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Just crowned, and already shaking up the Mideast

Three young leaders adopt a populist touch

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 28, 1999


Being a king in the Middle East requires more than just wearing a chest full of medals and acting "royal." These days, it demands the common touch - a popular dose of iconoclasm that shows how a new generation is taking charge.

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Take Jordan's King Abdullah, one of three new "kings" who are shaking up the Mideast. Disguised as part of an Arab television crew and donning a false beard, he visited Jordan's notoriously unfriendly free-trade zone in August and started interviewing traders.

They filled his ear with complaints about how poorly things were run, until an official rushed over and forced the "journalist" to stop because he didn't have permission to take pictures. Finally, to avoid arrest the young king was forced to reveal his identity, to the cheers of traders.

The one-man "sting" operation electrified Jordan's civil service, and it also shows how the job description of king is changing across the Mideast. This year already, old-guard authoritarians have given way to sons in Morocco, Jordan, and Bahrain. Yet even as these ambitious leaders begin to shake things up, they are finding obstacles: entrenched bureaucracy and challenges from the old guard.

"They represent the new blood and have a better understanding of the world," says Thomas Mullins, executive director of the Contemporary Arab Studies program at Harvard's Center for Middle East Studies in Cambridge, Mass. "It's going to be a different Mideast because there is a rising tide of expectations."

The new generation - often more at ease with the West, and as familiar with Western culture and politics as their own - has come of age without experiencing the moments that defined their fathers' rule: the struggle against colonialism, the creation of the Jewish state of Israel, participation in the Arab-Israeli wars, and the ruthlessness needed to survive.

The result is that they are dealing with a new set of variables and demands that require popular support. The new style has raised eyebrows across the region, where a host of other sons and heirs apparent, especially in undemocratic Syria and Saudi Arabia, still wait their turn.

Morocco's 'King of the Poor'

Perhaps the swiftest and most striking change has occurred in the North African state of Morocco, where King Mohammed VI was crowned in July after the death of his father, Hassan II, who had ruled for 38 years. King Hassan was fondly remembered in the West for helping to facilitate Israeli-Arab dialogue, though his human rights record was severely criticized.

Mohammed has taken personal steps to help the handicapped and lives in a relatively modest villa instead of the ornate palace in Rabat, earning the sobriquet "King of the Poor." And he has shocked Moroccans by pulling up beside them in his car - driving alone, and even stopping at red lights.

Mohammed is "determined" to carry out reforms, the US ambassador to Morocco, Edward Gabriel, said in a speech last month. "These reforms represent a cutting-edge experiment in the Arab world" toward democracy and market change.

Days after his father's funeral, Mohammed released 8,000 prisoners and cut the sentences of nearly 40,000 others. His "constitutional monarchy," he said, would "respect human rights and civil liberties."

The buzzword on the streets of Morocco these days is "real change." The king has begun to strip certain portfolios - including that of the disputed Western Sahara - from the powerful interior minister, Driss Basri.

The new monarch was once an intern for former European Union chief Jacques Delors, earned a French degree in international law, and has a taste for technology, so he is no stranger to Western ways.

"He's a young man, and this country has been run by an oligarchy of gerontocrats for 40 years," says Stephen Hughes, a retired British journalist who has lived in Morocco for 47 years.

Mohammed received a rapturous welcome last week, when he visited the long-neglected Rif Mountains, seat of a rebellion in 1958 that his father put down. Although the region is known for its antimonarchist views, locals hung from pine trees to catch a glimpse of the new king.

Jordan's unannounced visitor

As in Morocco, Jordan's new ruler follows in the big footsteps of his peacemaking father, King Hussein, who died last February. King Abdullah was a surprise last-minute choice, a son lifted from relative obscurity as chief of Jordan's elite commando unit.