The Middle East Channel

Monarchism matters

The Arab Spring was hard on Arab presidents: most of the personalist presidential autocracies are now gone. But no Arab monarchs fell during the Arab Spring. Why did the monarchs fare so well? The strong correlation between monarchism and survival suggests, of course, that monarchism had something (or everything) to do with it. Some scholars, ...


The Arab Spring was hard on Arab presidents: most of the personalist presidential autocracies are now gone. But no Arab monarchs fell during the Arab Spring. Why did the monarchs fare so well? The strong correlation between monarchism and survival suggests, of course, that monarchism had something (or everything) to do with it. Some scholars, however, have argued the success of the monarchs does not have much to do with their monarchism, but can be traced to other factors, especially oil and foreign support. These factors are not irrelevant, but monarchism still mattered, and for two reasons. The monarchs benefited, first, from their ability to promise reform and, second, from the sense amongst their citizens that, while not ideal, monarchical rule was better than the republican alternatives. These factors, however, are not permanent, and the ability of the monarchs to weather the recent storms does not mean that they will fare as well the next time unrest sweeps the Arab world.

Critics of the importance of monarchism during the Arab Spring have one thing very right: Arab culture is not the explanation. The profile of those who led the demonstrations that brought down the Arab presidents in 2011 — young, urban, and possessing some measure of education — in past decades was the profile of the groups most hostile to monarchs. When the Arab new middle class gained control of an army in the 1950s or 1960s, the end was near for the monarch. And the example of neighboring Iran in 1979 suggests that a nation as a whole can turn against its monarch, expelling him in a fit of revulsion that cuts across classes and political inclinations. It may be that monarchs start one step ahead of presidents because they can wrap themselves in tradition more easily (especially when passing power to their sons) but there is no good reason to suppose that Arab monarchs enjoy some sort of permanent lease on the affections of their people.

Neither, however, is oil a guarantee of monarchical survival. The monarchs, it is true, handed out many billions during the Arab Spring in the hope of keeping their people off the streets. If the monarchs did not think all this spending did them some good, or at least was an insurance policy of sorts, they would not have done it. But it is hard to attribute the monarchs’ good fortune only to oil. Libya has oil wealth, and Qaddafi nonetheless faced a widespread rebellion. The oil deprived kings of Morocco and Jordan still rule their kingdoms. It is hard to argue that oil made a difference because it strengthened the repressive capacity of the state: the Syrian state also has a great deal of repressive capacity, and that did not stop Syrians from trying to overthrow their regime. Instead, the spending in the spring of 2011 suggests that the monarchs hoped to buy off their citizens. But this implies a theory of motivation among the citizens of the monarchies which is neither flattering nor entirely plausible. Are Saudis really so easily bought so that some additional spending on housing and salaries will keep them off the streets, despite the many faults of their rulers? What made the demonstrations in the republics different from those in the monarchies was that demonstrators hated their presidents but retained some measure of respect for their kings (though not always for their policies, or their courtiers). That respect, or lingering tolerance, was not purchased. Instead the monarchs benefited from the general sense among the Arab public that the monarchs were not so bad as the presidents.

Bahrain, the monarchy that suffered the most serious protests, illustrates the point. It is the monarchy in which the ruling family enjoys the least support amongst its people — or, to be precise, amongst the Shiite majority of the Bahraini citizenry. Most ruling families attempt to balance among the various identity groups within their societies, or at least the larger ones. Bahrain’s Al Khalifa instead have built a regime on the basis of the repression of the Shiites. And so the Shiites rose up in the spring of 2011. Given the family nature of the regime, and its powerful foreign friends, there never was much prospect that the Al Khalifa would lose power altogether. But it was not surprising that Bahrain was the monarchy with the strongest protests.

The rest of the monarchs possessed two key advantages over the presidents in the spring of 2011. First, they profited from comparisons between their rule and that of the presidents. A list of countries in the region once ruled by monarchs is enough to make the point: Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Libya, and Yemen. The rapid diffusion of revolution in 2011 made very clear that Arab publics do make comparisons with other Arab regimes. And this comparison in particular gave rise to a zeitgeist in the Arab world before the Arab Spring in which monarchism enjoyed some measure of tolerance as a regime type that produced better results (or at least less-bad results) than the available alternatives.

A second factor also helped the monarchs: they could make credible promises to implement political reforms. The king of Morocco treated the Arab Spring like a five alarm fire — and in his first speech, he promised a slew of reforms to steal away the momentum from the protesters on the streets of Morocco’s cities. It worked, in part because his promises were at least somewhat plausible. Compare his strategy to the plight of the Mubarak regime: the elder Mubarak wanted to install his son Gamal as president. To do so, a series of elections needed to be won, and to win these elections the regime became increasingly authoritarian in its last years. A continuation of the Mubarak dynasty in Egypt promised nothing more than more of the same authoritarianism. The king of Morocco could promise reform and hint at constitutional monarchy. He could promise to remove his courtiers, and appoint the winner of the next election to be the prime minister. And, one might plausibly hope, maybe later he could go farther and give the prime minister some of the crucial powers reserved for the palace today.

The problem for monarchs going forward, in the wake of the Arab Spring, is that these two factors are not at all permanent. The zeitgeist, by its nature, can change – and it will change if the new republican regimes succeed. Qaddafi made the worst of the Arab monarchs look good. The new regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and — who knows, maybe Libya — might make the monarchs look like despots. Second, the monarchs have promised a great deal of constitutional change, and have delivered very little (with the partial exception of Kuwait). The next time around, promises will not likely be enough: real signs of change will need to be clear. Absent that, the monarchs might wind up going down the road of Bahrain’s ruling family, ruling over an embittered population that no longer believes promises of reform. That would not necessarily doom the monarchs, especially the family businesses of the Gulf. But it would send them down a dead end of discord and repression.

Michael Herb is an associate professor of political science and director of the Middle East Institute at Georgia State University. This piece is a contribution to a three part MEC symposium on the resilience of Arab monarchy.

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