Nepotism or inherited genes – a Middle East conundrum

Starting professional life as the offspring of a famous parent cannot be easy, especially for those with genuine talent, whether or not parental influence has smoothed the path.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with RIA Novosti and Sputnik in this handout picture provided by SANA on April 21, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad speaks during an interview with RIA Novosti and Sputnik in this handout picture provided by SANA on April 21, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The word “nepotism” has an unsavory odor about it. In the West the practice of giving positions of power to relatives, whether or not they are qualified, smells unethical, even corrupt. US public opinion is far from happy about the Trump family’s involvement in matters of state. However, the practice – designated “wasta” in Arabic – is deeply embedded in Arab culture and, according to some observers, can be positive and useful. It is certainly rife, right across the Middle East, including Israel where it is known as “protectsia.”
The late president of Syria, Hafez Assad, exemplified wasta in action. He simply decreed that his son Bashar would succeed him. The young man was subject to no selection process – if he had been, the gawky young ophthalmologist might well have failed it. He became president in 2000, on the death of his father. By 2012, according to the business intelligence firm Alaco, he had amassed a fortune of up to $1.5 billion for his family and close associates. To minimize the risk of seizure, many of his assets are held in Russia, Hong Kong and a range of offshore tax havens.
The one-time president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, was on the same path when he was overthrown in 2011.
His plans to transfer power to his son Gamal, a Western- trained banker, were well advanced, and his family fortune was estimated at some $70b. After 30 years as president, Mubarak had had access to investment deals that generated hundreds of millions in profits. Both Gamal and Mubarak’s other son, Alaa, were also billionaires.
As for Col. Muammar Gaddafi, one-time ruler of Libya, his son Saif was being groomed as his successor when the regime was crushed. At his death, Gaddafi’s personal fortune has been estimated at $200b., making him the richest man on earth. Libya had the largest supply of oil in Africa and the tenth largest in the world, and Gaddafi pocketed the proceeds, spreading his money around the globe through family members, Swiss bank accounts, real estate and investments.
Royal dynasties are perhaps a special case. In the West, following centuries of warfare and murder by power-hungry claimants to European thrones, the succession is governed by strict rules – once primogeniture (first-born sons), nowadays the eldest child of the monarch, whether male or female.
Arab royal regimes, however, are autocracies, and Arab royalty has not bound itself to rules of succession. The succession appears to be at the whim of the ruling monarch – nepotism, or wasta in practice.
For example, the late king Hussein of Jordan changed his mind several times about his successor before settling on his eldest son, Abdullah. The current Saudi Arabian monarch, Salman, reached the throne only after plots to oust him from the succession were foiled, while he himself has removed two crown princes from the line of succession to appoint his favorite son, Mohammad bin Salman, as recently as June 21, 2017, to succeed him.
The same absolutist approach governs the distribution of the vast wealth that accrues to these oil-rich states.
The Sultan of Brunei is said to be worth $20b., the Saudi Arabian royal family around $18b., the emir of Dubai $15b. – and so it goes.
The two sons of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, Tareq and Yasser, own an economic empire in the territories worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Operating under the patronage of the president, the Falcon consortium embraces a large tobacco interest, an electricity and mechanical contracting company with branches in the West Bank, Jordan and the UAE, an international media company, a general investment concern, an insurance company with 11 branches across the territories, and an organization devoted to new projects and development.
Perhaps all these fathers believed that something of the gene magic that had raised them to power must be present in their offspring. Sometimes it is, and sometimes the inheritance is even enhanced. Kirk Douglas doubtless gave his son Michael a leg up in his early days; Judy Garland might have pulled a string or two to give her daughter Liza Minelli a break. How much does Jane Fonda owe her father, Henry? Chemi Peres, Shimon Peres’s son, heads Pitango, Israel’s largest venture capital company.
Who knows if he received his father’s help along the way, but he founded its predecessor technology fund back in 1992, and Pitango in 1996, long before Shimon Peres became Israel’s 9th president. And he started his business career with a BSc in industrial engineering and a master’s degree in business administration.
So there is another side to the nepotism coin. Starting professional life as the offspring of a famous parent cannot be easy, especially for those with genuine talent, whether or not parental influence has smoothed the path. Others will always view these offspring’s initial success with suspicion, and they must not only prove themselves professionally, but also overcome the disadvantage of their parentage. People like these deserve our sympathy; on the other hand, those without merit who are raised to positions of power or influence sometimes dig their own graves.
In 2013 Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then Turkey’s prime minister, found himself involved in widespread allegations of corruption involving shoe boxes stuffed with cash, three cabinet ministers and their sons, and his son Bilal as well. Bilal was on the board of a charitable foundation, and investigation centered on suspicious plans for a building to be constructed and then leased to a local Istanbul council.
Erdogan smothered those charges, but in 2016 Bilal again found himself under investigation, this time in Italy on allegations of money laundering. Meanwhile the German newspaper Bild began querying how Erdogan’s children had amassed their vast wealth. The article cited data published by Turkish opposition newspaper Cumhuriyet, which disclosed that everyone in Erdogan’s family, including his younger daughter, appeared to be into business, dealing in a wide range of areas such as cosmetics, instant foods, the shipping industry and jewelry.
The editor and staff of Cumhuriyet were arrested in October 2016.
Nepotism is indeed an ugly word, but it is sometimes not easy to separate it from a pretty universal desire to give one’s children a helping hand. When we witness the offspring of the famous in positions of power or prestige, fairness demands that we try to determine whether their success is due to nature or to undue parental influence.
The trouble is that nepotism can run alongside corruption on an even wider scale. That is indeed an unsavory phenomenon, and the Middle East may be more prone to it than anywhere else in the world.
The writer is Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. His latest book is The Chaos in the Middle East: 2014-2016. He blogs at: