Accidental Leaders

One of the peculiarities of this part of the world is that two of its leaders, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria (also see post of 5.4) and King Abdullah II of Jordan, came to power almost accidentally, and at young ages.

Until fairly close to his ascension to the Presidency of Syria, Bashar al-Assad had no military or political role in Syria, and instead was on his way to being an ophthalmologist. In 1994, Bashar was rushed back to Syria from London when his older brother Basil, the son who had been groomed to succeed to Syria’s monarchic presidency, died in a car crash. Bashar trained quickly to become Syria’s next president and assumed the title in 2001 at the early age of 35, when his father Hafez al-Assad passed away. Neither Bashar nor his father ever expected Bashar to be in the role of leading the country; everyone had expected the much loved Basil to be the next President of Syria.

Similarly, the next in line to Jordan’s throne after King Hussein was, for the longest time, his brother Hassan, and not his son Abdullah. A mere two weeks before the death of King Hussein, he suddenly named his son as successor, replacing Hassan as Crown Prince. King Abdullah was crowned in 1999 at the age of 37. It’s not at all clear what made King Hussein seemingly change his mind at the last minute, but one point of controversy that may have prevented an earlier designation of Abdullah as Crown Prince was his “Arabness.” King Abdullah’s mother was British and not Arab, he went to school in Britain and the U.S., and, according to one Jordanian I spoke to, his Arabic language skills at the time of his own coronation were not sufficient to give an address.

Presidents Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, Damascus, Syria

King Abdullah, Wadi Musa, Jordan

This is one of the risks of monarchy–people can rise to power in unexpected, less than ideal ways: Fathers can die when their sons are too young and ill-prepared; the next in line may be inadequate in capacity or temperament; rivalries can result in bloodshed, leading the most murderous to the throne (indeed entire royal families have been wiped out in order to “fix” succession). In comparison with such scenarios, Bashar al-Assad and King Abdullah both seem meritorious and successful leaders of their respective country, their popularity (and that of their families) attested to by the numerous pictures of them posted all over Syria and Jordan. Their relatively young age and lack of experience (President-Elect Obama is 47, a decade older than King Abdullah when he was coronated and twelve years older than Bashar al-Assad when he was inaugurated) seem not to be affecting their rule too negatively. The only real complaint we heard about either was that Bashar was not as “strong” as his father or brother (because “Arab countries need a strong leader”), but even the Syrian who made this complaint followed it by expressing his hope that as Bashar grew into the position, he would develop a stronger hand.

And, even if monarchies can be somewhat arbitrary, it is important to keep in mind that Presidents Bush and Ahmedinejad, two of the least popular leaders in the world, were both democratically elected (although the former’s first election was “stolen”) and one of the scariest recent near-misses in unprepared leadership was John McCain’s irresponsible and bizarre selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate. Democracies can sometimes result in disastrous rule, while hereditary power can sometimes result in ideal leadership (see post of 7.13 on the Aga Khan, who was selected by his grandfather to succeed to the title).

Given all of the uncertainties in this part of the world, its great geopolitical complications (and with them the potential for conflict and disaster), a great deal of responsibility was thrust on these two men, suddenly and unexpectedly–let us wish them stable, prosperous and peaceful reigns.

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