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The world's megalomaniacs and the Middle East

May 5, 2018 at 12:23 pm

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump receive a red carpet welcome by King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud of Saudi Arabia and his official delegation, Saturday, May 20, 2017, on their arrival to King Khalid International Airport in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on May 20, 2017 [Shealah Craighead / The White House]

History has shown that it is the personality of a global leader, sometimes more so than their politics, that is crucial in determining their impact while in office. The Middle East today is a testament to such a theory, having either produced or attracted some of the world’s most megalomaniacal leaders. There is little doubt that such volatile figures only add to the region’s instability, as each attempts to fulfil their own political power play in a transcontinental area of strategic importance, which also just happens to be rich in natural resources.

Of all the world leaders involved in Middle East affairs today, there are five who stand apart in their character and consequent approach to policymaking. This is the countdown of infamy.

#5 – Rodrigo Duterte

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has shocked the world time and again with his outrageous statements, from telling supporters that, as city mayor, he should have raped Australian missionary Jaqueline Hammil who was killed by a prison gang, to calling former US President Barack Obama the “son of a whore”. Having previously bragged about shooting a fellow college student who offended him, he has also said that he would be “happy to slaughter” some three million drug addicts as the government continues its war against narcotics.

The Philippines has sustained only strained relations with the Middle East, maintained largely due to the former’s dependence on the latter’s oil exports. Yet ties have been pressured by the treatment of Filipino migrant workers in the Gulf, particularly in the domestic sector.

Last month, a diplomatic war ensued when it emerged that the Philippines Embassy had been helping workers escape from their employers in Kuwait after allegations of abuse. Kuwait moved to expel the ambassador and recalled its own delegation from Manila, with Duterte later retorting that it would ban its citizens from working in the Gulf state permanently. Kuwait announced hastily that it would comply with the Philippines’ request, fearful of the repercussions that a ban would have on the country; tensions continue to simmer.

#4 – Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi

Since coming to power five years ago, having overthrown Egypt’s first democratically-elected President, Mohamed Morsi, in a military coup, the former general has ruled with an iron fist. State-sanctioned extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and closures of media agencies have been rampant throughout his term in office

Read: Egypt court sentences 6 to death over 2013 violence

Yet looking at the Egyptian media, one would think that the President was the country’s most loved celebrity, with reports on Al-Sisi describing him as the “Redeeming Messiah”, “Saviour” and even “Better than Prophet Mohammad”. Following the 2013 coup, a cult-like adoration has developed among Al-Sisi’s supporters; one Egyptian poet has proclaimed that “Egyptian women were pregnant with Al-Sisi’s star” while female columnists have begged him to take them as his concubines.

Al-Sisi has claimed previously that his leadership is divinely inspired and that he dreamt he would rule Egypt, favouring the Egyptian people with his alleged benevolence. Yet the promised prosperity is still awaited, as the country struggles with a poverty rate of nearly 30 per cent amid high unemployment and rising prices of basic necessities.

However, Al-Sisi has shown himself to be up for a challenge. In Egypt’s election at the end of March, he managed to put pressure on most of the opposition figures so that they would abstain from the race. This cleared his way to receive 97.08 per cent of the votes cast, giving him a second term in office. With a turnout of just 41.5 per cent, though, that result probably wasn’t as overwhelmingly in his favour as the Egyptian megalomaniac would have liked.

#3 – Mohammad Bin Salman

Hailed as a revolutionary reformer, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman has been turning heads since his sudden ascension to first in line to the throne last June. Named Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year”, Bin Salman hit the ground running in his first year as heir apparent, lifting the country’s ban on women drivers, promoting his economic development plan for the country — “Vision 2030” — and turning the luxurious Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Riyadh into an unofficial prison for three months in a “corruption crackdown” targeting fellow members of the vast royal family and billionaires alike.

A 2015 letter written by an anonymous Saudi prince referred to Bin Salman as the “thief, corrupt, destroyer of the nation” and accused him and his brothers of embezzling hundreds of billions of riyals. Although the prince himself has remained a private individual, the little that has emerged about him has caused intrigue and controversy.

Read: Report: Saudi transformation threatened by fiscal strain

His purchase of a $500 million yacht in 2016 suggested Bin Salman had a penchant for expensive goods, unsurprising given the habits of other royals in the oil-rich kingdom. Yet the married father of four also added to his list of extravagant purchases with a record-breaking $450 million auction bid for Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi”. He also, it is alleged, offered Kim Kardashian West millions to spend the night with him.

However, Bin Salman’s simultaneous arrest of dozens of Saudi Arabia’s richest businessmen and financiers suggested further that it was not simply luxuries that he sought, but control over those who could place any possible obstacles in his way. The prince has also been rumoured to have been hiding his mother from his father for the past two years, keeping her under house arrest last June in case she blocked his power grab.

When not exchanging classified information with senior Trump advisor Jared Kushner, the Crown Prince enjoyed spending time with some of the world’s biggest media moguls during a recent trip to the US. Having sat at the same table as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson at a dinner, the film actor joked that he take bring his “finest tequila” to share with the prince when he visited Saudi Arabia, where alcohol is, of course, strictly prohibited.

#2 – Vladimir Putin

From serving as a negotiator between Syria, Iran and Turkey to increasing trade ties, Russian President Vladimir Putin has striven to ensure that the world’s second most powerful country is invested equally in Middle East affairs.

Glorified on home turf, from inspiring perfume to his photo featuring on t-shirts and phone cases around Moscow, the 65 year old also enjoys an exaggerated status in the media, favouring a macho image as he rides with fellow bikers aboard a Harley Davidson. He also demonstrates his skills in judo, in which he possesses a black belt.

Read: Russia’s Putin predicts global ‘chaos’ if West hits Syria again

Putin is known to be active outdoors, from swimming in freezing Siberian lakes, to horseback riding in the wilderness, often choosing to forego a shirt. Yet his more philanthropic gestures have been subject to scrutiny, with allegations that his spontaneous rescue of a conservation team attacked by an endangered tiger in 2008 was a publicity stunt.

Russia’s involvement in the Syria conflict has enabled Putin to place himself strategically as not just the leader of a superpower, but also an ally in the region. Presenting Russia as the antithesis of US imperialism, Putin has used Syria’s status as a developing economy to advocate for mutually beneficial trade and cooperation. Yet he has also looked to North Africa, strengthening trade ties with Egypt and toying with competing Libyan government factions of military commander Khalifa Haftar and the UN backed government of Prime Minister Fayez Al-Serraj.

#1 – Donald Trump

After an extremely controversial first year in office, it would be difficult for anyone to surpass US President Donald Trump as the most volatile ruler to be involved in Middle East affairs. From his frequent Twitter spats to his sacking of several of his closest officials, the former business mogul’s childlike approach to political decision-making has attracted heavy criticism. His decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel last December was slammed by the international community, while his close friendship with the austere Saudi monarchy contrasts sharply with his strong statements against Iran. However, Trump’s erratic behaviour and inappropriate statements have only increased the scrutiny of his volatile personality.

Michael Wolff’s book “Fire and Fury” made headlines earlier this year, serving as a much-awaited insight into Trump’s character; it lived up to expectations. Wolff revealed how the President ordered two additional television screens to be placed in his bedroom as well as locks to be fitted to his door, despite concerns from the secret service. He has imposed strict rules on his housekeeping staff; none of his belongings are to be touched, for example, and his clothes should not be tidied-up if left on the floor.

Read: Trump has all but decided to withdraw from Iran nuclear deal

Trump the statesman has been shown to be equally obstinate, with the book citing his daughter Ivanka’s rare ability to “push his enthusiasm buttons”. In the aftermath of the Syrian chemical attack in 2016, she reportedly called for more pictures to be included in a PowerPoint presentation documenting the event to convince her father to strike Assad regime targets.

Such an opinion was reinforced last month, when former FBI Director James Comey labelled Trump as “morally unfit” to be President, citing his attitude towards women whom he treats like “meat”. Such accusations are not the first; the release of a recording during his election campaign in which he described his sexual assaults on women caused widespread controversy.

Yet President Trump has not let the pressure get to him entirely. Other than taking to Twitter frequently in order to label media reports as “fake news”, he is known to enjoy a game of golf, having spent some 105 days at his own club since he took the oath of office. He has admitted that he had expected that the job “would be easier” as he reminisced to reporters about the freedom that he had left behind in his previous life.

With some of the world’s most powerful figures proving equally self-absorbed and erratic, is it any wonder the Middle East’s cycle of conflict and chaos continues to endure?

Read: The Arab Spring’s failure in democratic transition

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.