The Middle East Channel

The survival of the Arab monarchies

Why does monarchy march on while republican dictatorships precariously wobble in the Arab world? The undertow of the Arab Spring reveals how unevenly revolutionary unrest spread throughout the region. While popular uprisings rocked the autocratic republics, not a single ruling monarchy fell. Opposition stood quiet in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while Oman ...


Why does monarchy march on while republican dictatorships precariously wobble in the Arab world? The undertow of the Arab Spring reveals how unevenly revolutionary unrest spread throughout the region. While popular uprisings rocked the autocratic republics, not a single ruling monarchy fell. Opposition stood quiet in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), while Oman and Saudi Arabia saw only isolated agitation. Popular reform movements mobilized in Jordan and Morocco, but they fizzled out. Ongoing protests in Kuwait reflect a longstanding tradition of civic activism and political contestation that far predates the Arab Spring. Only Bahrain experienced new large-scale unrest, but military intervention by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ended the troubles.

While many observers point to cultural reasons and institutional machinations as the answers, in reality two hard strategic factors best explain the resilience of royalism: oil and geopolitics.

The most popular explanation is that absolute monarchism resonates with the religious and tribal values of Arab culture, and that therefore enjoys legitimacy. Ethnocentrism aside, this is a circular argument. The absence of revolution cannot mean legitimacy, for by that definition all regimes are legitimate until the day they collapse. If legitimacy means the lack of popular revolt, then many monarchies already fail this litmus test — either now, as in Bahrain’s recent failed uprising, or in the past, as the kingships of Morocco, Jordan, and Oman all suffered violent conflicts in the 1960s or 1970s. Indeed, history is the harshest critic of all. No royal legitimacy safeguarded the monarchies of Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, North Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan, and Iran from their ignominious overthrow in the latter half of the twentieth century, with some (as in Iran and Iraq) suffering at the hands violent revolutionaries who were all but loyal and submissive.

If not some exotic cultural essence, what about institutional wizardry? Some scholars believe that kings have the unique capacity to halt public anger by imposing liberalizing reforms and engaging public demands. Yet having the institutional means to pacify opposition does not guarantee the desire to do so. Morocco and Jordan responded to popular mobilization with constitutional reform, but youth activists fared worse in the Gulf kingdoms, whose regimes embrace repression over compromise. Another argument concerns the institutional practice of dynasticism: royal families can stick together and monopolize state resources, thereby ensuring a united front. However, the same unity can also make kings and emirs beholden to powerful hardline relatives, who fear losing status and wealth if reforms become too bold. In recent years, the kings of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Kuwait have all learned this hard lesson.

Culture and institutions falter because they suggest that something inherent within absolute monarchism explains their survival. In reality, the Arab kingdoms have weathered the revolutionary storm for exogenous reasons — they happen to float in a sea of hydrocarbon and geopolitical riches, which have allowed them to capture sufficient domestic support and vital international assistance.

Those who doubt the importance of oil wealth in preventing national unrest during the Arab Spring should ask one question: if presidents like Hosni Mubarak or Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali discovered $100 billion in hydrocarbon riches when besieged by the underserved middle-class, would they have exited office so hastily? Since 2011, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf kingdoms — and for that matter, non-monarchical Algeria — have spent hundreds of billions of dollars for programs ranging from cash grants and salary increases to developmental projects and job creation. The logic is simple: well-fed citizens with well-paying jobs do not revolt. Those that do can be effectively branded by regime spinsters as radicals and terrorists.

Some doubters may point to Libya, where Muammar al-Qaddafi lost power despite sitting atop large oil fields. To be sure, leaders must only have these resources, but also expend them wisely by pacifying sectors of potential opposition and mobilizing public support. For this task of coalition-building, monarchies wield no intrinsic advantage. After all, oil-rich kingships in Iraq (1958) and Iran (1979) suffered deposal by committing the same violent repression and corrupt personalism as did the Arab Spring’s republican victims. No single regime type has a monopoly on brutality.

Of course, not all Arab monarchies swim in material affluence. Bahrain is fast depleting its oil and gas reserves, and Jordan and Morocco have no hydrocarbon wellsprings at all, resulting in chronic fiscal difficulty. Yet oil wealth has long circulated across Arab borders through aid ties. Months into 2011, wealthy Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE offered a $5 billion jackpot to Morocco and Jordan should they join the GCC, and pledged a $20 billion Gulf fund to aid more modest Bahrain and Oman. These aid packages, much like past assistance from Arab oil donors, mostly comprise fungible grants rather than conditional loans, and so can be spent by recipients just like domestic revenue. For instance, in late 2011 Jordan reduced a multi-billion dollar budget deficit driven by price subsidies, job promises, and security spending with an infusion of Saudi cash alongside its regular foreign aid haul from the United States.

In addition to the oil factor, many Arab monarchies enjoy staunch backing by foreign powers given their geopolitical locale. The United States had no bases in Libya before it intervened, but the Fifth Fleet anchors in Bahrain, whose unending suppression of the opposition still registers negligent protest by Washington. The same relationship holds for the other Gulf states, on whose territory U.S. military and intelligence assets need to operate if they are to monitor Iraq and contain Iran. Likewise, the recent deployment of U.S. troops to Jordan reflects the strategic value of keeping the Hashemite Kingdom stable, as it abuts Israel and borders Syria and Iraq, while France is in little rush to even gently prod Morocco toward democratization after losing its Tunisian client regime.

For autocratic rulers, external assistance such as this lowers the cost of repression by reducing the prospects of international backlash. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, whose fallen autocrats received mixed Western signals until the end, those Arab leaders residing in the monarchical states have harvested unambiguous support from every global power. Certainly, some dictatorships can continue to plow through opposition even in the face of international resistance, but continuous foreign patronage makes it all the more cheap.

As a last resort, external actors can protect embattled regimes through coercive means, which the Bahraini case exemplifies. The Arab Spring featured two military interventions, but whereas NATO operations helped destroy the Qaddafi regime in Libya, GCC troops with Western complicity did the reverse in Bahrain. Their physical presence enabled the Khalifah monarchy to regain domestic control and liquidate its opposition movement, and ensured the Saudi state that its neighboring island kingdom would remain under rule by an allied Sunni family. To be sure, the fallen Arab republics had also reaped various kinds of Western coercive assistance, as in the $1 billion-plus U.S. arms and training package that Mubarak earned annually. Yet handing over obsolete fighter jets and outdated radar systems is very different than putting foreign boots on the ground: autocrats cannot deploy heavy military weaponry in tight urban spaces without destroying entire city blocks, as the Syrian civil war has shown.

The Bahraini example is telling in another way. In late February 2011, over 100,000 citizens (nearly 20 percent of the country’s population) marched against the regime. In proportional terms, this was far greater than the relative handful who mobilized in Tunisia and Egypt. Had Bahrain actually experienced revolution, arguments about the so-called exceptionalism of Arab monarchy would no longer be as vocal. However, the Khalifah dynasty emerged unscathed not because of royal legitimacy or institutional manipulation, but because it used its modest hydrocarbon revenue to deepen support among Sunni groups while exploiting ironclad GCC guarantees of protection to squash the largely Shiite opposition. These external factors can benefit non-monarchical states, and indeed they did. Algeria’s oil and gas wealth proved instrumental in providing well-timed public benefits during the Arab Spring, much like Yemen’s presidential transition was hastened by Saudi intervention.

In short, the Arab monarchies are exceptional, but not because they are monarchies. They are beneficiaries of geological fortune, geographic providence, and strategic attention by outside powers. Remove these factors — rob Saudi Arabia of its oil wealth, deprive Jordan of its Western support, denude Bahrain of GCC intervention, remove France from the Moroccan equation — and the possibility of monarchical downfall is no longer as far-fetched. Inversely, all this being equal, it is difficult to imagine that Egyptian or Tunisian activists would have delayed their dreams of dignity at the command of a King Mubarak or Emir Ben Ali.

Sean L. Yom is an assistant professor of political science at Temple University.

This piece is a contribution to a three part MEC symposium on the resilience of Arab monarchy.

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