The West's favourite despots

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The Independent Online

EVEN TO kings he comes. And to presidents and emirs and all the sheikhs extolled in those Arabnewspapers, whose titles mean "The Struggle" or "The Republic" or "The Renaissance" or - and this ismy favourite - "The Public Opinion". A dictator's photograph, day after day, year after year, gives a kindof eternity to the colonels and brigadier-generals, the monarchs and "beys" who rule the Middle East."Perfection of a kind was what he was after," Auden wrote of the Dictator, "and the poetry he inventedwas easy to understand." So why should a Living God fear the Grim Reaper? Is that, I wonder, why somany potentates rule as if they will live for ever?

EVEN TO kings he comes. And to presidents and emirs and all the sheikhs extolled in those Arabnewspapers, whose titles mean "The Struggle" or "The Republic" or "The Renaissance" or - and this ismy favourite - "The Public Opinion". A dictator's photograph, day after day, year after year, gives a kindof eternity to the colonels and brigadier-generals, the monarchs and "beys" who rule the Middle East."Perfection of a kind was what he was after," Auden wrote of the Dictator, "and the poetry he inventedwas easy to understand." So why should a Living God fear the Grim Reaper? Is that, I wonder, why somany potentates rule as if they will live for ever?

At least King Hussein, the dying monarch who flew back to his hospital bed in America this week, hadthe wisdom and humility to discuss death with his people when he first learnt he had cancer. However, allacross the Arab world, age and sickness haunt the lands. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia - plump to the pointof obesity - can scarcely stand, and stumbles on the simplest sentences. Yasser Arafat - he of the shakinghand 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 hisfavourite son, Basil, in a road accident. President Mubarak of Egypt has never - not once in all his 18years in power - appointed a vice-president.

Even to mention the word "succession" in public provokes a familiar gesture by friends in the MiddleEast; their eyes move, ever so carefully, over their shoulders. It is the unspoken crisis, the greatunmentionable, a subject heavy enough to poison any conversation. But it is real. And we in the West, ofcourse - while we may prefer Prince Abdullah to Prince Hassan in Jordan or Prince Sultan to PrinceAbdullah 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 citizensto choose their own leaders. Because we like dictatorships. We know how to do business with the kingsand generals - how to sell them our tanks and fighter-bombers and missiles - unless they disobey us, likeNasser and Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein.

It's a bizarre feature of our present relations with the Arab world that Saddam is the only leader whoseoverthrow President Clinton has called for in the name of "democracy", demanding that the Iraqis shouldhave a government that "represents its people and respects them".A likely tale. How many other Arabgovernments, for heaven's sake - with their secret police and their torture chambers - "represent" theirpeople? And how many of them has President Clinton sought to depose? Not one. However, we aresupposed to believe that Clinton really - really - wants democracy in Iraq. How fortunate, then, are thestarving, dying civilians of Iraq.

The truth is that we, as well as the Arab regimes themselves, have produced and maintained this archaicdrama of crown princes and beloved sons, of Gulf sheikhdoms that are no more than the private propertyof individual families. True, we were happy to ease King Farouk out of Egypt and King Idris out ofLibya (we liked Gaddafi then) and to depose the Sultan of Oman in favour of his public-school son. Butwe want strong leaders who will be loyal to us. Let them have human rights, we say. But we do not wantdemocracy 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 ofliberal 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 wouldbe his son Abdullah, that power would be kept in the family. Did anyone expect anything else? It takes abrave Jordanian to call for a real constitutional monarchy. Indeed, the only man who consistently doesjust 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 - whoseenergy 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 computertechnology, to follow in his steps. Taken at face value, Syria's constitution provides for a democraticsystem of succession, but Assad controls military, political and legislative power; he can dissolvegovernments and assemblies; he is secretary-general of the Baath party, commander in chief of the armedforces. 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. Hehas turned his back on the democracy of the Palestinian assembly and survives by cronyism, bribes and13 different security services - the latter in co-operation with the CIA and the Israelis. Sadly, somePalestinians believe that the only alternative to this kind of patronage society - and patronising society - isa return to rule by the old families of Husseini and Nashashibi, a kind of mirror image of all the otherfamily rulers in the rest of the Middle East. So the Palestinians cannot choose their successor. But be surethat 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 dislikeof the American presence in the Gulf - he is said to have told the US Defense Secretary William Cohenthat not only could the United States not use Saudi air bases to bomb Iraq, but that America might have toleave those air bases altogether - might favour Prince Sultan. His son, it should be noted, is the influentialSaudi ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar, who in 1990 was reported in Washington to be almost aspowerful 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 inWashington, 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 theWest" 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 acorrupt governor or two. But any serious freedom of speech has been so brutally suppressed across theMiddle East - and anyone suggesting a democratic change of leadership so ferociously treated - that realopposition in these countries has been driven underground. This applies as much in Egypt as it does in theGulf or the Levant.

And the only political groupings that exist in this hidden, subterranean environment which are prepared torisk 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 supportthose 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 thesetotalitarian 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? Becausehe 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, amilitary man who knows how to keep his tribes in order. Not too difficult to find, you may say, sincesome of them are supporting the US-backed Iraqi National Congress. Needless to say, it would have tobe a powerful man, someone who did not allow dissent to rock the regime, someone with a powerfulsecurity service and a family that might provide a successor.Someone, in fact, just like Saddam.

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