In the Middle East, the sons also rise

Even in what are supposed to be republics, ageing Arab leaders plan Jordanian-style dynastic success

The new king, Abdullah II, stood on the steps of the Raghadan Palace greeting Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, secure in the knowledge that the millions of Jordanians who were there to mourn King Hussein would accept him because his father had chosen him. The funeral was choreographed as much to show Jordan's seamless line of succession as to honour the 47-year reign of a monarch who was not always so lauded by the west.

Power had changed hands without the need for any democratic niceties. Abdullah's main qualification for the job is that as a major-general he will have the backing of the army - a prerequisite for any ruler in the Arab world. In a region where nations have been in a constant state of war for nearly 50 years, the armed forces have a stranglehold. Liberal democracy, to which even sub-Saharan African states aspire from time to time, has less than a toehold in most of the Arab world. If you think you are in a state of total war, as the Arabs think they are, you don't hold elections, as the British and Americans also refrained from doing in the early 1940s. True, Lebanon is an exception, but only because, after years of civil war and terrorism, it has nothing to lose from a fling with democracy. The Palestinian areas of Israel, true also, have an elected parliament, but Yasser Arafat makes all the important decisions without any reference to it.

Every Arab state knows what happens when you hold elections: the people vote for Islamic fundamentalist parties, as they did in Algeria. Such parties pose what ruling elites consider an unacceptable risk to national stability. They promise to redistribute wealth, enfranchise the poor and revive the equality that prevailed in the time of the Prophet. They would nationalise banks, commerce and industry and shatter the national economy within a matter of months. They would impose compulsory prayer, ban satellite television and order men to wear beards and women the veil, thus igniting social conflicts.

So a country of Bedouin tribes, where women are required to cover up and alcohol and gambling are associated with Satan, has another king with a playboy past, speaking in heavily accented British Arabic. Abdullah and his younger Hashemite siblings may claim descent from the family of the Prophet, but he and his younger brothers have all been educated in the secular west.

And throughout the Arab world a new generation is being groomed by its parents to take the reins of power. For the most part they are thirtysomething sybarites, united in their passion for fast cars, women, casinos and alcohol.

The next handover is expected in the Syrian capital, Damascus, where the 70-year-old President Hafez Assad is educating his 35-year-old son, Bashar, in the techniques of statecraft. This soft-spoken, British-trained ophthalmologist has emerged as his father's deputy and represents him at state functions at home and abroad. The diabetic Assad senior, who has been in power for 30 years, had planned to nominate his elder son Bassel as his successor, but the future president was killed in 1994 when he drove his Mercedes 600 into a road barrier in dense fog just outside Damascus airport.

Like Hussein - who ruled out his brother Hassan as his heir in his dying days - Assad has also been at loggerheads with a younger brother. Before he incurred his brother's wrath, the ambitious Rifaat was Syria's vice-president and revelled in all the privileges that went with the job, including a luxurious apartment in Paris where he dined off gold plate.

Monarchies like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Morocco can claim that dynastic succession is part of local culture and tradition. But presidents of the so-called socialist republics such as Syria, Iraq and Libya believe they also have God's blessing to name their sons as their successors. The presidents of these three countries each came to power in army-led coups and have since legitimised their rule by staging "referendums" that invariably give them 99.9 per cent public approval. Their courtiers have convinced them that the people will support any decision they make.

In Iraq, Saddam Hussein's notorious son, the oafish Uday, behaves as if Iraq belongs to him. Part of the country's oil revenues is paid into his private bank accounts and he has enriched himself further by issuing business licences in exchange for bribes.

Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who has also been in power for nearly three decades, believes his son, Seif al-Islam, is the Libyan best qualified to replace him. The 27 year old was dispatched to Amman by his father to congratulate Abdullah on behalf of the Libyan people.

Mercifully for the Palestinians - who claim to be the best educated and most progressive of all Arabs - Yasser and Suha Arafat have been blessed with a daughter, Zahwa. In male-dominated Palestinian society she will have to fight twice as hard as any boy to win a place in the dynastic stakes and she is in any case too young to replace her ailing father.

The trouble is that most of the next generation of rulers will probably lack the political skills of their fathers and so be unable to deal with the resentments that are building up throughout the Arab world.

From Libya and Morocco in the west all the way to the Gulf in the east, ruling families have reason to be afraid of the rising power of political Islam. The firebrands in Egypt who assassinate western tourists, the Algerian fundamentalists who torture and kill their own people, the Syrian Muslim Brothers who have vowed to topple the atheist Ba'ath regime and even the observant Muslims of Saudi Arabia are waiting in the wings for the right opportunity that will propel them into the palaces.

None of the ruling regimes' chosen sons can be described as devout Muslims and the profound sense of alienation is evident even in countries like Libya and Iraq, where Seif al-Islam and Uday have been largely tutored at home, leading sequestered lives and mixing only with their fathers' approved circle of cronies.

The mosque thus becomes an alternative source of authority and assistance for impoverished families who find it difficult to identify with the chinless generation of future rulers. But the radical preachers are no more interested in representative government, and rather more committed to imposing their own way of life on people, than the incumbent rulers. Deciding between a rock and a hard place is not much of a choice for the many who live beyond the palace walls.

This article first appeared in the 12 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Kick out the image-makers

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood