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In the Middle East, a time of transition

Published by The Straits Times, Singapore on 2004-11-06

THERE is an old Arab saying that the news in the Middle East and North Africa is almost always bad, and it almost always gets worse. In the days and weeks ahead, Arabs and Israelis alike are going to have to be prepared for even more unwelcome news as political stalwarts depart the temporal scene, leaving unanswered questions of succession in a region where social instability is increasingly dramatically in direct proportion with unemployment among the young.

But the larger question is: Where are the young leaders who will transform a region of 300 million people - half of them under the age of 25 - that extends from Morocco in the west to Iran in the east through more transparent and accountable governance?

The disheartening answer is that the gerontocracy that largely dominates the 22 states of the region has collectively given little thought to this critical question. The aging rulers of the oil-rich Gulf States aand the autocrats of North Africa have created few political or institutional mechanisms to cope with the need to create 100 million news jobs in the next 10 years just to keep up with current needs.

And equally troubling is the fact that these rulers - many of them corrupted by years of pleasure seeking and self-indulgence tolerated by their political patron, the United States - seem to have made few preparations for the inevitable time of transition when they leave the scene.

The re-election of President George W. Bush of the United States wasn't terribly welcome news for the general populations of the MENA region. That's because of a wide perception that Mr Bush - whose policies concerning the region overwhelmingly favour the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a man solemnly opposed to the idea of an independent Palestinian state - isn't likely to make any special effort any time soon to revive negotiations that could end, however ephemerally, the rising violence and Islamic terrorism in the area.

The news was also bad this week because of what Mr Salameh Abdul Hadi, a shrewd political and economic analyst in Jordan, called a trifecta: the death of 86-year-old President Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan of the United Arab Emirates, who transformed a federation of seven feuding desert territories into a the imminent demise of the Palestine Authority's 75-year-old Yasser Arafat - who last night was already declared brain dead by hospital officials in Paris - and word that the aging rulers of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait were also in precarious medical condition.

In none of those geopolitically critical states, has the question of succession been addressed forthrightly. Mr Arafat, president of the Palestinian Authority, would privately say to cronies that he believed in immortality - that if Israeli assassins and bombs hadn't killed him by now, he would most likely stay immortal. Men of such monumental vanities do not designate successors.

Under the Palestinian Authority's constitution, the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, Mr Rawhi Fattuh, would succeed him. But this constitution has yet to be fully ratified. And challenges are certain to come from equally unpopular Palestinians figures such as Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei, former premier Mahmoud Abbas, and Parliament Speaker Salim al-Zaanoun.

Similarly, no one knows who will succeed the charismatic Sheikh Zayed as the president of the UAE federation. The eldest of his 44 children, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, will certainly become the new ruler of Abu Dhabi - the wealthiest of the seven emirates that constitute the UAE - but even then he might face a challenge from his younger brother Sheikh Muhammad Al-Nahyan, the Deputy Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, the rulers of Dubai - who are frenetically transforming their oil-less emirate into an international hub for technology, telecommunications and high-end real estate developments, are said to stake a claim for the presidency of the federation.

In Saudi Arabia, the long-ailing King Fahd was reported late this week to be on his deathbed. His brother, Crown Prince Abdullah, is a septuagenarian, and not exactly in the best of health either. Other potential successors from among the males of the Sudeiri clan - the seven sons that King Saud had with his primary wife Hassa al Sudeiri - aren't said to be in great medical shape either. Mideast analyst Mr Barry O'Connell predicts that when King Fahd dies, his brother Defense Minister Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz - father of Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the US - will sweep Abdullah aside and become King of Arabia.

Next door in Kuwait, another crisis is brewing. The Emir, Sheikh Jaber Al-Ahmed Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, hasn't been seen in public for months, and is said to be terminally ill. Crown Prince Saad al Abd Allah as Salim, is also said to be suffering from an unspecified illness, a consequence of his being in his seventies. Minor princelings are said to be already jockeying for power in a state that typically earns more than US$50 billion annually from its sale of crude oil, mostly to the US, Europe and South-east Asia.

Move east, and you find that the 75-year-old President Hosni Mubarak, suffering from high blood pressure and heart disease, hasn't named a successor. His 40-year-old son, Mr Gamal Mubarak, was once considered to have the inside track, but Egypt's powerful chief of intelligence, General Omar Suleiman, appears to be blocking the younger Mr Mubarak's ambition.

In Lebanon, what were once hopes of a establishing a genuine democracy after the debilitating civil war of 1975-1989, suffered a setback last week with the resignation of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The billionaire Mr Hariri, a Sunni Muslim widely credited with generating the reconstruction of Lebanon - particularly the Mediterranean capital city of Beirut - was pushed out by President Emil Lahoud, a Christian, who managed to amend the constitution with the help of his Syrian patrons in order to give himself a second term.

In Libya, Leader-for-Life Muammar Quadhafi shows no signs of wanting to relinquish power.

Neither do King Mohammed VI of Morocco and King Abdullah of Jordan. But at least the latter two are still not quite 40, and thus acceptable to their increasingly young populations.

But youthful or not, it all comes back to the question of good governance and job creation. Not much there to be cheerful about, even if these monarchs have mothballed the Ferraris of their early, profligate years in favour of more somber dark suits, even if tailored on Savile Row.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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