The Arab Brat Pack 

They’re young, they’re sexy, they’re running Dad’s country.

The Western media, for whom Arab autocrats usually have as much appeal as agriculture subsidies, are gaga over the Arab Brat Pack. The dashing royals who inherited power last year—38-year-old King Abdullah of Jordan and 36-year-old King Mohammed of Morocco—were joined this week by 34-year-old Bashar Assad, who’s taking his father’s job in Syria. The Brat Packers are Western-educated, adore the free market, surf the Web, and seem more interested in joint ventures with Israel than attacks on it. Bahrain and Qatar also have new reform-minded emirs, and young bucks are clamoring to run Egypt, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia when the current generation of old-timers kicks.

It’s easy to understand why the Brat Packers delight the West. Americans are accustomed to surly Arab leaders in headscarves and uniforms. But King Abdullah prepped at Deerfield, studied at Georgetown, and speaks English better than Arabic. He’s married to a foxy young woman who worked for Apple Computer. He aced his recent appearance on Larry King Live. He watches Dharma & Greg. He eats at Planet Hollywood. He’s a Trekkie (boldly going where no king has gone before). Mohammed, unlike his father King Hassan, mingles with ordinary Moroccans, drives his own car, and lives in a modest suburban house. Dr. Bashar, the ophthalmologist, is an Internet junkie who loves Phil Collins.

(Pause for a gripe: Phil Collins? Planet Hollywood? Dharma & Greg? Shouldn’t potentates have better taste?)

The Brat Pack is appealing in substance as well. The Arab leaders of the ‘50s and ‘60s preached Pan-Arabism and socialism and obsessed about destroying Israel. But their kids came of age after the Six-Day War, when Pan-Arabism was dead and Israel was a fact. Their homelands, once largely disconnected from Europe and North America, are linked by immigration and easy travel. Their centrally planned, corrupt economies have lagged behind the rest of the world. This, plus a dose of European schooling, has turned the Brat Packers into post-ideological technocrats. “You have to get in touch with the broader world economy, you have to participate in the information revolution, you can’t isolate your country: All that is quite obvious to this generation,” says University of Virginia professor William Quandt. Who cares if peace is ideologically desirable: It’s economically essential.

Abdullah toppled trade barriers and rewrote laws to win Jordan’s membership in the World Trade Organization. He privatized the airline and telephone company. He mandated English and computer classes in elementary school. He vows to make Jordan the Silicon Valley of the Middle East, Singapore by the (Dead) Sea. He delights Jordanians by disguising himself for visits to government offices and hospitals, then demanding reform when he sees how poorly average citizens are treated.

Mohammed, who holds an international law degree, has talked up a reformist agenda too. He socializes with Morocco’s young entrepreneurs. He ousted Morocco’s brutal interior minister, who had run the country cruelly and corruptly for decades. Bashar’s record hints that he will be a modernizer. He directs Syria’s computer society and spearheaded an anti-corruption campaign designed to make Syria a fairer place to do business.

It’s tempting to get carried away by this fine news, to predict a glorious future for any Arab country lucky enough to be ruled by a hipster. But in Jordan, Morocco, and Syria, population growth outstrips economic growth. Their economies are stagnating, and the shortage of water is dire. More than half their citizens are under 21. Unemployment already tops 25 percent, and no one has the foggiest notion how to employ millions of new workers. Their centralized economies and preposterous bureaucracies strangle progress. They are loudly planning to become Internet economies, yet Syria barely has credit cards.

The Brat Packers also lack the power to make the changes they long for. All depend on military and business elites to protect them. These folks control smuggling, government jobs, central banks, and the army. They benefit from the status quo and don’t want to aerate the economy, purge the bureaucracy, or stamp out corruption. This handcuffs reform. Bashar, who has no power base of his own, will serve at the military’s whim. Abdullah is saddled with a stodgy prime minister who shows no enthusiasm for shrinking the bureaucracy and liberating Jordanian markets. But the king can’t afford to oust him.

(Even if the Brat Packers did have absolute authority, they couldn’t make turbo-capitalism by diktat. “To make your country desirable for job-creating private investment is not something you can decree,” says David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute. Abdullah wants Jordan to bustle with competition and entrepreneurship, but that requires a posse of vigorous business people who reject state sponsorship—exactly the group Abdullah cannot create. Oddly, socialist, backward Syria is best positioned for major economic explosion. It has a long entrepreneurial tradition and swarms of businessmen ready to charge when the state drops barriers.)

Westerners tend to mistake the populism and reformism of Brat Packers for something it is not: democracy. The Brat Packers are autocrats. Each has his job because Daddy gave it to him. (Analysts fear that Syria’s “monarchic republic” sets an alarming precedent for the region. Bashar’s ascension will encourage Muammar Qaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and Saddam Hussein to ensure that their sons succeed them.)

These countries have no tradition of popular government: Kings and tribal leaders have ruled for centuries. The Brat Packers sympathize with democracy more than their dads did (which was generally not at all), but that doesn’t mean they will impose it. “There are very few cases of leaders who willingly give up a significant amount of power. These leaders may like democracy, but even if they are willing to pursue it, the elites around them may not allow it,” says University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami. Syria, Morocco, and Jordan all limit freedom of the press enormously. Mohammed says he believes in equal rights for women and wants Morocco to be a Spanish-style constitutional monarchy, but he has not done anything about it. Abdullah has not tried to democratize Jordan. Both Jordan and Syria face huge demographic obstacles to democracy: In Jordan, Palestinians outnumber Jordanians. In Syria, the ruling Alawites make up only 12 percent of the population.

(Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani of Qatar, who at 50 is a kind of semi-Brat Packer, is making a profound effort to democratize. He funds a satellite TV news channel that reports freely and harshly on Arab governments. He authorized municipal elections in which women voted and ran for office, and he is drafting a constitution that will hand much of his power to a new parliament. But Qatar has a tiny population—less than 1 million—and enormous petro-wealth. The emir can afford the experiment.)

Democracy and prosperity may be dreams, but even so, the tyro monarchs and junior presidents vastly improve on their dads. They’ll keep peace. They won’t murder their citizens. They can’t fix their basket-case nations overnight, but they’ll make a start. From baby kings, expect baby steps.