One down in Tunis, another teetering on the brink in Cairo, but there are plenty more unelected (or unfairly elected) dictators sitting in palaces around the Middle East. In fact there’s 22 of them. So here’s a countdown of them all, starting with the most recent arrival. I’ll post the second half (those who’ve been hanging around the longest) tomorrow.
Reading through the following list you might get the sense that the argument about “Arab exceptionalism” when it comes to the spread of democracy might have some legs left in it after all.
22nd - 3 months in power Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al QasimiEmir of Ras al Khaimah (UAE) The newest ruler on the block, Sheikh Saud took over in November after his father Sheikh Saqr died. There had been the potential for trouble, as his older half-brother Sheikh Khalid had been a vocal opponent ever since he was replaced as crown prince in 2003. Sheikh Saud had been de facto ruler for some time before November and was following a similar development model to that of nearby Dubai – which doesn’t look like such a great idea these days.
21st - 2 years in power Sheikh Saud bin Rashid Al Mualla Emir of Umm al Quwain (UAE) Sheikh Saud took over after the death of his father Rashid III in January 2009. Umm al Quwain has a population of just 50,000 and is something of a backwater. It’s the sort of place which no-one pays any attention to unless something extraordinary happens, which never does.
20th - 2 years, 5 months in power Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz President of Mauritania Took power in a coup in August 2008 and was then elected in a July 2009 presidential election, winning 53% of the vote in an election described as a sham by his critics. It’s a bit early to say what attitude he might take to future elections, but given his historic preference for coups and attempted coups there's little reason for confidence.
19th - 5 years in power Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum Emir of Dubai and Vice-President of the UAE Many things have been imported into Dubai, but democracy is not one of them. As crown prince and then ruler, Sheikh Mohammed has presided over an astonishing, hubristic economic boom and an equally dramatic bust. Now the emirate is nursing its wounds and its pride, having had to turn to Abu Dhabi for a bail-out of its debt-laden companies. The cult of personality is, however, alive and well, with pictures of him adorning walls and roadside posters across the city-state.
18th - 5 years in power Sheikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah Emir of Kuwait Sheikh Sabah is inordinately fond of dissolving parliaments and dismissing prime ministers. There is more open political debate in Kuwait than most Gulf states, but the Emir holds all the real power. The country’s massive oil wealth allows it to head off most opposition with handouts and other inducements.
17th - 5 years, 5 months in power Mahmoud Ahmadinejad President of Iran Elected in a fairly free election in August 2005, he undermined his legitimacy in the eyes of most people by being re-elected in 2009 in a fraudulent election and then clamping down brutally on the opposition Green movement. Before then, Iran had some claim to be one of the more democratic countries in the region. Ahmadinejad has followed populist economic policies which, if anything, are only weakening an economy already battered by international sanctions.
16th - 5 years, 5 months in power Abdullah bin Abdulaziz al Saud King of Saudi Arabia Saudi Arabia is the poster child for repressive Islamist states, although as a key ally of the US it doesn’t get as much criticism as it might. King Abdullah gets no criticism at all, at least not publicly in the kingdom. Even the mention of a succession plan is likely to get a magazine or newspaper temporarily banned, but the elderly Abdullah recently went through lengthy medical treatment in the US and is increasingly frail. The high levels of corruption, mixed with large numbers of young, unemployed people, should give anyone who thinks it a stable country some pause for thought.
15th - 6 years, 2 months in power Sheikh Khalifa Emir of Abu Dhabi and President of the UAE By far the most powerful of the seven emirates that make up the UAE, Abu Dhabi has been more conservative than Dubai but its huge oil reserves ensure that it has most of the money and virtually all of the influence. He succeeded his father Sheikh Zayed to the throne in 2004 and tolerates no opposition to his rule.
14th - 10 years, 6 months in power Bashar Assad President of Syria Bashar wasn’t ever meant to follow his father Hafaz Assad as president. The job had been earmarked for his brother Basil, but he died in a car crash in 1994, and so Bashar took over in July 2000. Having promised reform when he came into office, he has achieved very limited and piecemeal changes and the country continues to underperform while meddling in Lebanon and irritating Israel. In a rambling interview with the Wall Street Journal in January he claimed that Syria would not suffer the same fate as Tunisia or Egypt, but it has almost all the same problems.
13th - 11 years, 6 months in power Mohammed VI King of Morocco Succeeded to the throne following the death of his father King Hassan II. He rules over a country with some very heavily circumscribed elements of democracy. His most prominent critic is his cousin Prince Moulay Hicham, who recently told Spanish daily El Pais that “almost every authoritarian systems will be affected by this wave of protest, Morocco will probably be no exception.”
12th - 11 years, 9 months in power Abdelaziz Bouteflika President of Algeria Elected with 74% in April 1999, after all the other candidates had pulled out. Since then his popularity has only grown, gaining 85% of the vote in 2004 and 90% in 2009. Rumoured to be ill. There have been sporadic protests in the wake of the Tunisian revolution next door, but as yet no large-scale opposition movement has emerged on the streets.