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The Problem of the Middle East’s First Sons

The Turkish corruption scandal continues to boil as, in Ankara, the ministers of finance, interior, and environment have resigned. The latter, Erdoğan Bayraktar, went even further, calling on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan also to step down. Bayraktar is not simply spitting into the wind. A cabinet reshuffle also claimed Egemen Bağış, Turkey’s widely disliked European Union affairs minister. As I wrote here last week, the investigation also appears to be closing in on Prime Minister Erdoğan’s son Bilal Erdoğan.

That rumors of shady business surround the prime minister’s son surprises no one. Years ago, as Prime Minister Erdoğan sought to explain his sudden increase in wealth that far outpaced his salary by suggesting that his mansions and millions of dollars were due to wedding gifts given to his son. Alas, when it comes to the Middle East—and, make no mistake, Erdoğan has moved Turkey so far from Europe and into the Middle Eastern sphere that it cannot be extricated—the problem of first sons is becoming the rule rather than the exception.

Moammar Gaddafi had Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, held by the new Libyan government and wanted by the International Criminal Court; and Hosni Mubarak had Alaa and Gamal Mubarak, both awaiting trial on various corruption charges (despite being acquitted in one case last week). Ailing Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s eldest son Bafil is facing trial in Great Britain for defrauding investment partners in Iraqi Kurdistan, while younger son Qubad is neck deep in the family business. Iraqi Kurdish regional president Masud Barzani’s eldest son Masrour is, in theory, the intelligence chief for the autonomous Kurdish government. In practice, according to conversations with human-rights monitors, he uses his position and the security forces he has under his control to ensure businessmen understand that he and his family should get a piece of the pie. When Masud Barzani’s second son Mansour Barzani lost $3.2 million gambling in one of Dubai’s illegal casinos, the Kurdish leader quickly cut short an official visit and left the United Arab Emirates. The pattern continues: Iraqis resent the involvement of Ahmad Maliki, the son of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in businesses which benefit from his father’s position. Such business dealings and relationships go without saying in the monarchies of the Persian Gulf with the exception, of course, of Oman whose ruler Sultan Qaboos is unmarried and has no children.

It is true that such a pattern is not limited to the Middle East. While his father Kofi Annan was secretary-general of the United Nations, Kojo Annan sought to profit from UN deals. And both Africa’s dictatorships and its nascent democracies also see sons of presidents and rulers seeking to cash in on their fathers’ positions.

It may be fashionable to look the other way and pretend such corruption does not occur. Western universities go farther and happily welcome donations of questionable money to honor dictatorial dynasties. But building false images of such countries does no favors, nor does it reflect well on a new generation of rulers that they encourage their sons to accumulate as much money as possible rather than distinguish themselves as doctors, lawyers, or other professionals.

Erdoğan has been fond of describing Turkey as a democracy and bragging for more than a decade about the reforms he claims to have implemented. If attorneys are allowed to question Bilal Erdoğan and, if warranted, force him to face justice as a man equal to any Turk or Kurd in Turkey, then he should be congratulated for standing on principle. If he wants his son to stand above justice, however, then Recep Tayyip Erdoğan confirms the notion that Turkey is no democracy and  he himself is little more than yet one more self-important Middle Eastern potentate.


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