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THE MUSINGS OF A TRADITIONAL SOUTHERN DEMOCRAT

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Sid in his law office where he sits when meeting with clients. Observant eyes will notice the statuette of one of Sid's favorite Democrats.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Generation of Long-Lasting Mideast Rulers Produced Stability—and a Mess; With Death of Saudi King Abdullah, Is It End of Era or End of Error?

Gerald Seib writes in The Wall Street Journal:

The death last week of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah means the Middle East is nearing the end of an extraordinary era of leadership, which goes a long way toward explaining why the region is in such turmoil and so plagued by extremism flaring to the surface.

King Abdullah—whose memory President Barack Obama honors with a visit to the kingdom Tuesday—sat atop the Saudi government for a decade and effectively ruled for a decade before that, after his predecessor suffered a debilitating stroke. For 20 years, then, he was a reliable U.S. ally who used a combination of skillful maneuvering and an iron fist to keep his country calm and Islamic extremists mostly in check.

He also was part of a remarkable cast of monarchs, presidents and dictators across the Mideast who ruled their lands for long stretches, keeping a tight lid on extremism and dissent in the process. Consider the list:

King Hussein, ruler of Jordan for 47 years

Moammar Gadhafi, leader of Libya for 42 years

King Hassan, ruler of Morocco for 38 years

Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt for 30 years

Hafez al Assad, president of Syria for 29 years

Saddam Hussein, president of Iraq for 24 years

All have left the scene in recent years. Now, one more member of this fraternity may be nearing the end of his own long period of one-man dominance. Sultan Qaboos of Oman, a strategically important if little-appreciated cog in the American regional security system, has ruled his land for 45 years but now is so ill that he has been undergoing unspecified medical treatment in Germany since last summer.

Meanwhile, Kuwait’s 85-year-old ruler, Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, the latest in a line of family members to rule his land, also is ill and recently underwent surgery.

Most of these long-lasting rulers were friends of the U.S. Some—Jordan’s King Hussein, for example—were relatively benign. Others—Hafez al Assad, Saddam Hussein—were both unsavory thugs and largely hostile to America.

But one thing they had in common is that they used their power and personal authority to quell unrest and the region’s tide of Islamic extremism. Sometimes some of them used a deft touch to co-opt and defuse dissidents. Most were simply and relentlessly ruthless in the task.

In the process, they produced a long period of relative stability. Though observers often referred to the “volatile” Middle East in recent decades, these rulers, in fact, kept the volatility largely in check. By and large, that was beneficial to the U.S., with its endless thirst for a steady and reliable flow of oil from the region.

What these rulers also did, though, was bottle up the growing political dissent and religious fervor in their lands, pushing those forces below ground, where they quietly built steam. Those of us who lived in the region at some point in the past few decades were well aware that these forces were bubbling; the rulers of the region made it hard to tell just how strong they were.

Now we know, thanks to the spreading signs of Islamist sentiment. The downside of keeping a lid on a pot for a long time as it simmers is that pressure builds inside. The pressure-cooker analogy holds for the Middle East, and now the top has blown.

So as remarkable as this generation of Middle East autocrats was for what it did to keep the lid on, these leaders’ legacies may lie more in what they failed to do. They failed to provide an outlet for dissent or a path for political reform. By suppressing Islamist tendencies and giving them no real outlet, they merely made the Islamist idea all the more tantalizing for a generation of young Muslims who have few other avenues for feeling empowered.

In that sense, the late Saudi King Abdullah actually stood out as something of a reformer. He began, slowly, to open up the kingdom’s political system and to bring women into the mainstream of daily life. Ultimately his fear of internal threats slowed down the process, but at least it was begun.

Elsewhere, others who could have opened the door to democracy instead attempted to build dynasties. Egypt’s Mr. Mubarak tried to pass power to his son; Syria’s Assad did so. In both cases, the result was disaster. The U.S. could have pressed Mr. Mubarak, in particular, harder to open the door to a peaceful and democratic transition.

Instead, popular discontent in these lands built over years. Now there is little reason to think it will dissipate quickly. More likely, the era of relative stability under a generation of iron-fisted rulers has given way to a period of widespread ferment, the outcome of which is highly uncertain.

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