At least King Hussein, the dying monarch who flew back to his hospital bed in America this week, had the wisdom and humility to discuss death with his people when he first learnt he had cancer. However, all across the Arab world, age and sickness haunt the lands. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia - plump to the point of obesity - can scarcely stand, and stumbles on the simplest sentences. Yasser Arafat - he of the shaking hand and trembling lip - suffers ever more from the brain tumour inflicted after a near- fatal air crash. President Assad of Syria, who suffered a heart complaint as far back as 1983, has already lost his favourite son, Basil, in a road accident. President Mubarak of Egypt has never - not once in all his 18 years in power - appointed a vice-president.
Even to mention the word "succession" in public provokes a familiar gesture by friends in the Middle East; their eyes move, ever so carefully, over their shoulders. It is the unspoken crisis, the great unmentionable, a subject heavy enough to poison any conversation. But it is real. And we in the West, of course - while we may prefer Prince Abdullah to Prince Hassan in Jordan or Prince Sultan to Prince Abdullah in Saudi Arabia - accept this odd, cantankerous, dangerous system of inheritance.
Not once have we ever encouraged a democratic state in the Middle East, which would allow Arab citizens to choose their own leaders. Because we like dictatorships. We know how to do business with the kings and generals - how to sell them our tanks and fighter-bombers and missiles - unless they disobey us, like Nasser and Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.
It's a bizarre feature of our present relations with the Arab world that Saddam is the only leader whose overthrow President Clinton has called for in the name of "democracy", demanding that the Iraqis should have a government that "represents its people and respects them". A likely tale. How many other Arab governments, for heaven's sake - with their secret police and their torture chambers - "represent" their people? And how many of them has President Clinton sought to depose? Not one. However, we are supposed to believe that Clinton really - really - wants democracy in Iraq. How fortunate, then, are the starving, dying civilians of Iraq.
The truth is that we, as well as the Arab regimes themselves, have produced and maintained this archaic drama of crown princes and beloved sons, of Gulf sheikhdoms that are no more than the private property of individual families. True, we were happy to ease King Farouk out of Egypt and King Idris out of Libya (we liked Gaddafi then) and to depose the Sultan of Oman in favour of his public-school son. But we want strong leaders who will be loyal to us. Let them have human rights, we say. But we do not want democracy in their countries (which means, of course, that there will be no human rights).
And no choice for their people. Even King Hussein - whose kingdom might just fall into the category of liberal amid the other xenophobic states - never bothered to consult his citizens about their future leader. They were given no chance to decide whom they wished to rule them. His Majesty ordained that it would be his son Abdullah, that power would be kept in the family. Did anyone expect anything else? It takes a brave Jordanian to call for a real constitutional monarchy. Indeed, the only man who consistently does just that - Leith Shubeilat - finds himself equally consistently inside Amman's state security prison.
Of course, some of the titans of the Middle East have planned their succession. President Assad - whose energy still stuns the diplomats who sit through his six-hour conversations - has groomed his son Bashar, an ophthalmologist by profession but an increasingly public personality with an enthusiasm for computer technology, to follow in his steps. Taken at face value, Syria's constitution provides for a democratic system of succession, but Assad controls military, political and legislative power; he can dissolve governments and assemblies; he is secretary-general of the Baath party, commander in chief of the armed forces. Presumably, Bashar Assad will one day do the same.
What about Arafat? He has no obvious successor and no real constitutional framework to create one. He has turned his back on the democracy of the Palestinian assembly and survives by cronyism, bribes and 13 different security services - the latter in co-operation with the CIA and the Israelis. Sadly, some Palestinians believe that the only alternative to this kind of patronage society - and patronising society - is a return to rule by the old families of Husseini and Nashashibi, a kind of mirror image of all the other family rulers in the rest of the Middle East. So the Palestinians cannot choose their successor. But be sure that the Israelis already have someone in mind to take over "Palestine" when Arafat leaves us.
In Saudi Arabia, direct succession suggests a struggle to come among the defence minister, Prince Sultan, Prince Naif and Crown Prince Abdullah. Washington, aware of Abdullah's growing criticism and dislike of the American presence in the Gulf - he is said to have told the US Defense Secretary William Cohen that not only could the United States not use Saudi air bases to bomb Iraq, but that America might have to leave those air bases altogether - might favour Prince Sultan. His son, it should be noted, is the influential Saudi ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar, who in 1990 was reported in Washington to be almost as powerful in President George Bush's office as the secretary of state, James Baker.
The result of our support for all these potentates is regularly distorted by their Western supporters in Washington, in London and - less obviously - in Paris. If we demand full democracy for these nations, we are told, the Islamists will try to take over. Cannot we understand, our diplomats point out, that "whatever their failings" (another of my favourite expressions in the Middle East), these "friends of the West" are fighting Islamic fundamentalism?
But this is a self-serving delusion. True, some of the local dictators allow a careful measure of freedom; upright Arab citizens may complain about power cuts, poor transportation, even demand the sacking of a corrupt governor or two. But any serious freedom of speech has been so brutally suppressed across the Middle East - and anyone suggesting a democratic change of leadership so ferociously treated - that real opposition in these countries has been driven underground. This applies as much in Egypt as it does in the Gulf or the Levant.
And the only political groupings that exist in this hidden, subterranean environment which are prepared to risk the fury of the secret police and the government torturers are Islamic.
So "Islamic fundamentalism" becomes the only real opposition to the Arab governments. We support those undemocratic countries in their battle against "fundamentalist terror" - and shore up their regimes. And, of course, just to complete the beauty of this circular argument, we cannot encourage in these totalitarian states the democracy that would rid them of fundamentalist violence.
Wasn't that why we backed Saddam so generously during his eight-year aggression against Iran? Because he was preventing "fundamentalism"? So who will we put in Saddam's place?
My guess is that the Americans are still looking for a good old-fashioned Iraqi brigadier-general, a military man who knows how to keep his tribes in order. Not too difficult to find, you may say, since some of them are supporting the US-backed Iraqi National Congress. Needless to say, it would have to be a powerful man, someone who did not allow dissent to rock the regime, someone with a powerful security service and a family that might provide a successor. Someone, in fact, just like Saddam.Reuse content