The ascendancy of Morocco's 35-year-old King Mohammed VI, who was enthroned within hours of his father's death Friday, is a striking reminder of how a new generation of Arab leaders is moving into positions of power at a critical juncture in the Middle East peace process.
While new Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak seeks to press ahead with his declared intention of achieving a comprehensive settlement within 15 months, he might find that his aims as well as his timetable could be affected by an actuarial revolution taking place across the Arab world.
As Mohammed and his close friend, Jordan's King Abdullah, 37, seek to consolidate powers inherited from their legendary fathers--who each played significant roles in the Middle East over four decades until their deaths this year--other important Arab leaders seem on the brink of leaving the world stage.
In Saudi Arabia, there is mounting speculation about who will emerge as the dominant force to replace the ailing King Fahd and his septuagenarian brothers. In Syria, Hafez Assad appears in frail health and possibly eager to cap his career by cutting a deal with Israel to reclaim the Golan Heights. Among the Palestinians, there is still no clear idea who will emerge as Yasser Arafat's successor, even though he, too, shows signs of deteriorating health.
Already, Western experts say there are signs that members of the young Arab elite are inclined to adopt a more pragmatic, business-oriented approach than their rigid, often ideologically stubborn parents. "They have grown up with money, technology and the presence of Israel as an accomplished fact. They seem less obsessed with shaping history than the old guard," said a Western diplomat.
Morocco's King Hassan II, who died Friday at age 70 after a heart attack, took his ancestral links to the prophet Muhammad very seriously. He saw himself as the protector of the Muslim presence in Jerusalem--a mandate that drew him into the Middle East peace process despite his country's physical distance from the Arab-Jewish struggle for control of the same land.
While it is far too early in Mohammed's reign to draw any conclusions, diplomats and officials who know father and son well say there are stark contrasts in their personalities.
While Hassan reveled in wielding power during his 38 years as a wily monarch who constantly kept his enemies off balance, Mohammed, who was known as Sidi Mohammed before he assuming the throne, has shown little desire or aptitude for the ruthless exercise of his inheritance as the highest religious, political and military commander in the land. He has told intimates that his role model is not his father but King Juan Carlos of Spain, who steered his country toward democracy while remaining above the political fray.
Since earning an international law degree in France, the unmarried Mohammed has displayed a keen interest in new technologies and clearly prefers the company of young entrepreneurs in Casablanca to the political courtiers at the Royal Palace. He also seems interested in nurturing closer ties with Europe rather than pursuing pan-Arab brotherhood: He wrote his university thesis on Morocco's links to the European Union and worked as an intern in the office of Jacques Delors, the former president of the EU's executive commission.
As Morocco embarked on 40 days of mourning over the passing of Hassan II, Mohammed has looked reasonably comfortable stepping into his father's shoes. After chairing a cabinet meeting and approving the agenda for dozens of world leaders, including President Clinton, who will attend Sunday's funeral, he left his father's palace to mingle among well-wishers who chanted, "Long live the king."
But the early signs of support for the untested monarch do not mask the difficult challenges he faces at home and abroad. While Morocco enjoys relative political stability, social tensions are smoldering because of a huge income disparity between rich and poor, an illiteracy rate that surpasses 50 percent and a demographic time bomb among young people under 30 years of age--who represent more than half of the nation's 29 million citizens and have been frustrated in their search for work.
"Mohammed's biggest assets are his youth and modesty," said Eric Rouleau, a former French ambassador and Middle East specialist. "Like Abdullah, he has been smart in surrounding himself with wise advisers. As leaders they may prove more supple than their fathers. And by working closely with the young generation, they may be able to defuse a lot of the social dynamite building up in their countries."