The Wake-Up Call from Amman

In a recent policy address, Ambassador Martin Indyk, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, described 1999 as “a year of changes.” He devoted substantial attention in his remarks to the relationship between leadership succession and regional stability throughout the Middle East. Indyk acknowledged “smooth” transitions in Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco, while noting that “preparations for succession are already underway in Syria and the UAE.” Ambassador Indyk further noted that “even in Iraq and Libya, the sons are also on the rise.” According to the Gulf States Newsletter, Al Quds al Arabi criticized Indyk’s speech, accusing the United States of “attempting to mold the future of Arab leadership, to undermine Arab unity, and to make the Arab states permanently reliant on US forces within the region.”

Both Indyk's speech, and the somewhat predictable response to it, highlight the significance of Arab leadership succession to the United States, and the unique sensitivity of this issue in the Middle East. Given that the United States is unable to predict who will assume power in any Arab state, Washington is presented with leadership succession uncertainties both in states that are sympathetic to the U.S., such as those of the Arabian Peninsula, Jordan, or Egypt, as well as those states with antipathy towards the U.S. such as Iraq, Sudan, or Libya. Thus, as leadership in the Arab world is transformed, Washington is powerless to predict the outcome of these processes and not in a position to influence them. No matter how close U.S. relationships may be, even with allied Arab states, processes of leadership succession are amongst the most closely held and jealously guarded prerogatives of current heads of state.

There is no evidence that the leadership in any Arab state has ever asked for assistance or guidance from Washington either in operating the levers of leadership succession, or even in discussing who likely candidates may be for such succession. Thus, the United States is confronted by political processes that are as significant as any political event in the Middle East. As it stands now, the best that Washington can do is to try to understand how these processes work, while acknowledging its own lack of influence. The fact of the matter is that Arab leadership succession is enormously complex and fraught with potential risks (both for the states involved as well as for their friends). What Ambassador Indyk was subtly suggesting, was that policy guidelines must be formulated, so that the United States is able to deal effectively with changes in leadership, be they gradual or rapid, violent or peaceful, constructive or even destructive. As a new century unfolds, leadership succession will inevitably occur in such key states as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya and others. How the United States weathers these changes is likely to be a significant measure of its regional effectiveness and influence as well as a potential challenge to its interests.