Leaders of the Middle East: A Photo Gallery

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Lebanese President Michel Suleiman

lebanon michel suleiman
Lebanon's president, Michel Suleiman. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Portraits of Authoritarianism

From Pakistan to Northwest Africa, and with a few exceptions along the way (in Lebanon, in Israel), people of the Middle East are ruled by three varieties of leaders, all of them men: authoritarian men (in most countries); men creeping toward the standard authoritarian model of Middle East rule (Iraq); or men with more proclivities for corruption than authority (Pakistan, Afghanistan). And with rare and at times questionable exceptions, none of the leaders enjoy the legitimacy of having been chosen by their people.

Here are portraits of the Middle East's leaders.

Michel Suleiman was elected 12th president of Lebanon on May 25, 2008. His election, by the Lebanese Parliament, ended an 18-month constitutional crisis that had left Lebanon without a president and brought Lebanon close to civil war. He is a respected leader who led the Lebanese military. He is revered by the Lebanese as a uniter. Lebanon is riven by many divisions, most notably between anti- and pro-Syrian camps.

See Also: Christians of the Middle East

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Ali Khamenei, Iran's Supreme Leader,

Ayatollah Khamenei
The Real Power behind Iran's Sham Democracy "Supreme Leader" Ali Khamenei. leader.ir

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is Iran’s self-styled “Supreme Leader,” only the second such in the history of the Iranian Revolution, after Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini, who ruled until 1989. He’s neither head of state nor head of the government. Yet Khamenei is essentially a dictatorial theocrat. He is the ultimate spiritual and political authority on all matters foreign and domestic, making the Iranian presidency—and indeed the entire Iranian political and judicial process—subordinate to his will. In 2007, The Economist summed up Khamenei in two words: “Supremely paranoid.”

See Also:

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
A Sham Re-Election Weakens the Legitimacy of the Iranian Revolution Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Majid/Getty Images

Ahmadinejad, the sixth president of Iran since that country’s revolution in 1979, is a populist who represents Iran’s most radicalized factions. His incendiary remarks about Israel, the Holocaust and the West coupled with Iran’s continued development of nuclear power and its support of Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon make Ahmadinejad the focal point of a seemingly more dangerous Iran with outsized ambitions. Still, Ahmadinejad isn’t the ultimate authority in Iran. His domestic policies are poor and the looseness of his cannon embarrassing to Iran’s image. His re-election victory in 2009 was a sham.

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Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki

nuri al maliki
An Authoritarian in the Making Goodbye democracy: Iraq's Nuri al Maliki is looking more like an old-style authoritarian strongman every day. Ian Waldie/Getty Images

Nouri or Nuri al Maliki is Iraq’s prime minister and the leader of the Shiite Islamic Al Dawa Party. The Bush administration considered Maliki an easily malleable political novice when the Iraqi parliament picked him to lead the country in April 2006. He’s proven anything but. Al Maliki is a shrewd quick study who’s managed to position his party at the heart of power nodes, defeating radical Shiites, keeping Sunnis subservient and outflanking American authority in Iraq. Should Iraqi democracy falter, Al Maliki-- impatient with dissent and instinctively repressive—has the makings of an authoritarian chief.

See also:

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Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai

hamid karzai afghanistan president
Little Authority, Surrounded by Corruption and War Afghanistan's President, Hamid Karzai, was once a favored son of the Bush administration. The Obama administration has walked out on the illusion of Karzai's leadership. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Hamid Karzai has been president of Afghanistan since that country's liberation from Taliban rule in 2001. He started with promise as an intellectual with integrity and deep roots in Afghanistan's Pashtun culture. He's shrewd, charismatic and relatively honest. But he's been an ineffective president, reigning over what Hillary Clinton dubbed a "narco-state", doing little to temper the ruling elite's corruption, the religious elites' extremism, and the Taliban's resurgence. He's out of favor with the Obama administration. He's running for reelection in balloting set for Aug. 20, 2009--with surprising effectiveness.

See also: Afghanistan: Profile

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Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak

Hosni Mubarak
The Quiet Pharaoh Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Smiling is not an option. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Mohammed Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s autocratic president since October 1981, is one of the world’s longest-serving presidents. His iron grip on every level of Egyptian society has kept the Arab world’s most populous nation stable, but at a price. It has exacerbated economic inequalities, kept most of Egypt’s 80 million people in poverty, abetted brutality and torture by police and in the nation’s prisons, and stoked resentment and Islamist fervor against the regime. Those are ingredients of revolution. With his health failing and his succession unclear, Mubarak’s hold on power is overshadowing Egypt’s want of reform.

See also: The Statue of Liberty's Egyptian Origins

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Morocco’s King Mohammed VI

Mohammed VI of Morocco
A Dictator More Benevolent, and Absent, Than Most Not a friend of shaving, Mohammed VI of Morocco celebrated the 10th anniversary of his rule in 2009. His promise of liberalizing Morocco politically, socially and economically remains largely unfulfilled. Chris Jackson/Getty Images

M6, as Mohammed VI is known, is Morocco’s third king since the country won independence from France in 1956. Mohammed is slightly less authoritarian than other Arab leaders, allowing token political participation. But Morocco is no democracy. Mohammed considers himself Morocco’s absolute authority and “leader of the faithful,” fostering a legend that he’s a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad. He’s more interested in power than governance, barely involving himself in domestic or international affairs. Under Mohammed’s rule, Morocco has been stable but poor. Inequality is rife. Prospects for change aren’t.

See also: Morocco: Country profile

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Netanyahu and Dome of the Rock
A Hawk in His Settlements Benjamin Netanyahu mistakes the Islamic Dome of the Rock as Israeli property. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Benjamin Netanyahu, often referred to as “Bibi,” is one of the most polarizing and hawkish figures in Israeli politics. On March 31, 2009, he was sworn in as prime minister for the second time after Kadima’s Tzipi Livni, who narrowly defeated him in the Feb. 10 election, failed to form a coalition. Netanyahu opposes withdrawing from the West Bank or slowing settlement growth there, and generally opposes negotiating with Palestinians. Ideologically driven by revisionist Zionist principles, Netanyahu nevertheless displayed a pragmatic, centrist streak in his first stint as prime minister (1996-1999).

See also: Israel

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Libya’s Muammar el Qaddafi

Dictatorship as Spectacle Too old for terrorism: Libya's Col. Muammar al-Gaddafi is all smiles now that western leaders are his pals again. Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

In power since he orchestrated a bloodless coup in 1969, Muammar el-Qaddafi has been repressive, inclined to use violence, sponsor terrorism and dabble in weapons of mass destruction to advance his erratically revolutionary aims. He’s also a chronic contradiction, inciting violence against the West in the 1970s and 80s, embracing globalism and foreign investment since the 1990s, and reconciling with the United States in 2004. He wouldn’t matter that significantly if he couldn’t leverage power from oil money: Libya has the Mideast's sixth-largest oil reserve. In 2007, it had $56 billion in foreign-exchange reserves.

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Turkey's Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The Middle East’s Only Moderate, Elected Islamist Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. He walks a tightrope between his party's platform of political Islam and Turkey's constitutional commitment to secularism. Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

One of Turkey’s most popular and charismatic leaders, he led the resurgence of Islamic-oriented politics in the Muslim world’s most secular democracy. He’s been prime minister of Turkey since March 14, 2003. He was the mayor of Istanbul, was imprisoned for 10 months on subversion charges related to his pro-Islamic stances, was banned from politics, and returned as leader of the Justice and Development Party in 2002. He’s a leader in Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations.

See also: Turkey: Country Profile

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Khaled Mashaal, Plaestinian Political Leader of Hamas

Extreme Survivor Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal. Suhaib Salem - Pool/Getty Images

Khaled Mashaal is the political leader of Hamas, the Sunni Islamist Palestinian organization, and head of its office in Damascus, Syria, from where he operates. Mashaal has taken responsibility for numerous suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

As long as Hamas is backed by wide popular and electoral support among Palestinians, Mashaal will have to be a party to any peace agreement--not only between Israelis and Palestinians, but among Palestinians themselves.

Hamas' chief rival among Palestinians is Fatah, the party once controlled by Yasser Arafat and now controlled by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

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Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari

Asif Ali Zardari
Mr. 10 Percent, benazir Bhutto’s Widow, Gets Himself a Country Pakistan's Asif Ali Zardari, husband of the late Benazir Bhutto, known as "Mr. Ten Percent" for his long trail of kickbacks and corruption. John Moore/Getty Images

Zardari is the husband of the late Benazir Bhutto, who was twice prime minister of Pakistan and was likely to be elected to the post a third time in 2007 when she was assassinated.

In August 2008, Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party named Zardari for president. The election was scheduled for Sept. 6. Zardari’s past, like Bhutto’s, is riddled with charges of corruption. He is known as “Mr. 10 Percent,” a reference to kickbacks believed to have enriched him and his late wife to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. He’s never been convicted on any of the charges but served a total of 11 years in prison.

See also: Profile: Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan

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Qatar’s Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani

Qatar's Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani
A Kissinger for the Arab World Qatar's Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. Mark Renders/Getty Images

Qatar's Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani is one of the Middle East's most influential, reformist leaders, balancing his tiny Arab peninsula country's traditional conservatism with his vision of a technologically modern and culturally diverse state. Next to Lebanon, he's ushered in the freest media in the Arab world; he has mediated truces or peace agreements between warring factions in Lebanon and Yemen and the Palestinian Territories, and sees his country as a strategic bridge between the United States and the Arab Peninsula.

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Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Omar Rashidi/PPO via Getty Images

On Nov. 7, 1987, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali became only the second president of Tunisia since the country gained independence from France in 1956. He’s been ruling the country since, seemingly legitimizing his leadership through five elections that have been neither free nor fair, the last one on Oct. 25, 2009, when he was reelected with an improbable 90% of the vote. Ben Ali is one of North Africa’s strongmen—undemocratic and brutal against dissenters and a fitful steward of the economy but a friend of Western governments because of his hard line against Islamists.

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Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh

ali abdullah saleh yemen president
Keep Your Friends Close, Your Enemies Closer Ali Abdullah Saleh has ruled over Yemen since 1978. Manny Ceneta/Getty Images

Ali Abdullah Saleh is the president of Yemen. In power since 1978, he is one of the Arab world’s longest-serving leaders. Ostensibly reelected several times, Saleh ruthlessly controls Yemen’s dysfunctional and nominal democracy and uses internal conflicts—with Houthi rebels in the north of the country, Marxist rebels in the south and al-Qaeda operatives to the east of the capital—to draw in foreign aid and military support and solidify his power. Saleh, once a fan of Saddam Hussein’s leadership style, is considered a Western ally, but his reliability as such is suspect.

To Saleh's credit, he was able to unify the country and has managed to keep it unified despite its poverty and challenges. Conflicts aside, Yemen's one major export, oil, may run out by 2020. The country suffers from chronic water shortages (in part because of the use of a third of the country's water to grow qat, or khat, the narcotic shrub Yemenis love to chew), rampant illiteracy and a severe absence of social services. Yemen's social and regional fractures make it a candidate for the world's list of failed states, alongside Afghanistan and Somalia--and an attractive staging ground for al-Qaeda.

Saleh's presidential term ends in 2013. He has pledged not to run again. He is rumored to be grooming his son for the position, which would weaken Saleh's claim, already shaky, that he intends to advance Yemen's democracy. In November 2009, Saleh urged the Saudi military to intervene in Saleh's war on the Houthi rebels in the north. Saudi Arabia did intervene, leading to fears that Iran would throw its support behind the Houthis. The Houthi rebellion is unresolved. So is the separatist rebellion in the south of the country, and Yemen's self-serving relationship with al-Qaeda.

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Tristam, Pierre. "Leaders of the Middle East: A Photo Gallery." ThoughtCo, Aug. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/leaders-of-the-middle-east-gallery-4122953. Tristam, Pierre. (2021, August 1). Leaders of the Middle East: A Photo Gallery. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/leaders-of-the-middle-east-gallery-4122953 Tristam, Pierre. "Leaders of the Middle East: A Photo Gallery." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/leaders-of-the-middle-east-gallery-4122953 (accessed March 21, 2023).