The Survival of the Arab Monarchies

Foreign Policy 

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.

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