x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Revolutions and changing laws leave heirs unapparent

Nagging questions regarding succession planning are on citizens' minds from the Middle East to the nations of the British Commonwealth.

Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Illustration by Sarah Lazarovic for The National

Succession planning, a saying so beloved of highly paid management consultants the world over, might well be the catchphrase of the year, as the fresh breeze of the Arab Spring turns into the chastening wind of winter.

The notion of planning for succession has been lurking in the shadow of the uprisings ever since a single Tunisian fruit-seller successfully lit this region's revolutionary touchpaper.

Mohamed Bouazizi's actions swept a collective hope onto the streets in Egypt, Tunisia and, latterly, Libya, and engineered regime change in all three nations. In each case, that outcome was swiftly followed by the warm feeling of an objective achieved and the nagging question of what happens now?

Tunisia delivered its answer to that question last month with a disproportionately high turnout in its first democratic elections - at least by the measure of apathetic electorates in the western world - since the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Egypt will stage its own presidential elections in the early months of next year, a key signpost on its own road to renewal.

One suspects Libya will find it harder to fashion a post-Qaddafi existence. The National Transitional Council's stated aim was simply to "liberate the nation from the hands of a tyrant" and, with the civil conflict mercifully ended, the more difficult job of putting together a package of regeneration and rehabilitation will be fraught and enormously challenging, even with the benefit of the huge influx of cash Libya's vast oil reserves will certainly generate.

Last weekend, far outside the borders of the Arab world, the question of succession was also posed and dramatically answered in the context of the British monarchy, an institution that is usually most likely to stubbornly resist anything more than the slowest of marches towards change.

Instead, a meeting of the heads of state of the 16 Commonwealth sovereign nations, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, delivered an extraordinary shift in the rules regarding the line to the throne.

Chaired by David Cameron, the British prime minister, and hosted in Perth by Julia Gillard, the Australian premier, the meeting moved to end a ban on any future British king or queen marrying a Roman Catholic. Britain split from the Catholic Church during the reign of Henry VIII - history records Henry kicked up quite a fuss over this issue.

But the far bigger announcement was a change to the succession law, which in effect means that if Prince William and his wife Catherine were to have children, their firstborn would be next in line to the throne, regardless of whether that child was a boy or a girl.

The timing of this decision is as interesting as its substance. The British royal family is enjoying a moment of enormous popularity, fuelled by the recent wedding of William and Catherine, an event broadcast around the world, and cemented by the sense of an exceptional monarch existing somewhere in the autumn of her reign.

Queen Elizabeth II will celebrate her 60th year on the throne next year, and appears as sure-footed as ever.

In those six decades, she has presided over an island nation that fought its way out of the austerity of the immediate post-war period to the prosperity of modern times and now back to another era of austerity in the years after the most recent financial crash. Throughout, she has remained a steady and reliable constant. How remarkable, then, that the Queen's enduring legacy might be a throne thrown to secure a planned succession.