Young Blood

Article excerpt

New Leaders in the Middle East

Biding a Harley-Davidson, watching the American television sitcom "Dharma & Greg," holding a medical degree-none of these are customarily associated with a Middle East leader, but that stereotype is changing.

The old generation of long-reigning leaders in the Middle East is now giving way to a younger generation composed, in many cases, of their sons. The old leaders shared a common heritage of military combat, hard-line political views, and established bases of political and military support. In contrast, the rising leaders share traditions of Western education, an interest in technolog, and untested governing ability. In many ways, they have more in common with each other than with their predecessors, and their energy and new ideas offer the region an opportunity to make progress on several fronts. But first, the new leaders will have to prove their abilities and battle entrenched opposition.

The older generation was hardened by years of fighting for power in both the military and political arenas. Their sons, on the other hand, did not spend their youth in vicious struggles for state survival, but instead in British and US educational institutions. Two young leaders who have recently come to power are King Abdullah II of Jordan, who took over after the death of his father, King Hussein, in February 1999, and President Bashar Assad of Syria, who came to power in June 2000 after the death of his father, President Hafez al-Assad. While many of their early promises for reform remain unfulfilled, their new philosophies have begun to liberalize their countries. Their experiences growing up in politically stable Western countries, removed from the daily governance of their home nations, gave them exposure to Western cultures decidedly more liberal than their own. Abdullah enjoys American sitcoms, soccer, and Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Assad is commonly referred to as "Dr. Bashar" because he was train ed as an ophthalmologist at a British medical school; he had no interest in politics and no military experience until he was recalled from London following the death of his older brother in 1994.

Both rulers are fluent in English and have brought more liberal perspectives to their respective countries. Abdullah and Assad have attacked corruption within the governments they inherited. For example, Abdullah frequently disguises himself to pay visits to government officials in order to learn how ordinary people are treated by the government. Even before becoming president, Assad tackled governmental corruption by firing dishonest officials, including former Prime Minister Mahmoud Zubi, who committed suicide while awaiting trial. Assad also began to follow through on his promise to release both political and nonpolitical prisoners when he closed Damascus' Maze prison in November 2000. The toleration of some dissent among the press and of independent members of parliament--those members not affiliated with the ruling Ba'ath party--has spurred hope for further democratization. But there remain many obstacles; for example, foreign news agencies are still censored and dissident groups remain unlicensed by th e government.

This new generation of leaders has also distinguished itself from the older generation in terms of its foreign policy. Before the death of Hafez al-Assad, Abdullah tried his hand at regional politics by playing an active part in encouraging negotiations between Syria and Israel, and both sides accepted him as a mediator. He continued to build a relationship with Syria by meeting personally with Assad soon after his election, and he strengthened his relationship with Israel by quelling the terrorist group Hamas and arresting its leaders. …

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