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.