Beware the sons: The hazards of intra-family succession

Beware the sons: The hazards of intra-family succession
7 min read
02 Sep, 2016
Comment: From Bahrain to Libya, Syria and the US, sons who take up the reins of power from their fathers are notoriously more authoritarian than their predecessors, writes Robert Springborg.
Gaddafi's surviving son, Saif al-Islam, has been released and might stage a political comeback [AFP]

The Arab Spring descended on the Arab Republics before their presidents were able to emulate Hafiz al-Assad's bequeathal of power to his son Bashar in 2000. Uday and Qusay, Saddam Hussein's sons, had already been killed by US 101st airborne troops in July, 2003, thus terminating the ostensible plan for the former to succeed the father.

Mubarak's ouster in February, 2011, seems to have permanently derailed his and his wife's plan for their son Gamal to succeed to the presidency. Ali Abdullah's son Ahmad was similarly counted out in 2012 as successor to his father, but now that the father has staged a comeback in alliance with the Houthis, it may have been premature to write off a Yemeni father-son succession, albeit one with an interregnum.

Abd al-Aziz Bouteflika is grimly hanging on to the Algerian presidency and it is his younger brother Said, not any son, who seems to be orchestrating the succession there.   

Muammar Gaddafi's death in Sirte in October, 2011, seemed to put paid to any plans he may have harboured to be succeeded by either his son Mutassam - who was killed with him - or by Saif al-Islam, who was captured the following month by a Zintan militia.

But just as in the case of Ahmad Ali Abdullah in Yemen, it may be premature to count Saif entirely out. Indeed, he was apparently released from custody in Zintan in July, although his precise whereabouts remains unknown, perhaps not least due to the indictment by the International Criminal Court that hangs over his head.

Bahraini politics, like those in Jordan, are substantially less liberal under the son

Because these potential father-son successions in the Arab republics were aborted, or are yet to occur, it is impossible to know how the sons as presidents might compare to the fathers. What we do know of the characters of Uday, Gamal, Ahmad and Saif does not inspire confidence. Uday was a man with his finger on the trigger, so presumably would have been inclined to rely heavily on coercion to impose his rule.

Ali Abdullah Saleh's son Ahmad is an active military commander, so presumably also inclined to rely on force as his principal political tool. Gamal and Saif are both civilians who have presented themselves as liberals, willing to engage in dialogue with political opponents.

Unfortunately, the track record of the only son to succeed his father in an Arab republic, Bashar al-Assad, tends to discredit the proposition that a son will discard the authoritarian legacy and strike out in a new, more democratic direction. Bashar, who like Gamal and Saif presented himself as a liberal reformer, has been a more dictatorial, bloodthirsty killer than even his notorious father Hafiz was. 

If we include recent successions in the Arab monarchies, this pattern appears to repeat itself. Jordan's King Abdullah II, who unexpectedly succeeded his father Hussein in 1999, was also cast in the liberal mold, his succession being touted as the beginning of a new, more democratic order. Alas, if anything, Jordanian politics has traced a steady descent into ever deeper authoritarianism under his rule.

From the perspective of leadership performance, countries are better to avoid father-son successions

In that same year Crown Prince Hamad bin Isa succeeded his father Isa bin Salman as Emir of Bahrain, before then assuming the title of King in 2002. Bahraini politics, like those in Jordan, are substantially less liberal under the son - originally touted as a reformer - than they were under the father, although it is fair to say that in the case of Hamad bin Isa his writ may be considerably attenuated by his uncle and the Saudis looking over both their shoulders.

In Abu Dhabi and the UAE more generally, the de facto ruler is Muhammad bin Zayid, a far tougher, less conciliatory figure than his father Zayid, renowned for his accommodating style.

Similarly, across the border in Saudi Arabia, the de facto ruler appears to be Muhammad bin Salman, the architect of the present disastrous campaign in Yemen, a bold, ill-advised step away from the more traditional, nuanced style that the country's rulers have generally followed.

The only royal case that seems to run counter to the son being less liberal and more inclined to rely on coercive forces than the father is that of Muhammed VI in Morocco, who has demonstrated considerable nuance in his manipulation of Moroccan opposition forces. It is true, however, that Morocco under King Muhammad has pursued a foreign policy as aggressive as it was under King Hassan, at least as regards the Western Sahara and Algeria.  

If we look further afield the pattern of deteriorating quality of rule from father to son can also be discerned. George H. W. Bush's presidency was notable in its foreign policy restraint as compared to that of his son George W. Bush, whose woeful legacies in Afghanistan and Iraq are still plaguing US policy in the Middle East and beyond.

It is better for all concerned if ruler fathers avoid the temptation to prolong family dynasties by grooming their sons for power

The father, formerly head of the CIA, insofar as we know never countenanced torture, whereas the son relied upon it as a matter of policy.

The track record in Arab republics and monarchies and elsewhere thus seems to suggest that from the perspective of leadership performance, countries are better to avoid father-son successions.

This begs the question of why sons, who presumably study at least a little bit at the feet of their fathers, don't do a better job. The answer that is typically given in the cases of Bashar al-Assad and George W. Bush, is that they suffer from inferiority complexes, thus are driven to outperform their fathers by being tougher, more merciless, more foolhardy.

Whatever the explanation, the relevance of the proposition that sons don't do it as well as their fathers is most immediate in Libya and Yemen. The present effort to push Saif al-Islam forward as the compromise candidate who can bring together Libya's warring factions is a siren call that should be ignored not only because of the general dictum about fathers being better than sons, but because this particular father was such a megalomaniac and the son himself is such an opportunist.

As for Ahmad Ali Abdullah in Yemen, the very same can be said about his father, although it is true that Ali's manipulation, although still brutal, was more nuanced than Muammar's. But Ahmad himself is an enforcer, not a conciliator, so hardly the man Yemen needs at present 

In sum, it is better for all concerned if ruler fathers avoid the temptation to prolong family dynasties by grooming their sons for power.

One question this begs is might a daughter do it better? Some 700 years ago Ibn Khaldun addressed this issue at least indirectly when he theorised that an inevitable process of regime decay set in when the first generation of a ruling family transferred power to the second, ultimately culminating in regime collapse two generations later. It seems that his theorising was intended to apply not just to sons, but to succeeding generations as a whole.

Probably best then to avoid family successions altogether, a proposition which the likely sideways succession now underway of Bill to Hillary Clinton supports. She, after all, is less politically adept than he, to say nothing of her being notably more hardline in foreign policy. Seems there is indeed a pattern and one that may not be due to just father-son psychodynamics.



Robert Springborg is Visiting Professor in the Department of War Studies, King's College London, and non-resident Research Fellow of the Italian Institute of International Affairs. Until October, 2013, he was Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School and Program Manager for the Middle East for the Center for Civil-Military Relations. 

From 2002 until 2008 he held the MBI Al Jaber Chair in Middle East Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, where he also served as Director of the London Middle East Institute. Before taking up that Chair he was Director of the American Research Center in Egypt.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.