What You See May Not Be What You Get

In addition to the necessity of measuring political succession, not only by the passing of the power, but by its sustained retention, there is always the possibility that the line of succession may not be as straightforward as particular succession processes seem to suggest. Here what is meant is that although the head of state may outline a succession process, it is not certain that the immediate allocation of power represents the long-term view of the individual passing the power on to someone else. This is an exceedingly complex and difficult issue to anticipate, but nonetheless worthy of a brief examination. There are always conspiracy theorists and others who argue that things are not as they appear and, despite the highly secretive and Byzantine nature of Arab politics, it is possible that succession processes are even more complex than we think. Yet, surprises and uncertainty are hardly unique to autocracies and are common features of all political systems including democracies. Below we offer examples of possible political succession in the Arab world with possible twists. They have been reported on in various respected sources, and we will use two of them to give a flavor to what may be the current state of thinking.

The first regards the widely discussed succession to President Yassar Arafat of the Palestinian National Authority who is said to have Parkinson’s Disease but whose health appears to be generally good. It is generally assumed that Arafat will be succeeded by Mahmoud Abbas, who is generally known by his nom de guerre Abu Mazen. Abu Mazen is closely associated with Fatah and has long been an Arafat loyalist. Yet, according to an article appearing in Jane’s Foreign Report, Arafat has changed his mind. Reportedly, Arafat is now considering having Ahmed Quriah, known as Abu Alla, serve as his successor. Abu Alla has a strong relationship with key Israelis and is widely thought to be effective in the areas of finance and administration. Whether Abu Alla will replace Abu Mazan as Arafat’s replacement remains unclear. The point to be made here is that what was previously presumed to be a clear line of succession is suddenly quite murky.

Humility is a necessity for the good political analyst and again, we should not lose sight of the Jordanian case in which right up until the last moment there was almost complete certainty by all that Crown Prince Hassan would replace King Hussein. With little fanfare and great surprise, King Hussein changed his mind. In the Palestinian National Authority case, we now hear rumors that Arafat himself may have changed his. This could be completely fictitious or wholly accurate. The point is that we do not know and, thus, only time will tell who Arafat’s successor will be.

Another story, also reported in the Foreign Report, and making the rounds in Jordan as well, is impossible to verify, but is remarkable if improbable. Here it is asserted that on his deathbed, King Hussein made an arrangement with his eldest son, now King Abdullah. According to this intriguing, if impossible to verify report, Abdullah was asked and agreed to remain on the throne for only three years. It is speculated that King Hussein’s motivation to place Abdullah on the throne was to prevent Crown Prince Hassan from succeeding him. In reality, according to this story, King Hussein’s long-term preference for a successor is his son Prince Hamza, whose mother is the American born Queen Noor. Because Hamza is still only a teenager, as well as a cadet at Sandhurst, the British Military Academy, it is premature for him to ascend the throne. Thus, King Abdullah was meant to be a placeholder who, when Hamza reaches the age of 21, will leave the throne and pass it on to his younger half brother.

According to the Foreign Report, Hussein’s preference for Hamza rather than Abdullah can be explained by Hussein’s belief that Hamza “inherited his charisma” and “ability to communicate with ordinary people.” It is said that Hamza looks remarkably like King Hussein and that he shows unusual political maturity and sophistication. His Arabic is appreciably better than Abdullah’s, who never studied the language as diligently as did his younger half brother. Both have foreign mothers, Abdullah’s is British and Hamza’s American. Although this story could be a complete fiction, the point is that once succession has occurred, even if it appears to be successful, nothing is permanent or immutable. There are always expectations of intrigue, perhaps even when none exists, and always the possibility of other outcomes and forces working to unseat a newly minted monarch or head of state.

Other cases of uncertainty abound. For example, although it is widely believed that Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia will replace the ailing King Fahd, there is significant intra-family maneuvering within the large Saudi royal family, both to influence the process of succession, as well as to position aspirants to the throne in close proximity to whomever gets it should they not be successful. According to one report, although King Fahd is still the acting head of state, in reality Crown Prince Abdullah has for the last three years been in charge in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia exists as a classic gerontocracy, where the King is 78 years old, the Crown Prince 76, the Defense Minister, who is next in line, 75, and so forth.

In an excellent overview of the politics of succession in Saudi Arabia, Douglas Jehl enumerates the dizzying array of players, the politicking which dominates the succession process, and the growing power, influence, and importance of a comparatively younger generation of potential aspirants in their 50’s and 60’s. Although it is widely assumed that Crown Prince Abdullah will assume the throne, there are also counter-assumptions of unanticipated eventualities that cannot be excluded. For example, what if Abdullah becomes ill, what if the political jockeying produces a more powerful candidate, what if political sentiment in the Kingdom turns against Abdullah, and the like? Thus, we cannot know for certain what the succession will look like until it actually occurs.

As Gawdad Bahgat astutely notes, the question of political succession needs to be analytically constructed so that “the unit of analysis is the monarchy as an institution, not individual leaders. ”12 As we indicate above, succession processes are merely the reflection of complex political interactions amongst a variety of societal groupings. Thus, tracking individuals is only useful depending upon the degree to which they command the ability to have power transferred to them, as well as the ability to retain it. This is further modified by what we may regard as our next principle, in which political succession is as much about political processes as it is about personalities. No matter how certain the line of succession may appear to be, something can always come along to upset it. There are invariably unanticipated factors that can modify processes of political succession. Such surprises can characterize democracies as well, but they are publicly manifested in periodic elections and not behind closed doors as in autocratic systems.