Arab Fathers and Sons

The deaths of Yasir Arafat and of Sheikh Zayd, the long-standing ruler of the United Arab Emirates, continues the generational change that began in 1999-2000, when the leaders of Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, and Syria died in quick succession. Across the Middle East people are younger, and their political leaders older, than the world average. The gradual replacement of one generation of elites by another may be one of the key factors in determining whether or not effective reform takes place in the Arab world.

At present, four political generations co-exist on the region’s socio-political map. The outgoing leadership generation – that of Arafat, King Hussein or Hafiz al-Assad, King Fahd and President Mubarak – was born before 1935 and has determined events in the Middle East since the 1970’s.

These leaders came of age and began their careers during the era of decolonization. They were weaned on Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism, and the crucial political event for them was the Arab defeat in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Members of this generation sought a strong Arab leadership that would create a balance of power with Israel. They also believed in – or at least toyed with – forms of socialism and étatism, and did not consider democracy or civil rights to be priorities.

The next generation was born between 1935 and 1955, and in many respects represents a generation “in between.” Most benefited from the economic growth and expanded educational opportunities associated with the oil boom of the 1970’s. At the same time, political participation remained blocked by the previous generation, which never intended to give up power voluntarily. Unsurprisingly, many in this generation grew dissatisfied, and not a few began to look for Islamic alternatives to the prevailing political systems.