The Middle East Channel

Why reform in the Gulf monarchies is a family feud

Why reform in the Gulf monarchies is a family feud

Kuwait and Bahrain have had two different experiences during the winter of Arab discontent. Manama has witnessed the violent suppression of popular protests, followed by the largest mass demonstrations in the state’s history. The standoff between the al-Khalifa regime and the protesters continues. Kuwait has had its own issues, with a much less violent confrontation between political activists and security forces in late 2010, before the events in Tunisia got rolling, and more recent protests by stateless residents (biduns) seeking political and economic equality. But the largest public gathering of Kuwaitis during this period was in late February, when young and old took to the streets to celebrate 50 years of Kuwaiti independence under al-Sabah rule and the 20th anniversary of their liberation from Iraq in 1991. Despite these differences, these two small states — which combine a ruling family with an elected parliament — demonstrate how difficult political reform will be in the Persian Gulf monarchies.

The Gulf states are ruled by what Michael Herb, in his 1999 book All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in Middle Eastern Monarchies, dubbed "dynastic monarchies." Unlike monarchies in Jordan and Morocco, where the king rules but leaves the day-to-day operations of government to commoner prime ministers and cabinets, in the Gulf states (with the partial exception of Oman) whole families rule. The king or emir (prince) sits atop the pyramid, but ruling family members also fill many other important political positions, in the cabinet, the military, and other government agencies.

Before the unrest began in Bahrain, the prime minister, three of the four deputy prime ministers, and 10 of the 23 cabinet ministers were from the al-Khalifa family. They included the ministers of finance, foreign affairs, interior, defense, justice and Islamic affairs, and housing. Two of the al-Khalifa ministers were fired by the king in late February, but that hardly means an end to family rule in Bahrain. In Kuwait, the prime minister, the first deputy prime minister, two of the three deputy prime ministers, and eight of the 21 ministers are from the al-Sabah family. They include the ministers of defense, interior, foreign affairs, oil, and housing. The governor of the Kuwaiti Central Bank is also an al-Sabah. Similar proportions of ruling family members can be found in the cabinets of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the UAE. The Sultan of Oman himself holds the portfolios of prime minister, minister of defense, minister of foreign affairs, minister of finance, and governor of the central bank — fewer family members in the government but no less of a hold on power by the al-Said family. Government in the Gulf is a family affair.

The dynastic nature of the Gulf monarchies helped them survive the last period of political upheaval in the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s. They were not "one bullet" regimes. The families had a range of talent upon which to draw to run the state. Their wide presence in society provided a built-in intelligence service, keeping the families close to those they ruled. They knew what was going on and thus did not get too far ahead of, or fall too far behind, their subjects. Many heads were better for monarchical survival than the single heads of monarchs in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen that were lopped off, either figuratively or literally, in the Arab revolts of that earlier age.

While family rule served the cause of regime stability for the past 40 years, the nature of the current demands raised by political activists in Bahrain and Kuwait are turning the dynastic nature of these regimes into a stumbling block on the road to reform, if not into a potential liability for the rulers themselves. Those Bahraini protesters who are not demanding the replacement of the entire regime are, at a minimum, calling for a government that will be responsible to parliament. In Kuwait, the immediate situation is not as dire for the al-Sabah. However, the recent history of tension and stalemate between the government and the parliament contains a similar logic. Prime Minister Sheikh Nasir Muhammad al-Sabah has presided over six governments and three elections in the last five years and just barely survived a no-confidence vote in January. Kuwaiti opposition groups are now calling not only for a new prime minister, but also for constitutional changes that will require the government (now appointed directly by the emir) to receive a vote of confidence from parliament before it can take up office. Reform petitions in Saudi Arabia are calling for the separation of the offices of king and prime minister (which have been jointly held since 1964) and an elected rather than appointed legislative body with the power to remove ministers through confidence votes.

It is highly unlikely that cabinets responsible to elected parliaments will comprise as many members of the ruling families as is the case now. So while Gulf kings and emirs can keep their jobs in political deals that make concessions to protesting citizens, becoming more like their friends in Jordan and Morocco, their relatives will very likely lose theirs. Since the first constituency of any dynastic monarch is his own family, proposing political reforms that would vastly decrease family power is likely to excite opposition not just to the reforms, but possibly to the ruler himself. It would take a strong figure to bring his family to heel and accept such a reduced political role. Both the al-Sabah and the al-Khalifa contain plenty of divisions and factions that could be mobilized against the rulers, and neither King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa nor Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah has the reputation as uncontested leader of his extended family. Should either respond to opposition demands and propose constitutional changes that make their governments more responsible to parliament, political reform in the Gulf states could very well become a family feud.

F. Gregory Gause III is a professor of political science at the University of Vermont and author of The International Relations of the Persian Gulf