Hints of a Mideast power shift

Last week, Jordan's Crown Prince Abdullah joined other young, futureleaders who will impact region.

The abrupt switch in lineup for Jordan's throne heralds a change of guard that has begun across the Middle East, from an older generation of leadership to a new one.

When King Hussein decided last week to replace his brother with one of his own sons as crown prince, Abdullah bin Hussein entered a circle of future leaders who will have a crucial impact on issues facing the region.

Even if comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace is reached, this new generation will almost certainly have to deal with issues pertaining to Israel and Arab relations with the West, which could dissolve into conflict as they have in the past. This will be compounded by soaring population and unemployment rates, increasing poverty, and belt-tightening.

In a region where monarchs and dictators are the norm, where democracy is partial at best, and where for decades the reins of power have been rarely loosened by time-worn hands, Jordan may produce an example worth following, analysts say. The switch to Crown Prince Abdullah is likely to result in significant political adjustments - and could mean more democratic institutions in Jordan.

"Mideast regimes are aging," says Taher al-Masri, a former Jordanian prime minister. "Change should come from within, with new blood and a new spirit to liberalize the regimes. This is how things are going in the region, and Jordan's change falls into that line."

Little-known Abdullah is the king's affable eldest son, a political novice but much decorated commander of Jordan's special forces.

The new heir - who is Western educated, like many of his peers in the region - assumed the role of regent within hours of his appointment last week, when the king was rushed back to the United States for medical treatment.

The king has guided Jordan through 47 years of turbulence in the Mideast. He has turned his desert country into a pivotal Arab-Israeli peace player and important Western ally, sandwiched between Israel - with which Jordan made peace in a 1994 treaty - and Iraq.

But before returning to a tumultuous homecoming on Jan. 19, after six months of cancer treatment at a US clinic, he promised that there would be "sweeping reforms." Some say that first among these was the change of heir; next are to be moves to improve and clean up government.

The effect is already being felt of the decision to dismiss Prince Hassan, a man of academic bent who served as crown prince for 34 years.

One result is an almost immediate improvement in relations with Kuwait, which has been estranged since Jordan did not support the use of military force to oust Iraqi troops that occupied the oil-rich Gulf state in 1990. Now, Jordan is being allowed to reopen its embassy in Kuwait City.

Abdullah has been swamped with visitors, from US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright - who changed her Mideast trip schedule last week to meet with Abdullah and reaffirm US support for Jordan - to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and a host of high-level envoys, especially from Saudi Arabia.

One surprise visitor was Seif al-Islam, the son of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, who had exchanged visits with Abdullah in the past six months. Even the Iraqis - angry with Hassan over recent remarks about the need for a change of regime in Baghdad - made conciliatory noises.

Abdullah, furthermore, is known to have close relations with the younger generation of emirs and sheikhs throughout the Gulf.

"Abdullah wants to absolutely reach out to all the Arab world, and he's doing it," says a Western diplomat.

"Everybody has seen the two pillars, the king and Hassan, disappear in one day," says Mr. Masri. "There is a big vacuum, and the stability of Jordan is important, so they all are rushing to support Abdullah."

Presidential sons and heir apparents across the Mideast present a mix of ages, styles, and experience. Qatar's young Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani set the precedent for change by ousting his autocratic Old Guard father in a palace coup in 1995.

He has set down a path of liberalization and democratic moves that are shaking up some of his conservative Gulf neighbors.

Some aging Arab leaders have no mechanism at all for a handover. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak refuses to appoint a deputy, and there is no clear successor to follow Mr. Arafat. The latest US policy toward Iraq calls for "containment plus regime change," but no one has yet described a viable alternative to Saddam Hussein.

In Jordan, some suggest that Abdullah's inexperience in dealing with the intricacies of tribal politics and affairs of state may in fact strengthen certain democratic institutions.

"We are being led by a man who was never in line for the leadership, has never been trained for it, and was in the military," says a former government official who asked not to be named.

"If he understands that he can't fill the vacuum that his father left behind, then he will revert to using institutions like a strong government. If he doesn't, then we will be in bad shape."

"This [change to Abdullah] is meant to be the first step," says Salameh Nemat, the Jordan correspondent for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper. "The intention is to review the whole democratic process."

Some argue that if anyone can lead the Hashemite clan, which traces its lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad, then Abdullah has the right assets.

"The two main features of stability in Jordan are the army and Palestinians," who make up more than half of Jordan's population, says Mr. Nemat. Abdullah's wife, Princess Rania, is of Palestinian origin.

"He is the most popular member of the royal family, and the most popular man in the army," he says. "So if he is not going to make it, who will?"

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