Just crowned, and already shaking up the Mideast

Three young leaders adopt a populist touch

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.

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.

Educated at Britain's Sandhurst military academy, Abdullah has won some plaudits for his exploits as a "journalist" at the free-trade zone. Unannounced, he has also visited hospitals and government offices. But while waking up civil servants, there has been little change: The bureaucracy remains impenetrable, and allegations of chronic corruption persist.

"[Abdullah] inherited a huge burden," says Mahmoud al-Sharif, executive editor of Al-Dustour newspaper in Amman. "He is balancing well, but realistically, he has a lot to learn. He must prove himself. It is not enough to have energy and ambition - he must have wisdom too."

Though the cameraman ruse may have been good public relations, it shows a weakness of Jordan's institutions, says Musa Keilani, chief editor of the Amman-based weekly Al-Urdon. "The days when the monarch used to go into the street to listen to complaints was 400 years ago, with the Muslim caliphs."

Still, Abdullah scored points by visiting Palestinian refugee camps and promising a quota of scholarships for refugees - just as those provided for Bedouins for decades. And he has kept a studied distance from Israel, despite a lukewarm 1994 peace treaty while restoring Jordan's ties with the Arab world.

But a recent abrupt crackdown on the militant Islamic Hamas movement - long feted by King Hussein - has sparked anger among Islamists and Palestinians and has yet to be resolved.

Some argue that the king's instincts for change are being "restrained" by the same advisers and politicians that served his father, whom Mr. Keilani calls the "inner circle of palace cronies who are icons of corruption."

Turnabout in Bahrain

The changing of the guard in Bahrain last March also has been marked by a dramatic shift in style. Sheikh Hamad, closely associated with the tough crackdown on the Shiite Muslim majority that began in 1994 when he was head of the Army, is now making a series of overtures to the group.

Hundreds of Shiite political prisoners have been released, and some Shiite have been allowed for the first time into the Army, albeit in clerical posts. Moreover, the new emir has met with some Shiite leaders and visited a Shiite village - unimaginable in the tiny Gulf emirate under the reign of Hamad's father, Sheikh Isa.

"The first steps are good and show he is sincere," says Hilal al-Shaiji, editor in chief of Akhbar Al-Khaleej newspaper in Manama. "More and more in the Shiite community are convinced and expect he will do more."

But some see the moves as symbolic window dressing. "It doesn't cost you anything to kill a few sheep and visit a Shiite village," says a Western observer in Dubai. "You must be there at night when the security forces are driving around, and see is there a sense of fear."

Setting real change in motion may be proving difficult for Hamad, some analysts say, because he is engaged in a power struggle with Hamad's uncle and the prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa.

"It's good cop, bad cop," says Jean-Francois Seznic, an adjunct professor of political science at Columbia University in New York who has lived in Bahrain. "The key is the Constitution. As long as they don't reinstate it, there will be a problem of legitimacy, and they will have to use repression stay in power."

Other voices trust that the new emir, who trained at Sandhurst and in the United States, will effect permanent change. "We knew our crown prince before he was leader, and we liked him," says Reem Antoon, editor of Manama's English-language Gulf Daily News. "Some of us have grown with him."

Just the beginning

It may be too soon to tell the direction that these new rulers of the Mideast will finally take their nations - nor who among them may emerge as a regional leader. Their fathers' reputations and skills as diplomats and peacemakers were built over decades.

But the word "democracy" is gaining credence as never before. "There is a rising political culture that is much more willing to accept pluralism and equality than the previous generation," says Abdelhay Moudden, a political scientist who heads the Center for Cross Culture Learning in Rabat. Views of Western influence have changed at the same time. "We are talking about a new balance - now they don't have to prove that they are equal to the West."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.