Sama’a al-Hamadani | Visiting fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, specialist on Yemen
A general response would reinforce the fallacy that the Arab world is uniform and free from ideological and political discrepancies. However, upon examining dynastic leadership in the region, one notices that young leaders are unvaryingly approaching power as a God-given right rather than as a merit-based responsibility, the latter a quality that was fostered by their predecessors.
In Yemen’s case, the primary opponents—the Houthi leader Abdul-Malek Al Houthi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—are among the youngest leaders in the region, with Prince Mohammed being de facto king of Saudi Arabia at 33. Both millennials have invested heavily in political messaging and the media’s portrayal of what they aim to achieve rather than what they have already accomplished.
By miscalculating their political maneuvers in Yemen, they surpassed their predecessors in violence and cruelty. They both overlooked and continue to overlook civilian casualties as a natural consequence of their ascent to power. In Mohammed bin Salman’s case, he came armed with a public relations strategy that painted him as a “decisive” leader. What Yemen offered him was a twofold opportunity: a war that would distract Saudis from local political and sectarian tensions by creating a common enemy on the border; and the prospect of publicly “defeating Iran” in a country where Iran was, otherwise, weak. The idea was clever, but it also resulted in the world’s most devastating humanitarian crisis and a mess that both men’s predecessors would have known to avoid.
Today, with Saudi Arabia and Mohammed bin Salman facing many scandals, the only way for the young prince to appear seasoned in leadership is to end the Yemen war.
Subhi Hadidi | Syrian literary critic, commentator, and translator, most recently co-author, with Farouk Mardam-Bey and Ziad Majed, of Dans la tête de Bachar al-Assad (Actes Sud)
In the case of Syria, Bashar al-Assad inherited the presidency by accident, as the first choice was his brother Bassel, who was killed in a car crash in 1994. When his father, Hafez, recalled Bashar from London, he was overwhelmed by a complex mixture of responses. On the one hand he was terrified by the idea of replacing his powerful father, knowing how ferocious the struggle would be between the regime’s major power centers. On the other hand, his thirst for power was great and pressing, which explains why he soon played the game.
As early as September 2000, Bashar had this revealing phrase: “President Assad governs us from his grave.” This could have reflected a desire to both make the father eternal and to kill him. In fact, not only was Bashar the continuation of his father as a ruthless dictator and war criminal, but he actually did far worse, especially after the popular uprising of 2011. Consequently, the younger generation of leaders is at least as bad as the fathers were.
Yasmine Farouk | Visiting scholar in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The region has witnessed three categories of new leaders since 2000. The first includes young leaders who succeeded, or will succeed, their fathers—for example the leaders of Syria, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and, just before the new century, Morocco. They all implemented measures of social liberalization and economic modernization that were meant to be separated from political liberalization. The failure of this separation resulted in various degrees of repression and violence.
The second category comprises new leaders who are the product of the old political and socioeconomic orders, such as those in Egypt and Tunisia. These leaders have tended to over-rely on a traditional center of power in the system when compared to their predecessors, who relied on many centers of powers.
The third category includes the leaders of Iraq and, maybe, the future leaders of Libya and Yemen. They represent a rupture with the old political power structure, but are still unable to centralize power, monopolize coercion, and nationalize domestic politics.
Leaders in the three previous categories have in common that they have diversified their international network of allies instead of their traditional reliance on one patron.
Lee Smith | Senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations (2010)
Even as we continue to hope for a rising generation of reform-minded Arab leaders, there was evidence even before the killing of Jamal Khashoggi that this prospect was overstated. The extent to which the rising generation may differ from previous ones will be shaped partly by external factors.
For instance, it cannot be lost on the current generation that Arab leaders toppled during the last fifteen years—Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Zine al-Abedin bin Ali, Mo‘ammar al-Qaddafi—all wound up on the wrong side of policymakers in the Unite States, for one reason or another. The paradox is that while the U.S. is advertised as the status quo power, competitors that may replace the U.S. as regional hegemon, such as China, appear less likely to interfere with internal Arab dynamics. Or perhaps, after the war in Iraq the U.S. is more humble about its ability to shape the political reality of others. That’s the larger, underlying issue in the debate taking place in Washington about Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince.