The so-called Arab Spring began more than two years ago when a Tunisian fruit vendor, upset by the Tunisian regime’s corruption and lack of accountability, set himself on fire. It soon became apparent that nearly every Arab country was a tinderbox, smoldering under dictatorship and popular discord.
A chief symbol of regional corruption was the leader’s son. Hosni Mubarak had his son Gamal, a bag man for the regime and for Mubarak’s personal fortune. Muammar Qaddafi had Saif, who traveled across Europe and the halls of Congress, charming almost every diplomat or congressman he met, and signing billions of dollars of deals along the way. Jonathan Schanzer, vice president at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy, penned a Foreign Policy piece about how the sons of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have transformed their connections into fortunes.
Throughout much of the rest of the Middle East—Kurd, Persian, and Turkish—the pattern is the same: Iraqi President Jalal Talabani had Qubad Talabani; Kurdistan Regional President Masoud Barzani had his son Masrour Barzani; and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has Ahmad Maliki. Indeed, across the Iraqi and Kurdish political spectrum, there are few politicians who do not transform their sons into business agents or recipients of nepotistic largesse.
In Iran, they even have a nickname for such children: Popularly, they are referred to as Aghazadeh-ha, the sons of the nobles, a term which refers to the ability of men like Mehdi Rafsanjani or his brother Yasser to make tens of millions of dollars off the political connections of their father, former president Al Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
And the leadership of Turkey, which is far more Middle Eastern today than European, indulges in the same pattern. Behind closed doors, be it in Ankara, Moscow, Riyadh, or Washington, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is not shy about telling foreign leaders or prominent businessmen that if they want pipelines or other deals to proceed, they should contract Çalik Holdings in which his son-in-law Berat Albayrak is chief executive.
[Çalik Energy, a subsidiary of Çalik Holdings, was a donor to the Atlantic Council, according to a disclosure which Atlantic Council chairman Fred Kempe made to the Wall Street Journal regarding questions surrounding former senator Chuck Hagel's chairmanship; he might have simply said Erdoğan donated, because the laundering of cash through Çalik is standard operating procedure for the Turkish strongman].
Alas, the Arab Spring may have swept away one generation of dictators but it did not do away with the “Little Prince” phenomenon. David Schenker, perhaps Washington’s most consistently correct Arab affairs analyst, notes the pattern has now re-emerged in Cairo. According to the Associated Press:
Egypt’s aviation minister says the hiring of President Mohammed Morsi’s son to a highly-paid government job was justified, dismissing accusations of nepotism… Omar, one of the president’s five children and a recent university graduate, got the internally-advertised job in a department that usually hires with a starting monthly salary of $5,000. Such a figure is unheard of for new graduates in Egypt, where the starting salary for a government job can be as low as $75.
Clearly, the Muslim Brotherhood is just as corrupt as the regime it replaced, if not more so.
It is a shame that the sons (or son-in-law, in the case of Turkey) of Middle Eastern leaders diminish themselves by seeking easy cash rather than to excel in their own fields. What a powerful symbol it might make if the son of a leader sought to excel as a doctor, engineer, or teacher. Cynics may say it’s understandable, and both realists and pessimists might point out that this is simply local culture. Regardless, perhaps there is no better metric of the seriousness of reform for diplomats to point to than the behavior of leaders’ children.