They rose to positions of unbridled power because of their bloodline, and those who fell, sometimes in a grisly manner, did so because of what they had done in the family name.
A toxic mix of nepotism and abuses rained mercilessly on the population and kleptocracy has defined several sons of the Arab world’s most infamous tyrants.
The killing of Saudi writer Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul by agents believed to be close to the kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has cast him into this ruthless and pitiless pantheon.
Before global outrage caught him by apparent surprise, the brash Prince Mohammed was already heavily questioned in many quarters for the bloody and catastrophic war he has prosecuted in Yemen, his imprisonment and shakedown of other Saudi princes at home, and his interference in Lebanese politics by way of effectively abducting its prime minister.
Notoriety in their own right in each case was cultivated, but when the time came to settle accounts, like Icarus in Greek mythology they had flown too close to the sun, believing in their own omnipotence, having burned legions on the way.
Prince Mohammed seems less likely, at least for now, to meet such an end as long as his father remains on the throne and the Al Saud succession is not derailed.
The dynamic of brutal and avaricious offspring is not unique to the Middle East: the world’s best-known autocratic family is the Kim dynasty in North Korea — one that does not look like collapsing any time soon after 70 years. In Africa, Congo still reels from the baton of power being passed on from Laurent Kabila to his son Joseph, 10 days after he was assassinated in 2001.
But it is the lives and brutal actions of the sons of several Middle East dictators over the decades that have made their own bloody and corrupt marks on their nations and well beyond. They have been seared into the collective memory in the first two decades of the 21st century.
Jeremi Suri, a professor of history and public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, said hereditary succession is not unique to authoritarian states, but they are more likely to be flagrantly violent in the Middle East. That’s because intense regional competition and declining prospects at home have driven leaders to paranoia and the international community has shown a propensity to look the other way.
“They are hyper-violent ..., using extreme force to prop up their power for fear of a coming deluge,” he said.
Here’s a look at the once, and still, feared scions from Iraq, Syria, Libya and Egypt.
UDAY AND QUSAY HUSSEIN
On the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, then-President George W. Bush gave Saddam Hussein and his sons 48 hours to leave the country. They didn’t. Uday and Qusay Hussein were killed four months later while on the run in a fierce firefight in Mosul. Their bloated and bloodied corpses were broadcast around the world to confirm their demise. Their father was captured alive, then hanged three years later. Before the fall, Uday was feared and reviled for his violent, maniacal and unbalanced tendencies. Tales of his cruelty were legend in a nation where the family ruled by cult of personality, repression, torture and execution. Uday beat a favoured bodyguard of Saddam’s to death, was accused of multiple rapes, and barely survived an assassination attempt that left him with a limp. The quieter Qusay was thought to be Saddam’s preference to succeed him.
THE ASSAD SONS
Bashar al-Assad, an eye doctor educated in the West, was never his father Hafez’ choice to take over from him to preserve the Alawite sect’s iron control of Syria. The eldest son, Bassel, had been groomed for the role, rising in the military and praised by the Baath party. But he died in a car crash in 1994. When Assad the father died in 2000 after ruling for 29 years, it was Bashar who took over. Pre-civil war, it was thought in the West that he could be a useful ally in the region. That all changed after the brutal crackdown on Arab Spring protests accelerated into a ruinous civil war that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, displaced millions internally, with millions more fleeing overseas, and laid waste to the country’s infrastructure. Assad, as far as the West and some Arab states were concerned, was the chief culprit for the carnage wrought. He was on the cusp of defeat and a probable demise not dissimilar to Saddam’s family. But Russian military support turned the tide in his favour. Now, with the civil war in its final phases, Assad’s rule seems set to continue.
SEIF AL-ISLAM (GADHAFI)
Moammar Gadhafi’s rule spanned more than three decades. The Libyan chapter of the Arab uprisings sweeping the region in 2011 spiraled into civil war with atrocities committed both by Gadhafi’s forces and popular opposition forces. His son and onetime heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, had faced charges of crimes against humanity for his role in trying to put down the uprising. Western forces intervened on the rebels’ side, with punishing air strikes that proved a major catalyst to Gadhafi’s fall. In gruesome images many around the globe saw almost in real-time, Gadhafi was captured in his native Sirte by rebels from Misrata. They humiliated him in his death throes. When his son was captured he was shown with fingers missing, purportedly from an airstrike. Seif al-Islam was pardoned by the Libyan parliament and released in June of this year. He has not been seen in public since then. But a return to power in some form in a chaotically and violently divided nation cannot be ruled out.
THE MUBARAK SONS
With Hosni Mubarak’s blessing, his sons Gamal and Alaa plundered Egypt’s coffers during their father’s decades-long rule. Gamal was the one-time next in line but wasn’t thought of as a serious individual outside his father’s most inner circle. The brothers along with their father were first detained two months after a popular uprising forced the senior Mubarak to step down in February 2011 after 29 years in power. The trio was later sentenced to three years each for embezzling funds meant for maintenance of presidential palaces. The sons were released in 2015 for time served, while their father was freed last year. The Mubarak brothers have since their release frequently appeared in public, receiving a relatively warm welcome, but drawing the displeasure of powerful backers of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi.
Associated Press writer Philip Issa in Baghdad contributed to this report.