They are a desert king and a military officer-turned-president. Drive through their capitals and their images glow from billboards and painted walls, old men with their eyes fixed everywhere, even as whispers grow about who will rise to replace them.
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak are in their 80s, durable U.S. allies whose governments have crushed political dissent at home while playing leading roles across the Middle East. But these days, talk of succession reverberates as Washington, as well as Riyadh and Cairo, plans to navigate an era without two of the region’s dominant personalities.
The men have given no indication that they will step down. Mubarak’s term runs until 2011 and the king’s reign lasts for as long as he sees fit. But Mubarak and Abdullah are frail.
In Egypt, there is incessant chatter that the president’s younger son, Gamal, will follow his father, and in Saudi Arabia, several leadership scenarios are unfolding within the ruling House of Saud.
A senior State Department official said the U.S. believes that its relationship with the two countries is “deep enough and broad enough to withstand the strains of any kind of transition.”
But the official, who spoke anonymously because of the sensitivity of the matter, added that the eventual absence of Mubarak, who has been in power since 1981, and Abdullah, who took the throne in 2005 but has run Saudi Arabia since 1996, when the since-deceased King Fahd suffered a stroke, raises concerns about the future of a jittery Middle East.
The imprints the aging leaders have left are indelible. Mubarak has kept peace with Israel -- at a stiff cost to his domestic credibility -- while pushing for a Palestinian state. Abdullah has transformed his kingdom’s oil wealth into diplomatic power as Riyadh, the Saudi capital, has become influential from Beirut to Kabul, Afghanistan.
The pair have brushed aside historical animosities between their nations to cooperate in confronting what they regard as major threats to the Sunni Muslim Arab world: the prospect of a nuclear-armed Shiite Iran and the violence sparked by Islamic militancy extending from North Africa to Indonesia.
Their overall strategies, which complement U.S. interests, are not expected to be significantly altered by their successors, especially since new leaders will almost certainly come from the ranks of the ruling regimes. What will vanish are decades of experience and the visages the world has grown accustomed to: Mubarak, 81, with his oversized sunglasses and Air Force salute, and Abdullah, 85, with his endless entourages and jet black goatee.
It is likely that Iran, Syria and their Islamist allies Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip will move quickly to provoke whoever follows the two leaders. At the same time, domestic reformers and opposition groups, especially the radical Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, are expected to push for broader political freedoms and to stem state security networks that have been criticized by international human rights organizations and Washington for torture, imprisonment and other violations.
“The U.S. should be worried about the possibility of either of these two leaders leaving the scene. Iran and Syria will move to exploit the loss of Mubarak and King Abdullah,” said Amr Hamzawy, a Middle East expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
But Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the U.S., said, “Egypt and Saudi Arabia have been strong supporters of an open relationship with the West -- and Washington in particular.”
“I’m not as worried about the change of leadership as many in the West are,” he said.
Topping the list of potential successors in Egypt are Mubarak’s son Gamal, 45, and Omar Suleiman, who is in his early 70s, a longtime confidant of the president and head of the country’s intelligence network. Gamal, a leading voice within the ruling National Democratic Party, lacks government and foreign policy experience but supports economic reform and appears more attuned to human rights than his father.
Suleiman has the institutional pedigree of Mubarak and previous Egyptian presidents and, as a chief mediator dealing with the Palestinians, has close ties with Washington. It is unclear, however, whether he wants to lead the country. He is also a reminder of a bygone Egypt, a time when Cairo, which is now slipping in stature, was the center of the Arab world.
Egypt’s bonds with Washington, fueled by $1.2 billion in annual U.S. aid, have survived political transitions and tense relations.
“President Mubarak and George W. Bush didn’t have great personal ties, but that never affected the strategic, military and security relations between the countries,” said Diaa Rashwan, an analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
The successor scenario in Saudi Arabia is complicated by age, illness and a struggle within the royal family between moderates and hard-liners. Next in line for the throne is Crown Prince Sultan ibn Abdulaziz, but he is in his early 80s and has been ailing for years.
Following him could be Prince Nayef ibn Abdulaziz, 76, the Saudi interior minister, whom Abdullah elevated this year to second deputy prime minister. Nayef is close to fundamentalist Wahhabi clerics who have resisted the king’s attempts at modest reforms to ease religion’s grip on schools, courts and other institutions.
Riyadh’s ties to the U.S. remain vital, but over the years, the kingdom’s oil wealth has allowed it to widen its strategic interests, including to the emerging energy markets of India and China. Such shifts could alter the tenor of relations with Washington if personal connections fade as aging monarchs die or are replaced every few years by fellow members of a royal family that grows more difficult to decipher, a scenario likely to be encountered by either President Obama or future U.S. leaders.
“With the kingdom facing the prospect of enthroning a new king every two or three years (or even at closer intervals), the U.S. president faces the prospect of having to work with several Saudi monarchs during one term alone,” noted a policy paper written by Simon Henderson, an expert on Saudi Arabia and a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Mubarak and Abdullah, and what awaits their successors, can be viewed best through the prism of domestic pressures. Mubarak rose to power after the assassination by Islamists of Anwar Sadat, who shortly before had made peace with Israel. Mubarak has kept Egypt under emergency law for nearly 28 years, grinding down political opponents while proving unable to improve the lives of his 82 million countrymen, more than 40% of them living on less than $2 a day.
Hamzawy of the Carnegie Endowment said that if the Egyptian regime can’t agree on a post-Mubarak candidate, and economic and social anxieties spread, the country could enter a “chaotic succession . . . that the Muslim Brotherhood could exploit by using the street to demonstrate their influence.”
Abdullah was named crown prince in 1982 and largely ran Saudi Arabia after Fahd, his half brother, became incapacitated. His attempts at reform won him early praise, but he has been criticized for not pushing hard enough against religious conservatives and not providing freedoms for women or opportunities for those younger than 25. The latter, who are poorly educated, make up half the population.
The oppressed of Egypt and the young of Saudi Arabia are angry and restless. They listened to Obama’s June speech in Cairo, and many were disappointed by the lack of criticism of their nations’ regimes, which often ignore American principles of democracy.
It is these sentiments -- expressed by laborers striking in the Egyptian textile city of El Mahalla el Kubra and by bloggers and filmmakers in Riyadh -- that new leaders will have to calm.
“Predicting what will happen in Saudi Arabia is very difficult,” said Mohammad Fahad Qahtani, a reformer and assistant economics professor at the Institute of Diplomatic Studies.
“You live in an oil bonanza. The country is flush with money, but you have unemployment and 30% of the people living in poverty. Only 22% of families own their own homes.
“It’s a gloomy picture. The regime is losing its credibility.”
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington and Amro Hassan of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.