The appointment of Dr Bashar al-Assad to succeed his late father as president of the Syrian republic is a novelty, even by the standards of Middle Eastern state politics.
For if Bashar, a British-trained eye surgeon of 34, is confirmed as president by the parliament in Damascus and then by referendum – and those are formalities in Ba’athist Syria – it will be more than mere nepotism. Bashar’s presidency will be the first instance of the hereditary principle in an Arab socialist republic. The region, which still boasts a dozen emirates, sultanates or kingdoms, can now add in Syria as its first republican monarchy.
It will surely not be the last.
In Iraq, it is universally assumed that Saddam Hussein wishes to be succeeded by his son, Qusay, and he still has the power to enforce his will on the centre and south of this ruined country. To a lesser extent, Presidents Gaddafi of Libya, Saleh of Yemen and Mubarak of Egypt are suspected of harbouring presidential ambitions for their sons.
These republican whelps are not the new generation of a popular political family. They are not Nehrus or Aquinos. In his 30 years of power, Hafez al-Assad earned the respect of Syrians and other Arabs, but his regime was based in a religious minority and, ultimately, on violence. As one of the Kurdish leaders said to me last year in Iraqi Kurdistan: “Republican monarchs! We’d rather have the real thing!”
As for the real thing, both Jordan and Morocco have just experienced a smooth succession to two long-serving kings. In Iran, of all countries, which expelled the Shah in a revolution in 1979, there is a palpable nostalgia if not for the Pahlavis, at least for earlier epochs of Persian monarchy. Afghanistan is reverting to the monarchical government abolished in 1973. In 1996, Mulla Omar, the Taliban leader, demanded an oath of allegiance as Prince of the Faithful, a title borne by the Prophet’s successors.
Why is this happening? Why is monarchy, which we are told is in retreat the world over in the face of more just and successful republican systems, enjoying this resurrection in the Middle East?
Professor Fred Halliday of the London School of Economics, in a fascinating new book of essays called Nation and Religion in the Middle East (Saqi Books), argues that monarchy in the Middle East has benefited from the utter shipwreck of secular nationalism. The agitation to oust the kings installed by the British after the collapse of the Ottoman empire succeeded in Egypt in 1952, with a coup d’etat by military officers against King Farouk. Arab nationalism suffered a reverse with its defeat by Israel in 1967 and it has never recovered. Hafez al-Assad, obsessed with recovering the Syrian territory occupied by Israel in 1967, allowed the Syrian economy to become fossilised. Iraq, friendless after its disastrous wars against Kuwait and Iran, has reverted to the economic condition of 50 years ago. Egypt has repeatedly promised more than it could achieve. Monarchy’s resurrection is therefore, like Islamist rebellion, a reaction to the failure of the socialist revolutions to withstand outside powers, or Israel, or to provide prosperity.
The generation that came to power in Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Libya and the ancient imamate of Yemen is now contemplating its own extinction, with few means of protecting its friends, annals or monuments, other than blood, in both senses. As always, Iraq is exemplary. In consolidating his power after the defeat of 1991, Saddam is said to have appointed Qusay as general overseer of the internal security machine. Qusay is therefore the man most trusted in Iraq to protect Saddam’s life. It is inevitable that his father should look to him to guard his corpse.
Against the dismal record of the socialist regimes, the Gulf monarchies have enjoyed high standards of living, based on their oil reserves and the self-interested support of outside powers, notably Britain and the US. British and American armies restored the Emir of Kuwait in 1991, in much the same way as British and American agents restored the Shah of Iran in 1953. In contrast, republican Syria and Iraq squandered their oil revenues and relied on the inert or faithless Soviet Union.
As their prestige waned, republican monarchs resorted to a violence that the kings could not have imagined. It is said (inaccurately) of the Iraqi monarchy that, in its 40-year existence, it hanged four Arab nationalists, four communists and four Kurds. The Iraqi Ba’ath regime, whose only recognisable ideology is a cult of violence, disposes of more of its opponents on a single, routine day. When set against the revolutionary terror in Iran of 1981 and 1988, the cruelties of the Shah, so revolting at the time, now seem positively rustic.
In fact, Iran now offers the best hope in the Middle East of a just government based on popular will. Yet portions of a largely hereditary Shi’a clergy are determined to retain their privileges and constrain parliament through such institutions as the Council of Guardians, the Council of Experts and the judiciary. The challenge for the reform movement in Iran is to adjust or dismantle the elements of clerical “monarchy” in the 1979 constitution without provoking civil war. That is why President Khatami acts with such agonising deliberation.
One of the strengths of the Middle Eastern monarchies is their provisional character. None (except in Muscat) predates the 20th century. Those monarchies that have survived have a tendency to sift candidates on criteria other than male primogeniture. At the end of his life, King Hussein anointed his son Abdullah in preference to his brother, Crown Prince Hassan.
In approximately the same fashion, Hafez al-Assad, in his last illness, anointed his son Bashar over his brother, Rifaat. The Saudi royal family has repeatedly passed over senior candidates in processes that are all but impenetrable to outsiders.
In reality, of course, nominally socialist republics based on armed forces and mokhaberat have nothing to recommend them over nominally conservative monarchies backed by the same, except in one respect: the republics are not creations of romantic British diplomats or soldiers. What holds an Arab leader in power is a mixture of violence and prestige. Both President Assad and King Hussein were felt to have defended Arab interests against the world. That, in the end, is more important than what they wear on their head.
Were there peace and justice in the Middle East, the Arabs would no more need their tinhorn dictators than they would their corpulent princes.
James Buchan’s novel of modern Iran, A Good Place to Die, is published by Harvill (£10.99)