By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON – A political succession is beginning in the Middle East in which a generation of generally pro-American leaders is giving way to a new group whose attitudes and loyalties are less certain. This transition comes at a time when U.S. power in the region is perceived to be weakening.
The process of change can be seen, in different forms, in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq – traditionally the three most powerful nations in the Arab world. All three are vexed by the machinations of a revolutionary Iran and by al-Qaeda militants, both of which encourage opposition to the ruling elites.
The first transition has already begun in Saudi Arabia, the wealthiest and historically the most pro-American of the Arab regimes. The headlines last week were about King Abdullah’s visit to the United States for treatment of a slipped disk, and the return to Saudi Arabia of Crown Prince Sultan, the defense minister. It was a sign of change that the travels of these aging royals were announced in the normally secretive kingdom.
But the real Saudi news was that Abdullah’s son Miteb has been appointed head of the National Guard, one of the top military positions in the country. That marked a transfer of power to what’s known as the “third generation,” the grandsons of the founding King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud. An earlier hint was the appointment of Prince Mansour bin Miteb, the son of the minister of municipalities, to succeed his father.
Saudi analysts say these changes appear to be establishing a pattern for succession: that sons will succeed fathers in the Cabinet positions assigned in a long-ago power-sharing deal. A likely instance would be the appointment of Mohammed bin Nayef, the highly regarded Saudi chief of counterterrorism, to succeed his father Prince Nayef as minister of the interior when Nayef moves up to become the next crown prince.
This succession scheme provides a measure of order, but it masks the tensions that are present within the royal family over which way the kingdom should lean, in regional and global conflicts.
The succession in Egypt turns on the age and health of President Hosni Mubarak, who has led the country since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Mubarak has proved to be a solid bulwark against Muslim fundamentalists – at the cost of Egypt’s stillborn democratic reforms. The transition paradigm in this region is exemplified by the expectation that Mubarak will be succeeded by his son Gamal. With tight controls on the opposition, the Mubaraks’ National Democratic Party is expected to win easily in the parliamentary elections starting Sunday.
This father-to-son process was also evident in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father Hafez. It took the young president several years to consolidate control, but he has done so cleverly and ruthlessly, and is now one of the stronger Arab leaders of his generation – someone who regularly thumbs his nose at the United States and gets away with it.
A less fortunate son is Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri, whose father Rafiq was assassinated shortly after leaving that job in 2005. The coming month – when a U.N. investigative tribunal is expected to indict members of the powerful Syrian-backed Hezbollah militia for Rafiq’s murder – will test whether a son’s need for vengeance can surmount regional realpolitik. In this Shakespearean drama, don’t bet on Hamlet.
Iraq is also in the midst of a political transition, and that’s the hardest to predict. In this case, the ailing parent who’s about to depart the scene is not a person but a nation – the United States. Since invading Iraq in 2003 and shattering its old power structure, U.S. forces there have been in loco parentis. But that’s ending, with the formation of a new coalition government headed by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Vice President Joe Biden explained to a small group of journalists last week at the White House how he helped midwife the new government. But though it includes all the major political factions, it’s as fragile as Iraqi politics itself. And Biden said explicitly, in answer to a question, that if this weak center doesn’t hold and the country slips back into civil war, the U.S. isn’t coming to the rescue.
What’s ahead? As the coalition deal was being reached, Iranian operatives are said by an Arab intelligence source to have circulated an order to kill former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi and other members of his Iraqiya Party. But don’t expect Uncle Sam to solve the problem. You’re on your own, kids.
David Ignatius writes for the Washington Post Writers Group. Contact him at email@example.com or 1150 15th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20071.