What does it take for the child of a vicious dictator to be taken seriously in the West? The answer is often a lot less than one would think. Sprinkle a Chanel or Valentino suit, a nice place to live, and an active social life in with an impressive degree and a few nods to eventual reform, cultural diplomacy, or societal openness, and the children of even the world’s most horrific tyrants can find themselves welcomed into the West’s good graces.
Libya’s ouster of Moammar Gaddafi provides a recent example of the advantages held by dictator’s children — just as long as their parents can hang onto power.
Saif al-Islam Gaddafi spent much of his adult life in London, studying for a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics, managing (and allegedly looting) the vast oil wealth of his home country and living like a playboy. During his time in England Saif enjoyed the company and ear of some of England’s most prominent politicians and businesspeople, sometimes including the royal family.
As his father ran one of the world’s most eccentric and oppressive dictatorships, Saif courted the world, putting forth a pro-reform face and negotiating such high-level Libyan contacts with the West as compensation for the victims of the Lockerbie bombing and the abandonment of his father’s nuclear ambitions. Saif seemed to advocate for democracy, constantly denying “that he was seeking to inherit power from his father, saying the reins of power were ‘not a farm to inherit.’”
Saif’s pro-reform reputation would fade rapidly during the uprising of 2011. He would play a vitally important role in his father’s brutal crackdown on protesters and shelling of civilians. After intervention and decisive victories by the rebels, Saif would be captured in November and there is currently a diplomatic and legal tug-of-war playing out over whether he will be tried in Libya or at the International Criminal Court, which issued a warrant for his arrest in the midst of the brutal crackdown.
Saif may be under arrest now, but there are plenty of other children whose parents still essentially run private fiefdoms. While none have yet fully taken up Saif’s crown, several have consistently advertised their exploits, both in attempts to embrace the free world and to self-indulgently celebrate horrific activities using new technology and social media.
One of the frontrunners for Saif’s position is Gulnara Karimova. Gulnara is the daughter of Uzbekistan’s tyrannical strongman Islam Karimov and a woman who wears many hats. This includes time spent as an academic, philanthropist, Harvard student, pop singer, businesswoman, and diplomat. Despite all this, according to Natalia Antelava, a BBC journalist who has reported from Uzbekistan many times, Gulnara is no less feared in the country than her father.
Further, while her despotic father rarely makes public appearances and, when he does, they are carefully orchestrated, she manages to constantly stay in the public eye. This includes a constantly updated and often responsive Twitter account along with near-constant public appearances (my personal favorite is a press conference where she declared that she was “grateful to God that he gave me my height, my face, my features.”)
Gulnara’s charitable works, including the promotion of arts and charitable initiatives in the region, along with her looks, style, and Harvard degree, have the potential to endear her to the West much in the same way Saif once did during his time in London.
The current roster of dictator’s children with outsized personas, access to wealth, and social media accounts does not end in Uzbekistan. Another prominent dictator’s daughter is Leyla Aliyeva, the beautiful daughter of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. Leyla serves as editor-in-chief of a style magazine and pursues various environmental initiatives. She uses this magazine and other organizations and appearances as a form of cultural diplomacy, promoting Azerbaijan to the world. Surpassing Gulnara’s social media presence, Leyla has a personal Facebook page, a Twitter handle, and an Instagram account, all of which advertise her frequent appearances and present her stylized image to the world.
This is not to say that all children of dictators seek to use social media and cultural diplomacy to endear themselves to the West. Dino Bouterse, the son of Suriname’s longtime strongman Desi Bouterse, has recently established a Facebook page that shows him holding various weapons in various locales, occasionally menacingly pointing weapons at helpless Surinamers. In the “promising, but still too young” category we have Bashar al-Assad’s 11-year-old son, who in the wake of international debate on how to respond to Syrian chemical weapons use appeared to taunt the world to bomb his dad.
The history of such characters is long and often way too easy to write about. Many have been able to ingratiate themselves in the West through education, charitable acts, and an active social life. Others have chosen instead to merely gear up for their own eventual dictatorships. The window into such tendencies has been enhanced in recent years thanks to social media. Many of the children of the world’s worst tyrants have made homes on Twitter and Facebook, ensuring their extremely unique voices can be heard throughout the world.
The social-media presence of these individuals is vast and diverse. Sons and daughters of despots use such outlets to promote and cultivate an image or pursue lines of cultural diplomacy. They often use social media to endear themselves to the wider world. Some, however, are uninterested in pursuing such a false image and merely use the newfound platform as yet another avenue to show off their sociopathic tendencies. Either way, the rich history of the dictator’s child has been vastly improved by social media.