The Old Timers of the Middle East

A staggering truth about the Middle East: the age of its rulers. Not just their advanced ages, but the number of years they have been rulers. Here’s the stats:

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Middle East Rulers

Algeria: Abdulaziz Bouteflika. 73 years old, President for 12 years.

Bahrain: Sheikh Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa. 61 years old. Ruler for 12 years.

Egypt: Husni Mubarak. Ousted president. 83 years old. Ruler for 30 years. V.P. for 6 years before that.

Iran: Ayatollah Ali Hoseyni Khāmene’i. 71 years of age. President of Iran from 1981-1989 and “Supreme Leader” since 1989.

Jordan: King Abdullah. 49 years of age. King for 12. His Father, King Hussein ruled for the previous 42 years.

Kuwait: Emir Sabah al Sabah. 82 years old. Ruled since 2006. His predecessor, Emir Jaber al Sabah died at 80 in 2006, having ruled for 29 years.

Libya: Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. 72 years old. Ruler for 42 years.

Morocco: King Mohammad VI. 47 years old. King for 12. His father, King Hassan ruled for 38 years.

Oman: Sultan Qaboos Bin Said. 70 years old. Ruler for 41 years.

Saudi Arabia: King Abdullah Bin Abdul Aziz. 86 years old. Ruled for 6 years but ran the country as Crown Prince for 10 years before that after the infirmity of King Fahd.

Syria: Bashar al Assad. 45 years of age. Boss for 10 years. His father, Hafez al Assad ran Syria for 30 years.

Tunisia: Ex-president Zen al Abdine Ben Ali, now a resident of Saudi Arabia. 74 years old. Ruled for 23 years.

Yemen: Ali Abdullah Saleh. 64 years old. Ruled for 33 years.

What Do We Know About Aging Leaders?

In their important book, When Illness Strikes The Leader, Jerrold Post and Robert Robins give numerous examples of aging leaders who overstayed their physical and mental decline and continued ruling – often steering their states to disaster. Habib Bourguiba of Tunisia suffered dementia but ruled for 31 years and was not finally deposed until 1987, probably ten years after he should have left office. Winston Churchill suffered a stroke during his 1950s premiership. The illness was kept secret by his physicians (as was the fatal cancer of Georges Pompidou while president of France as was FDR’s cognitive decline that should have precluded his running for a fourth term). The litany of aged and debilitated leaders is a very long one.

Aging invariably brings physical and cognitive decline. The age at which that occurs varies. Ron Reagan suggests in his new book about his father that the President began showing signs of Alzheimer’s during his 1984 re-election campaign, when he was 73, and would have stepped down by 1987 had his Alzheimer’s been properly diagnosed.

But it is not only illness that makes aging leaders less effective. Aging and innovation do not usually go hand in hand. Openness to new ideas and experiences diminish. So does the capacity and willingness to understand and respond to new forms of social and political life.

What Do We Know About the Ruler’s Counselors?

All too often, as Post and Robins point out, the “courtiers” surrounding the ruler become his own worst enemies. Eager to protect their own elevated positions and their vast accompanying social and material perks, the advisers, physicians, relatives, spouses, and assorted hangers on shield the ruler from reality – just as they shield the true condition of the rulers. I witnessed the extent to which this was true during the Iranian revolution. Throughout much of 1978, the shah was informed only that there were a relatively small number of “troublemakers” on the streets, troublemakers who did not represent the shah’s true standing among his people. The shah, whose judgment was already impaired by his knowledge that he suffered from cancer, and whose toughest advisers, his sister Princess Ashraf and his long time friend Assadollah Alam, were no longer at his side, waffled. He did not exercise the vigorous leadership that may well have preserved the Pahlavi throne.

The Aging Rulers of the Middle East

We know very little about the present physical and mental condition of the aging rulers of the region. We do know that 86 year old Saudi King Abdullah left the Kingdom for back surgery in New York in November of 2010 is still convalescing in Morocco. While he left the Kingdom, the 83 year old Crown Prince Sultan returned from Morocco, where he had been convalescing from cancer surgery, to take hold of the affairs of state. The extent to which their advanced ages and illnesses have impaired their capacity to rule is unknown. Fortunately for the Sauds, other senior princes are undoubtedly weighing in.

We know very little about the effects that aging has had on the other rulers of the Middle East. But we can be sure of the very high likelihood that their judgment is not what it used to be; that the information they are receiving is not as complete and honest as any leader should get; and that because of those reasons, they are unable to respond as effectively as the threats to their thrones demand.

You doubt it? Remember, Mubarak and Ben Ali are already gone. Other rulers will depart –reluctantly — soon.