Arab Elder Statesmen

Several former American presidents. Carter, Clinton, and Bush have assumed elder statesman roles; Nixon's soiled reputation made this an impossibility.

I encourage you all to read this post by Bahraini blogger Burajaa, which discusses several possible future elder statesmen of the Arab World. I especially agree with his nomination of Rafik Hariri–his international background and continued symbolic influence testify to what a giant he was. I’d like to add a few potential future elder statesmen myself.

First, I think we need a clear notion of what an elder statesman is. The elder statesman has the power to intervene in politics to significant effect, and gains this power by being respected and having a distance from the political system. Elder statesmen can typically be found in positions of symbolic authority or as special appointees of sitting governments. Presidents of states with parliamentary systems often have this role–Ireland and Israel (notwithstanding the recent scandals around Moshe Katsav) are excellent examples. Kings of constitutional monarchies–Thailand and the UK, for instance–also fit the bill. The lack of formal power keeps these figureheads “above the fray,” and polls in these countries typically show a much higher level of trust in the institution of the Presidency or the monarchy than in the institutions engaged in gritty day-to-day politics.

The elder statesman’s need for distance explains why there have been comparatively few of them in the Arab world. Most Arab states have a history of very long-lived regimes in which transfers of power occur as a product of a crisis or the death of the current leader. Thus, leaders who are respected often don’t exit day-to-day politicking until they are forced out, often having ruined their reputation or angered their successor in the process. The sham democracy of the Arab republics prevents the rise of elder statesmen from the more peripheral posts–roles like Prime Minister, for instance–because these roles have no power to begin with and have been transparently coopted by their regime (as has been illustrated by the large numbers of PMs that have been forced to resign during the Arab Spring).

Additionally, there are many leaders who exhibit many traits of elder statesmen in the international arena, but who are unpopular domestically (and often for the same things that made them popular abroad). I think in particular of Hosni Mubarak. He has of course lost all of his credibility due to his bad behavior during his downfall, and his waning years of power had also seriously strained his reputation, as his corruption and nepotism became even more obvious. However, had he stepped down, say, during the Bush Administration’s mid-2000s push for expanded democracy, he would likely have become an elder statesman in the eyes of the West. He had enjoyed a reputation as an adept go-between for Western powers and some of the more anti-Western regimes; I would not have been surprised if he had been named as the head of, say, an international mission to convince Saleh or Ben ‘Ali to step down.

Another example of this is, oddly enough, Muammar Gaddafi. Gaddafi’s reputation in the West, and in much of the Middle East (including his own country) is of a dangerous madman (Sudanese President Gafaar Nimeiry once said that he has a dual personality, but both of them are evil). However, Gaddafi spent the latest years of his regime engaging in many diplomatic initiatives in sub-Saharan Africa that gave him a large amount of influence–a matter I alluded to in Tuesday’s post. Had he not dramatically weakened his state and restored his reputation for insanity in the course of the current crisis, he might have a limited statesmanlike role in African diplomacy.

There are other Arab leaders who could have enjoyed the position of statesman within the Arab world, but whose careers were cut short. Gamal abdul Nasser’s immense popularity across the region could have translated into serious diplomatic power had he lived; his Saudi rival King Faisal also enjoyed a positive image due to his many international development projects and his leadership of the Arab oil states in the 1973 embargo.

There are a few leaders today who have the potential to become elder statesmen. Saudi Arabia’s Prince Turki bin Faisal is one, likely of the pro-Western type. His family, headed by his brother, FM Prince Saud bin Faisal, has worked carefully to shield the regime from Western criticism with a smoke-screen of liberality; the more famous Saudi envoy to the West, Turki’s rival Prince Bandar bin Sultan, is subject to far too many unpleasant rumors to ever hold the same standing. Prince Bandar has also made the Faisal clan more able to assume the role of statesmen by pushing them to the periphery of the Saudi power structure–Turki himself currently holds no significant post, while Bandar reemerged from his mysterious exile to head the National Security Council, which appears likely to be the institution that will decide coming Saudi successions.

One might say that the Saudis in general have a kind of elder statesman role in the Arab political sphere–their extremely cautious diplomacy, coupled with their religious legitimacy and deep pockets, has seen them take the lead in many pan-Arab initiatives, such as the King Abdullah peace initiative.

Another possible future elder statesman is Syria’s Bashar al-Asad. Despite his infamy in the West and unpopularity in liberal circles, he still enjoys the support of large numbers of Syrians, including many young people. The “Twitter Revolution”-hungry media has been regularly reporting on the size of Facebook pages belonging to the Syrian opposition; they have apparently not noticed that al-Asad’s own Facebook page has several times the fans of these opposition pages. However, al-Asad suffers the same problem that has kept many other noted Arab leaders from statesmanhood–his regime is deeply entrenched and will not likely give up power without a fight. The current violence against the Arab Spring protesters is a testament to this.

Perhaps the most likely leader to become an elder statesman is Morocco’s King Muhammad VI. He has developed a political base that extends beyond the usual spheres of the security apparatus and the upper classes, gaining some support from the lower classes. The direction of the proposed constitutional reforms remains to be seen, but these appear to be the most genuine attempt at reform made by any of the heads of state in response to the recent protests. It is possible that in twenty or thirty year’s time Muhammad VI will have become the figurehead monarch of a democratized Morocco, a status which would give him enormous clout.

Given the political difficulties that have prevented the rise of the Arab elder stateman, importation may be the best path in the short run. Turkish PM Ergodan and FM Davutoglu have overseen an “Arab turn” in Turkish diplomacy that has resulted in enormous popularity; Turkey’s democratic institutions make it all but certain that they will eventually be out of power and able to assume the role of statesmen.

Upshot: The Arab world’s political patterns have typically kept respected politicians from becoming “elder statesmen.” Some of the current generation of leaders may be able to buck this trend.
Prediction: Prince Turki and King Muhammad VI will be able to take on the elder statesman role; Bashar al-Asad will remain too entangled in politics. Erdogan and Davutoglu will fill the role excellently, possibly even engaging in Nobel Prize-winning diplomacy.


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