prevent any opposition groups, liberal or otherwise, from ascending to power. These groups—especially the illiberal but organized Muslim Brotherhood—might seek advantage from any transition period. In March 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood took to the streets to display its discontent with mass arrests of fellow members. The secular-nationalist Kifaya has also demonstrated and clashed with police. Al-Ghad, a secular opposition party licensed in 2004, may once again rise under the leadership of Ayman Nour, who challenged Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election but was subsequently imprisoned. Egypt”s military, staunchly loyal to Mubarak, may use his demise as grounds to reaffirm their privileged role in Egypt”s politics and economy.
U.S. diplomats have embraced Gamal in the hope that his image as a reformer will prove true, and he will be able to push a backward and corrupt Egyptian economy into the twenty-first century. In 2006, Gamal traveled to Washington to meet high level administration officials, including Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, suggesting to the Egyptian public that Gamal enjoys a U.S. endorsement. But this reputation elicits scorn from a considerable number of conservative Egyptian nationalists already wary of U.S. motives.
Whoever succeeds Mubarak will have to face down significant challenges from Islamists and religious conservatives. Many viewed Mubarak”s 2007 constitutional reforms as a spurious attempt to preserve the authority of his ruling party against challenges from religious conservatives. Article 5 of the revised constitution, for example, prohibits the formation of political parties that are based on religious platforms. While the Mubarak government successfully crushed Islamist terrorism in the 1990s, insurgent cells could emerge again should Islamists detect weakness after the president”s death. Stifled under Mubarak, some local extremists have migrated elsewhere to join the ranks of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. The unknowns of succession could lead opposition parties and radicals to assert themselves more forcefully. U.S foreign policy planning, which has for so long considered Egypt as an anchor of stability in the Middle East, may be turned upside down should Gamal not be able to consolidate control.
Saudi Arabia: Generational Challenge
Since the death of Abdul Aziz “Ibn Saud” in 1953, succession in the oil-rich kingdom has passed to Ibn Saud”s sons. Until 1992, the approximately 7,000 members of the royal family chose crown princes through an informal consensus that considered factors such as seniority, maternal lineage, and alliances with full brothers, all of which could help give a prince the influence to gain the throne. Such horizontal succession, however, led to geriatric kings: King Abdullah bin Abdu Aziz al-Saud, who formally took the crown in 2005 is eighty-three years old; Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud is only a year younger. Ibn Saud”s youngest son Miqrin is 64 years old and may assert his claim.
In 1992, King Fahd Bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud granted himself and his successors the right to appoint or dismiss a crown prince and enlarged the pool of potential successors to include the grandsons of ‘Abd al-Aziz, thereby increasing the number of candidates to almost 150.
Succession is still complicated. In practice, there are distinct factions among brothers who share the same mother in the polygamous royal family. The late King Fahd assigned his six full brothers to important positions in the government, forming a group known as the Sudairi Seven. The Sudairi are a more conservative element within both the royal family and Saudi society as a whole, serving even after Fahd”s 2005 death as a check on King Abdullah”s attempts at domestic reform. The minister of the interior, Prince Nayef, has a much closer relationship with Wahhabi clerics than does Abdullah. By leaning toward hard-line Islamism, Nayef is able to secure a measure of domestic stability and support against liberal activists and critics of the religious and political establishment. Allying himself with King Abdullah as a reformer who faced “obstacles before him,” Prince Talal, half-brother to the king and father to Prince Alwaleed, a prominent Saudi tycoon, has criticized the alleged “monopoly on Saudi power by one faction” within the Saudi royal family, which has been “holding executive power for some seventy years.” Though he did not name members of the faction, his comments were directed toward princes Sultan and Nayef, two of Saudi Arabia”s most powerful princes and also contenders to the throne.
Saudi officials, cognizant of the potential for family strife should the king”s successor not enjoy broader family support, have moved to modify succession even further. In October 2006, Saudi officials drafted an “Allegiance Institution Law,” which empowers a council of ruling family members to reject the king”s designated successor. While the Allegiance Law provides for more transparency in the transition of power than otherwise stipulated under the country”s Basic Law, succession remains opaque, and the potential for feuding or impasse among the royal family is very real. Indeed, while the oldest generation may accept that succession will pass them by, each surviving son of Ibn Saud jockeys furiously to ensure that his progeny are placed on the throne. This struggle for power and the tenacity of those seeking to preserve family alliances may erode political stability in the kingdom.
Whoever succeeds Abdullah in Saudi Arabia will face myriad problems. Saudi oil wealth has inhibited the advance of meaningful reform by cushioning the consequences of corrupt and inefficient governance. Even with oil prices near an all-time high, a population growth rate of 2.06 percent has left authorities in Riyadh scrambling to address an unemployment rate unofficially recorded at 30 percent. As Saudi princes conspicuously siphon the kingdom”s oil revenue, Saudis see the royal family”s religious rhetoric as being at odds with its conduct. The sight of Saudi princes gambling, drinking alcohol, and cavorting with prostitutes aggravates popular resentment and the widening socioeconomic divide.
After years of resistance, King Abdullah has acknowledged that Saudi Arabia has a terror problem. Al-Qaeda struck at the kingdom and at foreigners it hosted in the years after 9-11. On May 12, 2003, suicide bombers killed thirty-four at a foreign national housing compound in Riyadh, and over subsequent months, there were nine attacks that took twenty-one lives. In the face of such a terror campaign, the Saudi leadership enacted reforms to dampen Islamist fervor and became more aggressive in rooting out homegrown terrorists. The Saudi government began to arrest clerics who supported terrorism. Younger clerics remain undeterred, however, and continue to preach anti-Americanism and to incite violence. Saudi authorities tolerate many such clerics on the condition that they do not condone terrorist attacks against Saudi targets.
Many wealthy Saudis—including some in the royal family—donate money to charities or other organizations that support religious extremism abroad, leading Saudi Arabia to become an epicenter of the financing of Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. While Saudi authorities claim to have prosecuted individuals for terror financing and have frozen the assets of a number of other such malefactors, such sanctions remain limited. Still, the Saudi government has created a number of laws to gain greater oversight of money transfers and charity expenditures such as limiting charitable organizations to the use of a single bank account and prohibiting such organizations from making or receiving cash payments. Still, problems remain: Significant oil revenues are controlled by independent interests within the royal family, which do not necessarily lend themselves to monitoring by an incestuous Saudi government.
Saudi succession will come at a delicate time, both internally and externally. Saudi reforms are inchoate, succession unclear, and interest groups many. Any new Saudi leader will also face external challenges: The Iranian nuclear program has bolstered Iranian confidence and prestige, and Iranian authorities have agitated Saudi Arabia”s large Shi‘i population, forcing Riyadh to worry about internal order. Primitive Wahhabi, anti-Shi‘i attitudes only exacerbate the internal challenges, despite recent moves to build a Saudi identity that transcends sect and regional origin. Saudi authorities often cite the 1996 attack on the Khobar Towers U.S. military facility that killed nineteen U.S. servicemen and injured more than 350 as evidence of the Iranian threat: While the perpetrators were Saudi, Iran”s Revolutionary Guards organized the attack and trained many of the terrorists who executed it.
After years of cool relations following 9-11, Washington once again relies on Riyadh as a diplomatic partner. Not only do U.S. policymakers now consider a strong Saudi Arabia as a counterbalance to Iran, but State Department officials also look at Saudi authorities as partners in the Middle East peace process and in supporting nationalist factions in Lebanon against their pro-Syrian counterparts. Saudi authorities even went so far as to issue religious edicts against Hezbollah for provoking war with Israel in 2006.
Each likely successor will maintain the Saudi security alliance with the United States. But, U.S.-Saudi relations have been strained in recent years, and some kings may approach their ties to Washington differently than others. In this context, succession will put Saudi Arabia in play. Any U.S. policy today—from the Middle East peace process to the Middle East Partnership Initiative, which emphasizes civil society, economic reforms, political participation, and development as part of a broader U.S. public diplomacy effort in the Middle East—depends on both Egyptian and Saudi goodwill. The departure of both or even one of these states from the U.S. sphere will force significant changes in the U.S. Middle East posture.
Tunisia: North Africa”s Police State
Uncertain successions not only will put major U.S. allies in play but also the smaller, less acknowledged, but strategically important states such as Tunisia and Oman. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, now seventy-one, acceded to Tunisia”s presidency in a 1987 coup, vowing to bring order to chaos. Ben Ali has created stability but only at the expense of almost all civil liberties. In terms of political freedoms, Tunisia races Syria and Libya to the basement of the Arab world.
The result has been a government entirely reliant on Ben Ali as the dictator and an eviscerated multiparty system. Many reforms have been superficial. For example, while the Tunisian government in 2002 relaxed candidacy requirements to allow multi-person elections, neither the state-controlled media nor the security services allowed opposition candidates to campaign. At the same time, Ben Ali lifted restrictions that would have prohibited his third term and raised the age limit of the presidency to enable his continued incumbency. In subsequent elections, he won a fourth term, capturing 94.5 percent of the votes in an election plagued by fraud.
The threat of imprisonment has quelled national dissidents and multiparty activity. In 2005, Tunisian authorities suspended the general assembly of the Tunisian human rights league and Tunisian journalists” union and froze financial assets to the Arab Institute for Human Rights. Statements such as that by William Burns, at the time assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, that Tunisia is an exemplar for “moderation and tolerance,” breed cynicism. Islamism and anti-Western rejectionism have become the main outlets for political dissent.
Tunisian officials do not apologize for their stance on political dissent, which they view as having protected Tunisia from the terrorism rampant in neighboring countries. Hosting a regional conference on terrorism, Ben Ali declared, “We have always reaffirmed our total rejection of all forms of fanaticism and extremism and of the violence and terrorism they generate.” Many Islamists, especially members of the extremist An-Nahdha party, remain in prison.
While ensuring that Tunisia did not become a new Algeria was a Western interest, U.S. failure to encourage systematic reform leaves Tunisia susceptible to instability following Ben Ali”s death. There are no credible plans for succession, and there are few if any Tunisian officials with the experience, skills, or popular support that would make them plausible leaders. While the ruling Rassemblement Constitutionnel Democratique (RCD) party retains a stranglehold on government positions, Ben Ali has frequently shuffled cabinet positions to deter members from developing loyal constituencies, increasing the likelihood of a struggle for power within the party upon Ben Ali”s death. Anti-Americanism is widespread, and Tunisian Islamist leaders, many of whom have taken shelter in Europe, can be counted on to attempt to make their mark on Tunisian society when Ben Ali passes. The Tunisia of 2018 may be very different from the Tunisia of 2008.
Oman: Uncertainty in a Strategic Cornerstone
Decades of quiet have left the Sultanate of Oman out of sight and out of mind for most Western policymakers. Yet its stability is of critical importance to the West. Situated on one side of the Strait of Hormuz, 30 percent of the world”s oil supply passes along its coast.
Until 1970, the Sultanate of Oman was one of the world”s most reclusive and backward states. With British orchestration, Sultan Qaboos took the throne from his outmoded father Sultan Said bin Taimur in 1970. Subsequent British pressure ensured that the then-30-year-old Qaboos opened his kingdom and ushered in reforms, dragging the sultanate kicking and screaming into the twentieth century. On the Index of Economic Freedom, Oman is ranked third freest among the seventeen countries in the Middle East/North Africa region; its economy overall is ranked forty-second freest in the world, reflecting a score higher than the regional average. In a presumed commitment to economic liberalization, Oman became a member of the World Trade Organization in 2000, and in 2006, signed a free trade agreement with the United States.
Oman has also been a somewhat reliable strategic partner. In 1979, Qaboos quietly supported the U.S. Camp David initiative that helped Jerusalem and Cairo establish diplomatic relations. The main evidence of Oman”s friendly geopolitical role was its willingness to host large United States Air Force bases in 1981, the first facilities access agreement of its kind in the region. In 1990, Oman renewed an agreement to allow the United States military access to military bases situated on the Strait of Hormuz and, the following year, Oman supplied troops to the Arab contingent of Joint Forces Command East for Operation Desert Storm. However, perhaps reacting to domestic anti-Americanism, Oman has been a less consistent ally in recent years. In 2006, Oman voted with the United States at the United Nations only 7.6 percent of the time, only slightly more than Libya and Syria. In the wake of 9-11, Oman refused for several days to allow its airfield to be used in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the military operation that freed Afghanistan from the Taliban.
Succession is uncertain in Oman. For as much as Qaboos opened his sultanate to economic liberalization, he did not permit dilution of his political control. His rule has encompassed not only the responsibilities of head of state but also those of prime minister, defense minister, finance minister, foreign affairs minister, and chairman of the central bank. Because Qaboos has never been married and has no offspring, there is no obvious successor.
Rather than identify an heir to his throne during his tenure, Qaboos has vested the authority to do so in his family following his death. The rules of succession, as stipulated by the Basic Law enacted by Qaboos in 1996, decree that Qaboos” family will select a successor within three days of the throne falling vacant. Should the ruling family council fail to reach consensus, the Defense Council will defer the decision to a letter written by the sultan in which he will have named his choice of successor who, according to the Basic Law, must only be a Muslim of sound mind and the legitimate son of Omani Muslim parentage.
This process leaves room for a number of scenarios; thus far the identity of the next ruler appears to be entirely unknown. Oman”s character changed radically between Sultan Said bin Taimur and Qaboos, and with so much power invested in the individual leader, it is always possible that the character of the government could change radically again. Certainly, neighboring states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran will seek to influence the outcome. While Muscat has long pursued a policy of friendship to all its neighbors, the Iran-Oman Parliamentary Friendship Group in the sultanate has become more active in recent years. It remains unclear, however, whether anyone in Washington has thought of aiding Oman”s succession in the manner that Britain did decades ago to ensure an outcome favoring continued relative stability.
Qaboos” successor will face other serious challenges in a society with deep social cleavages. Residual effects of the 1962-75 Dhofar war remain with enduring differences between the more cosmopolitan, prosperous, coastal regions and the more conservative interior. While Qaboos, with support from Great Britain and Iran, suppressed the insurgency, regional states might seize upon any succession uncertainty to undercut Oman”s stability again.
Despite Oman”s economic liberalization, the sultanate remains dependent on the oil revenues that account for 75 percent of the country”s export earnings and 40 percent of its gross domestic product. But oil production is declining and is bearing on the country”s economy: In 2006, Oman”s gross domestic product grew at a rate of only 4.2 percent compared to 5.7 percent the year before. In all likelihood, Omani oil production will continue to decline. Such declining economic growth is taking place in the context of an increasing population. By 2025, the population of Oman is expected to have grown almost 20 percent from its current 2.7 million, exacerbating an already double-digit unemployment rate. Such indicators and the reforms necessary to reverse them may force the untested new ruler to face domestic instability.
Many Western policymakers seek stability in the Middle East, and their European counterparts fear that instability might catalyze emigration from Arab states to European ones. U.S. policymakers additionally worry that succession crises will provide opportunities for Islamists and other radicals to challenge new, inexperienced, and potentially weak rulers. The failure of so many outgoing rulers to encourage substantive political reforms has left the region perhaps prone to even greater instability.
The rules of biology make it unlikely that the region”s political dinosaurs will last much longer. And, despite the fact that more than 300 million Arabs will soon have new rulers, there have been few efforts undertaken to encourage smooth, pro-Western successions, or even contingency planning should succession struggles go awry. The stability-promotion that has marked the final years of the Bush administration might end up proving as successful as the democracy-promotion that marked the first term of the Bush administration.
Caroline Sevier is manager of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.
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