Foreign Policy Blogs

Ramadan and the Leadership Crisis in the Middle East


This Ramadan comes at a time when the world is facing a catastrophic leadership deficiency, and nowhere is that catastrophe more evident than in the Middle East. This resource-rich, predominantly Muslim region has produced some of the worst tyrants that the world has ever known — Bashar Assad, Saddam Hussein, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Muammar Gaddafi and many more.

Ramadan is the Islamic holy season in which the faithful diligently tries to maximize his/her spiritual benefit by seeking purification of the soul, enhancement of one’s moral vision and boosting one’s conscience. It is a time in which the faithful works hard to restrain all of material and flesh temptations by turning inward and increasing his or her level of worship, altruism and reflection.

However, Ramadan is not only about the individual’s relationship with God, but also about his/her relationship with other creatures on earth, especially human beings, regardless of their beliefs.

Dysfunctionality of the World Order

Never before in recorded history has the world — specifically the Islamic world — simultaneously experienced so many national and transnational challenges of economic, social, ecological, political and spiritual nature.

The actual and the perceptual order of things have been turned upside down. In a number of countries, the role of the state is being redefined, and the state’s power has diminished drastically. The role of the younger generations and disenfranchised communities has been systematically increasing; thus, setting the stage for reform, but also a power-vacuum, insecurity and chaos.

While the elements that created such daunting conditions are many, chief among them is leadership deficiency.

Many Muslim nations are in a functionally broken or a deplorable state of existence. Some, like Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen are already junglified. According to UNICEF, over 20 million Yemenis need humanitarian aid. Others, such as Egypt, Lebanon, Nigeria and Mali are perfectly placed on the conveyor belt while periodically projecting artificial agency or state authority. Meanwhile, economic predators continue to enhance their exploitation strategies into fine arts.

The Perilous Protection

Some monarchies and emirates have entrusted all their own personal security and that of their respective nations into the hands of mercenaries. Countries such as United Arab Emirates have cultivated deeply-rooted business relationships with the likes of the ever-elusive and infamous Blackwater, which is now known as Academi.

Ironic as it may seem, the UAE became the center where private security companies gravitate towards or the global trade fair where international mercenaries showcase their lethal services.

Unfortunately, times have profoundly changed from the day when Marzabaan the Persian emissary arrived at Medina and could not find a royal palace in the city. When the emissary was lead to Umar — the Second Caliph — took a nap under a shady tree in the outskirt of the city. That was the day when the wise emissary was compelled to make this famous observation: “You assumed authority over them, you served them justly, you felt safe among them, and earned to sleep (exposed and without guards).”

Today, most of the so-called Muslim leaders are known as dictators, kleptocrats and absolute monarchs. Many of them lack the trustworthiness needed to earn public confidence. They lack the vision to lead and the fairness and empathy to care for the least represented of their fellow citizens. But, make no mistake — the real power still rests with the people. Rulers need justice more than their subjects.

Nature of the Deficiency

Throughout today’s world, leaders who are morally anchored, who have the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of those in whose affairs are entrusted upon them, are in short supply.

What’s needed are leaders who can be trusted by their people and are agents for positive change. Leaders need to possess a broader vision and refrain from letting their own interests define their country’s national interests. They need to be driven by causes that transcend themselves their clan or region interests. They also need to recognize that their authority is a time-constrained privilege, not a right. Leadership, after all, should protect the rights of others and ensure that no grievance is left unaddressed.

At all levels — social, economic and political — these dire times demand transformational leaders who can inspire visions that transcend time and space, who have the capacity to translate those visions into actions, and who could cultivate the right minds and institutions to sustain that vision.

The Metaphor of the Double-decked Ship

In this month of reflection, it is worth remembering the many examples of bad endings of all bad leaders. History is peppered with such examples.

Warning against the abuse of privilege, Prophet Muhammad used the two-decked ship parable in which the morally pompous people were housed in the upper deck and the laity in the lower deck. Whenever the  people on the lower deck needed water, they had to go to the upper deck, where they were given a hard time. This went on for a while until one day, out of frustration, one of the lower deck people decided to bust a hole in the ship in order to access the water beneath. It wasn’t long before they all perished.

Transformational leaders are trend watcher. They are always vigilant of any seemingly small problem with the potential to develop into a major crisis.

Counsel to the Leaders

There is no good leadership without good ethics — the two go hand in hand. Ethics is as a code of conduct or values that distinguish right from wrong, the moral from the immoral, virtuous from the vile in governing the lives of individuals, groups, and societies. In Islam it is known as khuluq. “Deal with people in the best and the most ethical way,” said Prophet Muhammad.

As you reflect and refine your leadership qualities, you should consider these five points.

First, know your advisers as well as they know you, especially those in charge of national security.

Second, always keep in mind that anyone who would kill others for money or greed would have no moral obligation to compromise you and your nation for the right price.

Third, never assess your political crisis based solely on current events. If you are not into history, at least, try to rewind your memory database to recall how events came to be in the first place.

Fourth, keep your passions in check. Never become enamored with the seat of power; it is the only way to spare yourself, your people and your country’s imminent destruction.

Fifth, the best protection that a leader can have is the authentic confidence of the people. Always listen to the people to know what might matter to them the most, and who among them might be disenfranchised, deprived or aggrieved.

The alternative is a roller coaster ride into a perpetual state of chaos, exploitation and suicidal extremism.



Abukar Arman

Abukar Arman is a former diplomat, serving as Somalia's Special Envoy to the US. As a widely published analyst, he focuses on foreign policy, Islam, the Horn of Africa, extremism, and other topics.
Twitter: @Abukar_Arman
or reach him via e-mail: [email protected]