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Huffington Post: The Dictator’s Dead Pool for 2013: Will China’s Investments Pay Off in Political Clout?

(This originally appeared as “The Dictator’s Dead Pool for 2013” on the Huffington Post.)


The world rarely mourns dead dictators. The death of an authoritarian ruler usually means chaos and more suffering for the people they ruled. A year ago I drafted a list of the aging and sickly dictators of this world whose days were numbered for natural reasons. Political enemies often work to end a dictator’s tenure early. And a dead dictator can still seem to exert influence from beyond the grave; even they are mortal.

A list like this is useful because it helps set into sharp relief the parts of the world where political order might quickly become precarious. Analyzing such a list can help identify the “predictable surprises” I’ve written about elsewhere.

Here is a list of countries with authoritarian rulers who will be at least 70 years old next year. The list is ordered by who is toughest (with toughest at the top), and includes information about each ruler’s age and the year they took over:

  • Saudi Arabia: Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, age 88, in power since 2005
  • Oman: Qaboos Bin Said Al Said, age 73, in power since 1970
  • Cuba: Raúl Castro, age 81, in power since 2006
  • Iran: Ali Hoseini-Khamenei, age 73, in power since 1989
  • Kuwait: Jaber Al Hamad Al Sabah, age 83, in power since 2006
  • Laos: Choummaly Sayasone, age 76
  • Kazakhstan: Nursultan A. Nazarbayev, age 72, in power since 1990
  • Equatorial Guinea: Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, age 70, in power since 1979
  • Cameroon: Paul Biya, age 79, in power since 1982
  • Congo-Brazzaville: Denis Sassou Nguesso, age 69, in power 1979 to 1992 and since 1997
  • Fiji: Ratu Epeli Nailatikau, age 71
  • Angola: José Eduardo dos Santos, age 70, in power since 1979
  • Singapore: Tony Tan Keng Yam, age 72, in power since 2011
  • Uganda: Yoweri Kaguta Museveni, age 68, in power since 1986
  • Ivory Coast: Alassane Ouattara, age 70, in power since 2011
  • Zimbabwe: Robert Mugabe, age 88, in power since 1987

In some ways, this list is like last year’s. And there are still other countries to worry about. Venezuela’s Chavez insists he beat his cancer and a major political opponent in 2012, but there are questions about both claims. Algeria’s Bouteflika has enacted modest reforms, and his rule may not be as authoritarian as some of the other strongmen on this list, but he has been accused of using electoral fraud to keep the Islamists at bay; he is 76 and managing a precarious political system. In many of these countries, the average age of the population is lower than the number of years the dictator has been in power. This means that large cohorts of youth have little personal experience with competitive politics, but it also means that their leaders are generations out of touch. Through digital media, those large cohorts of youth are learning about what their peers experience in less authoritarian countries.

This list has changed a bit, and not just in the sense that these dictators are a year older. North Korea’s Kim Jong Il died shortly after the last version of the dead pool. The Arab Spring took life from Libya’s Gaddafi and employment from Yemen’s Saleh. Last year’s list inspired me to write about how these guys are all nodes in a “dirty network” that is inherently limited because a few losses in membership can have a big impact on the strength of the network. And being good at money laundering, propaganda, drug smuggling or trading slaves is not valued outside the dirty network. Last year’s list provoked the question of what might happen to the overall network of authoritarian elites if only a few nodes in the dirty network died off.

Looking at this year’s list, a new question comes to mind. If there is a succession crisis, which countries might have some influence in the evolving regime? Western governments, like the United States, might be able to exert some informal influence during a period of interregnum. But in succession crises, Western diplomats often go into high gear reporting on the succession battles for their home governments, and cannot openly pick favorites. If the U.S. had any favored candidates for succession in Cuba or Iran, making those favorites known would probably hurt the candidates.

Many countries have a big brother, friendly rival, geopolitical patron or culturally similar neighbor that exercises some domestic influence. For countries without practiced election systems or clear succession processes, or where local elites are tied up in international patronage networks, these neighbors and patrons can have more influence.

What is striking about this year’s list is that the West would have little or no influence on the succession process in these countries. This isn’t surprising, because most Western governments spend more time cultivating relationships on the basis of trade and political affinities. Given that they are dictatorships, many of the countries on this list do not have exclusive trade dependencies with the West or strong camaraderie with Western politicians. If anything, the growing trade relationships are with China, and the Heritage Foundation’s great interactive map reveals just how much China has invested in those relationships.

The death of any of these rulers would leave a power vacuum. Local elites would probably back the political leader most likely to provide both economic and political stability. For many of these countries, such stability comes through foreign direct investment, something that Chinese investors have been providing without ethical qualms.

Of the countries with political clout, which might be able to influence domestic elites when a dictator dies? Outsiders will probably have little or no influence over succession battles in countries like Iran, Oman, Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. Succession battles in Uganda, the Ivory Coast and Zimbabwe might well involve physical battles where elite alliances and public opinion are less relevant than what warlords and generals think. But which powerful countries’ opinions might carry some weight in which countries? Political elites in Cuba, Laos, Equatorial Guinea, Cameroon, Fiji and Angola might be interested in China’s opinions. Elites in Kazakhstan might be sensitive to Russian influence. Alas, only Singapore might be a country where countries like the United States might encourage a democratic transition through competitive elections.

There are lots of reasons why China invests in authoritarian regimes. And if any of the world’s toughest dictators passes away in 2013, we may be able to see how much China’s financial investments pay off in political influence.

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