Who else will follow Gucci Grace?

Unqualified leadership is one of the most dangerous threats to the stability of a number of countries and regions

Salman Shoaib November 29, 2017
The writer, a graduate of Brown and Cambridge universities, is managing director at a fund management company based in Singapore

Grace Mugabe, nicknamed “Gucci Grace” after her penchant for lavish spending, has disappeared from public view, possibly forever. The army took over in Zimbabwe after 93-year-old President Robert Mugabe attempted to clear the way for her succession by firing his vice-president. She once famously said “They say I want to be president. Why not? Am I not Zimbabwean?” The reason why not, many would answer, is that Grace was grossly underqualified (she was a secretary in the president’s typing pool when he met her) and cavorted with a group of young acolytes who were milking state coffers. In the end, the prospect of her presidency was simply too much for the rest of the government and armed forces to bear. It was also a phenomenal overreach on the Mugabes’ part, resulting in the end of Robert Mugabe’s 37-year rule.

And across the waters in Saudi Arabia, a similarly unqualified 32-year-old Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) ordered the arrest of several of the country’s royals and top businessmen whom he accuses of accumulating huge amounts of wealth at the expense of the state. This is the first time in Saudi Arabia’s history that such a purge has taken place — his grandfather, Ibn Saud, famously united disparate tribes, leading to a system of succession that passed the crown across family trees to avoid infighting. MBS is also taking on the religious establishment whilst waging war in Yemen, blockading Qatar, “forcing the Lebanese prime minister to resign,” whilst threatening Iran at every turn.

Although his plans to liberalise Saudi Arabia and fight extremism deserve respect and support, his international aggression has created havoc. The exuberance of youth and inexperience could have driven MBS to bite off more than he can chew, and he will now have more enemies than he can count. We may awake one fine morning to find out that he is a prisoner in his own palace.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, Maryam Nawaz Sharif has begun to spread her wings even wider, and makes little secret of where her ambitions lie. When asked if she ever saw herself as Prime Minister, her response was “People around me tell me I was meant for a certain role”, leaving little room for interpretation. And clearly many in her party are shaking her head, including Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, who has said that he could not accept her as party leader. Apart from being her father’s daughter, and appearing quite skilled in making soft speeches and cutting ribbons, there is little to qualify her for the role. But more than the internal PML-N pushback, it is the establishment that is surely balking at the prospect of a Maryam Nawaz premiership. To many, her aspirations represent what is wrong with the current system — where merit is secondary, where entitlement reigns, and where the country has to suffer the consequences of the personal ambition of an unqualified individual. In the short term, she needs to avoid arrest over the Panama Papers, but it will be hard to count her out over a longer period. Bilawal Bhutto, meanwhile, continues to chair the PPP, supposedly the bastion of democracy in Pakistan, but a party whose own leadership is dynastic. Surely someone more qualified deserves to be at the party’s helm during these difficult times.

Unprincipled leaders are inclined to support their “favourite relative” in the race for succession, be it Robert Mugabe attempting to clear the way for his wife Grace in Zimbabwe, King Salman promoting his favourite son in Saudi Arabia against the line of succession, or Nawaz Sharif favouring Maryam as future party leader. Unqualified leadership is one of the most dangerous threats to the stability of a number of countries and regions. Hopefully most aspirants will meet Gucci Grace’s fate and unceremoniously disappear from public view.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 29th, 2017.

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