At a party on a sizzling June night in Riyadh, a group of young businessmen sipped drinks and chatted about their companies. In the background, a TV newscast about preparations for the funeral of Syria's President Hafez al-Assad, who died on June 10, droned on--and occasionally caught their attention. "Now, there are only four left," said one guest, referring to the ailing rulers of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Abu Dhabi, and to Egypt's 72-year-old President Hosni Mubarak. To these executives, Assad's replacement by his 34-year-old son, Bashar, a doctor by training, is a good thing. "[Hafez al-Assad] has been very rigid," says one. "His son will do things in a different way."
Bashar al-Assad is part of a generational shift that holds out the hope of huge changes for many Arab countries. The old leaders, who grew up in the days of Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser's Arab socialism, are departing from the scene one by one. They are being replaced by a group that is better-educated, better-traveled, and much less committed to conflict with Israel and other ideological causes of the past. That has sparked optimism among their contemporaries that the climate for peace will improve and that states will pare their economic roles, giving private business more room to flourish.
Some of these new leaders are already making their marks. In Morocco and Jordan, two new kings--Mohammed VI, 37, and Abdullah, 38, respectively--are promoting market reforms. In power for just a year, Abdullah, who was educated at Deerfield Academy, a New England prep school, and studied at Georgetown University, has already presided over a debt rescheduling and wants Jordan to join the World Trade Organization. In Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, 50, who overthrew his father in 1995, has introduced far greater openness for the media and given women a bigger role in politics. In Egypt, too, Gamal Mubarak, 36, an investment banker who is seen as a possible successor to his father, Hosni, has become a key advocate of economic reform.
Of course, the new generation of leaders still must deal with the brutal complexities of Middle East politics. Even before Bashar's father was buried, his exiled uncle, Rifaat al-Assad, staked his own claim to the presidency. Since Syria is a republic--not a monarchy, like Jordan and Morocco--Bashar's legitimacy as leader can be questioned. And there are other risks in the rise of the Western-educated children of leaders: Their privileged upbringings and sometimes weak Arabic language skills mean they are far more distant from most of their people than their fathers were. If they fail to satisfy their citizens' political and economic aspirations, they could be vulnerable to insurrectionist movements led by Muslim fundamentalists or other populists.
STEPPING SOFTLY. That's one reason the region faces a period of uncertainty as the new generation comes to the fore. Bashar al-Assad, for example, will have to assure the loyalty of his military and intelligence commanders, who are the keys to power in Syria. Bashar never intended to be an Arab strongman--he was summoned back from medical training in Britain when his brother Basil died in a car crash in 1994. Bashar has shown an interest in improving Syria's economy, where per-capita income has fallen below $1,000. But he is expected to go slowly on peace with Israel to avoid alienating supporters.
Still, if Bashar and other new leaders survive, they may have enough time to change the political and economic dynamics of the Middle East. From Saudi Arabia to Syria, a younger generation of Arabs is ready for fresh leadership.