Two young Arab leaders to keep an eye on


If you were looking for a single moment that captured the peculiar nature of leadership and how history is determined in the Arab region today, it would be the meeting that took place a few weeks ago between the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Bin Salman, and the populist Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada Al Sadr. There are enough fascinating aspects of this meeting to fill a graphic novel. Several pertinent ones that stand out tell us much about how the destiny of this turbulent and still deteriorating region will be determined by some relatively young men operating in the shadows, for the most part.

Sadr inherited from his assassinated father the leadership of a grassroots movement of Shiites in Iraq that has emerged as a pivotal actor in the ever-changing Iraqi political scene. Mohammad Bin Salman vaulted to the crown prince position in Saudi Arabia thanks to the decisions of his father the king. They are quite young as Middle East leaders go, and both assumed power without any formal training or experience, but thanks only to their fathers.

Like most Arab leaders, they have immense power, are accountable virtually to no one, and can wage war or make peace with former enemies at the drop of a hat, a kefiyyeh, a turban, or any other Middle Eastern head covering. We should take a good, hard look at these two men, because they and others like them will shape the future of the Middle East.

We have to remain both equitable and vigilant towards them and their like — equitable, in not judging them too quickly but rather giving them time to show if they are reckless dangers to us all, or bold and visionary young men who have learned the mistakes of the autocratic leaders of the recent past; but vigilant, in watching them closely to spot any signs of utter foolhardiness and destructive actions that promote sectarianism and warfare in lands that beg for pluralism and calm.

The Saudi crown prince sees himself as perhaps the protector of all Sunni Muslim Arabs, if not all Sunni Muslims in the world. He has spoken harshly of alleged predatory Iranian intentions in Arab societies, and has launched military (Yemen) and diplomatic (Qatar) efforts to stem alleged Iranian inroads into Arab countries that include Shiite Muslim minorities. Whether his fears of Iran are justified, exaggerated, or fully hallucinatory will be determined by history to come.

Sadr represents the modern phenomenon of a dynamic, charismatic grassroots Shiite Muslim organiser and leader in an Arab country. He has fought the Americans, negotiated politically with other Iraqi political groups, spent time in and out of Iran, spoken harshly of Saudi Arabia in the past, and generally sought to position himself to become the most prominent Iraqi Shiite spiritual and (unofficially) political leader after the imminent death of the leading Iraqi Shiite authority Ayatollah Al Sayyid Ali Al Sistani.


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