Step One: Attaining Power

Although in some political settings family may be the single most crucial determinant to political succession, there are limits to the predictive and explanatory power of familial ties. For although blood may be thicker than water, as we saw in the Jordanian case, the blood of one royal family member turned out to be somewhat richer than that of the others. What we mean by this is that in the extended and large royal families that exist in some Arab countries, knowing that family plays a key role in political succession is rather obvious while not necessarily explaining a great deal.

The most common example of this is Saudi Arabia where the extended royal family has several thousand members. Although there are those who are close to the center and others situated at the periphery, the entire business of political succession tends to be decided within the family, although we cannot predict with absolute certainty who is likely to take power. Furthermore, although it is widely assumed that political succession in Saudi Arabia is a rather straightforward affair, the very fact that family members are involved in determining political succession hampers anyone who assumes power simply because he has a constituency whom he must regularly satisfy, as well as detractors whose opposition to his rule must be constantly monitored. Family politics is politics just the same, and the fact that competitors for power may share the same blood lines in no way mitigates the viciousness and possible lethality of potential political competition amongst aspirants to royal control.

In other instances, it is evident that no family members are likely to be candidates to replace a sitting head of state. Here we are making reference to the case of Oman, in which Sultan Qaboos is not likely to produce a political heir or successor through marriage or by any other means. Thus, Oman presents us with a particularly intriguing challenge. Although it is widely assumed that an elaborate, sophisticated, and presumably workable succession mechanism has been put in place by Sultan Qaboos, he has been unwilling to offer any details to the public about what this mechanism actually looks like. Indeed, even the savviest Oman watchers are not able to discern with any measure of confidence how the Omani succession process works or what its outcome will be. What is generally assumed is that Sultan Qaboos is well aware of the importance of the succession issue, as well as the fact that he does not have a direct successor within his family. Thus, it is expected that Oman’s somewhat mysterious succession plan is, in fact, a genuine one and one that is likely to be workable, given the highly efficient and effective fashion in which Sultan Qaboos has reigned to date.

Interesting non-monarchic models exist in both Syria and Iraq whose respective heads of state, Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, rule with a degree of authority that is equal, if not in some ways superior, to that of any monarch in the Arab world. Here the succession lines are generally thought to be quite direct --- from the father to the son. In the Syrian case, President Assad assiduously groomed his eldest son, Basil, to replace him. Basil was an omnipresent fixture in Syria, with posters bearing his likeness covering walls and other public and private spaces throughout the country. He was frequently portrayed wearing military attire and it was widely and presumably correctly assumed that he would replace his father. In recent years, the senior Assad’s periodic bouts of illness have placed the question of political succession at the forefront of most Syria watchers’ lists. Yet, what was thought to be a fairly straightforward succession process came to an abrupt end in 1994 when Basil was killed in an automobile accident. en route to the airport in the early hours of the morning when his sports car crashed into a bridge abutment. This left a palpable gap in the Syrian line of succession which Hafez al-Assad eventually moved to fill by turning to his other son, Bashar.

Bashar al-Assad is a very different type of individual than was his brother Basil. Generally thought to be quieter and less political, Bashar led an unassuming life in Europe where he was a physician specializing in ophthalmology. Upon the death of his brother, he returned home and gradually began to move through a clearly defined political education process which included military training with swift movement upwards through the ranks, stewardship of Lebanon under his father’s supervision, head of a number of important committees, and a variety of other activities. Some such activities were of high visibility, and others somewhat lower, but all were geared to grooming Bashar to replace his father. Surprisingly little is known about Bashar al-Assad, although to date he has been given high marks for the performance of the assignments given to him. Whether he will be able to fulfill his father’s expectations of him will only become clear once he assumes power. A far more significant issue, to which we must be attentive, is that assuming power, no matter how well orchestrated a succession process may be, is only as valuable as one’s ability to exercise and retain it. As we discuss below, successor performance is a particularly complicated issue to anticipate, although it is a key dimension of the political succession process.

The situation in Iraq is not unlike that in Syria. Saddam Hussein appears to be grooming his younger son Qussai to replace him, just as is the case with Bashar al-Assad. Although little is known about Bashar al-Assad even amongst ordinary Syrians, this is not the case with Saddam’s sons. Both Udai and Qussai Hussein are well known and, in the case of Udai at least, deeply reviled by most Iraqis. Udai is widely believed to be heavily involved in corruption, the self-serving exercise of power, and is thought responsible for a variety of excesses, none of which have endeared him to the Iraqi people. Perhaps because of this, Qussai seems to have emerged as the likely successor to his father.

As the authoritative Gulf States Newsletter reports, “ Qussai’s recent [efforts] contrast strongly with Udai Hussein’s public profile, which continues to drop. Whilst Qussai continues to get all the best lines while being groomed to present a rehabilitated image of Saddam’s dynasty, Udai’s status as an international leper grows even more obvious with reports surfacing that even Jordan refuses to admit Udai for medical treatment.[4]” Yet, no matter what the outcome in Iraq, as is the case in Syria, succession in these autocracies cannot simply rest on the decision by the father who himself, be he Saddam Hussein or Hafez al-Assad, is dependent upon a complex circle of supporters to remain in power. Ensuring the loyalty of the military is an essential prerequisite to this, as is maintaining a monopoly on the instruments of coercion which include the intelligence services, paramilitary forces, and other institutions geared exclusively to protecting the head of state and to perpetuating his rule. Thus, although one would be correct in asserting that both Iraq and Syria are “one man shows,” the reality is far more complex and nuanced than this, as the strong men in both countries are heavily reliant upon a complicated network of supporters that sustain their domination of political life. In both cases, no matter how seriously weakened the economy may be or no matter what problems afflict the societies, Assad and Hussein are particularly attentive to and dependent upon the military leadership and take extraordinary measures to control it and not to alienate it. Thus, both Assad and Saddam will only be able to successfully hand power over to their sons with the forbearance of these support systems.

In other cases, familial ties are not relevant to the transfer of political power. For example, no matter how tightly Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak clings to power, once he leaves the political scene he will not be able to cede power to one of his children. The Egyptian system simply does not function this way. Thus, although we can speculate about who is likely to replace Mubarak, it is unlikely that such speculation will have much accuracy. What is clear however, is that the Egyptian military will play a key role in determining who follows Hosni Mubarak.[5] Furthermore, there have been other recent developments which rather than clarifying the situation in Egypt, make it even more complex. For example, since Mubarak’s ascension to power in 1981, after the assassination of Anwar Sadat, he has made no move to fill the vacant Vice Presidency, the position he occupied prior to his succeeding Sadat. The long-term vacancy of this position has created significant attention in Egypt. And although there is no expectation that a member of President Mubarak’s family will replace him, there has been speculation about the political ambitions of his son, Gamal Mubarak. The younger Mubarak is said to occasionally travel with his father, is thought to have demonstrated modest political ambitions, and, in the absence of a clear successor to his father, is occasionally mentioned as someone who might have his eye on a high level political position. What is not clear however, is whether such speculation has merit to it or if it has simply emerged in the absence of more substantive information about the succession process in Egypt.

As we indicate above, bloodlines explain something, but not everything, about processes of succession in the Arab world. And, as we further suggest, political succession is exercised within a complex political structure in which family ties are important but not exclusively so. Thus, our second principle may be articulated as follows: Middle East ruling families tend to be large and complex. Thus, it may be difficult to determine which family member will assume power. Furthermore, no matter how powerful an autocrat may be, he is reliant on a support system that must offer its support to any successful and enduring succession effort.