Survival of the Fortunate? The Enduring Arab Monarchies

Not a single ruling monarchy fell during the 2011 Arab Awakening. Qatar and the UAE faced minimal opposition. Tensions in Oman and Saudi Arabia were remote. The Kings of Jordan and Morocco sat back to witness popular reform movements mobilise, only to then fade away. Only Kuwait and Bahrain experienced noteworthy violence. Yet, whilst Kuwait’s unrest reflects a tradition that predates the patterns of the Arab Awakening, Bahrain’s troubles – this time witnessed on a scale unseen before – were quashed through military support provided by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). But what was it that kept these Arab monarchies afloat whilst several of the region’s republics appeared to sink under the tides of change?

Perhaps the very nature of absolute royalism reverberates with the religious and tribal values of Arab culture. This seemingly natural legitimacy can be manipulated by a monarch to aid and abet survival. Michael Hudson notes that a “perfectly legitimised” kingship “would be an Islamic theocracy governed by the ablest leaders of a tribe tracing its lineage to the prophet.” The Saudi monarchy frequently reproduces this ‘legitimacy narrative’ by emphasising their strong historical ties to the Wahhabis since 1744; by advancing reciprocal endorsement of the Saudi ulama; and by painting themselves as traditionally strong, and natural protectors of Islam and its most holy sites. Similarly in Jordan, the Hashim clan traces its lineage to the Prophet Muhammad and frequently cites Sharif Hussein (Abdullah’s father) as a champion of Arab nationalism.

Image courtesy of JP Photography, ©2012, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of JP Photography, ©2012, some
rights reserved.

Yet, aside from ethnocentrism, this approach seems flawed, and a legitimacy derived only from cultural reference is dubious at best. Legitimacy isn’t simply a default term used to denote a surviving regime. A monarch may of course prevail without popular acceptance, but also without a toppling popular revolution.  Besides, Arab Monarchies have hardly been devoid of popular unrest historically. During the 1960s and 1970s, the crowns of Jordan, Morocco, and Oman were all subject to widespread violence. Further afield, the revolutionary tales of monarchical downfall in Egypt (1952), Tunisia (1957), Iraq (1958), North Yemen (1962), and Libya (1969) all undermine any notion of de facto royal legitimacy.  Although citing legitimacy may enhance the monarchical image in times of public concord, it signifies very little as a tool for survival, both in preventing and subduing rebellion.

It may appear that kings have the unique capacity to halt public anger by imposing liberalizing reforms, or by engaging with public demands. Yet, possessing the capability to mollify opposition groups doesn’t necessarily translate into genuine reform. Firstly, the monarch may not even possess the desire to alter the system through fear of losing power. This standing is not solely limited to the monarch himself. Because ‘dynasticism’ sees Royal families unite and cartelise national assets, the king may be strongly obliged to satisfy the interests of powerful relatives too. With more than one vested interest to maintain the status quo, real change becomes harder to achieve.  Secondly, if desirability for change was extant, the centralisation of power required to promote reform makes it incredibly difficult for regimes to broaden its power base and assimilate the new groups that come about due to modernisation. These two conditions prompt monarchs to either decelerate modernisation, or to become the chief moderniser themselves – what is referred to as the ‘King’s Dilemma’ – ultimately preventing real structural alteration which may serve to starve off rebellion.

But despite this first impression of intrinsic origin, reasons behind the endurance of Arab monarchies are more exogenous. Indeed, a glut of hydrocarbon wealth accompanied by external support has allowed various Arab crowns to play public discontent down to sufficient levels. Since 2011, Gulf kingdoms have thrown billions towards civic programs intending to placate discontent. The number of universities in Arab Gulf states, for example, mushroomed from one in 1950, to 28 in the 1980s, and 120 in 2012. The logic is simple enough: rebellion seems distasteful to the well-fed citizen with a well-paying job. The monarchies are only able to achieve this as ‘rentier states’, in which external rent dominates the distribution of the ruler’s national income. With oil representing around 80 percent of Saudi Arabia’s state revenues, it would be hard to imagine a plethora of civic programs had the state been less fortunate in its endowment of natural resources.

Still, some could point to the Libyan case: certainly the state’s 46.6 billion barrels of oil in 2010 did little to stop Qaddafi’s demise. Likewise, the oil-rich kingship of Iraq could not withstand the challenge postured by the ‘Free Officers’ in 1958. Yet both these examples serve to illustrate that oil revenues must be expended prudently. Little survival benefit can be found in the accumulation of a hydrocarbon fortune only for the monarch’s enjoyment. This wealth must provide the means to soothe areas of potential opposition; otherwise nothing separates tyrannical oil-rich monarchies from the authoritarian oil-deficient republics. Irrespective of regime type and oil wealth then, a record of ferocious repression will only set a ruler on a path to demise. Jordan’s Islamists help illustrate a regional trend: although they reproved their ruler, few spoke of replacing him. Peter Mansfield notes that this was quite simply because “their monarchs were more tolerant than the republics and slower to kill.

Jordan and Morocco show that not all Arab monarchies possess vast material resources. Importantly though, they are still rentier economies that benefit from oil wealth through regional aid ties, as well as from remittances and foreign aid. In 2011, the four most affluent Arab Monarchs offered a joint $5 billion to Jordan and Morocco in return for their membership of the GCC, an organisation which was increasingly characterized as a monarchical union. Similarly, a $20 billion Gulf fund was raised to aid more modest Bahrain and Oman. Abetted by an injection of Saudi cash, Jordan actually reduced its budget deficit amidst the Arab Awakening – this subsidy came on top of the $762 million that the US has continually provided since 2003.

Oil also serves to enhance the geopolitical locale, which includes other dynamics propitious to monarchical survival. The region’s geopolitics lures in foreign interest, which in turn bolsters the royal status quo.  The Gulf States’ territory, for example, seems an ideal base for US operations aiming to monitor Iraq and contain Iran. Jordan’s continued stability is also of great strategic importance as it neighbours Israel, Syria and Iraq, and France is unlikely to warrant change in Morocco’s kingdom through fear of losing more regional sway. Because the Arab monarchies are willing to facilitate the regional agendas of foreign powers, external deed has shown little willingness to change the existing state of affairs, and an international ‘blind-eye’ is frequently turned towards monarchical repression of domestic opposition.

External actors can also protect monarchical rule through coercive action. Despite seeing proportionally greater numbers mobilise in 2011 than Tunisia and Egypt, the Khalifah monarchy in Bahrain was primarily maintained because GCC troops helped quash the protests. Saudi Arabia led the charge, fearing the collapse of an allied and neighbouring Sunni monarchy at the hands of predominantly Shiite protestors. Meanwhile, King Hamad used modest oil revenues to entrench support amongst Sunni groups. Bahrain exemplifies that oil and foreign support enabled the al-Khalifahs to endure, not some ‘royal legitimacy’ or institutional reform.

Overall it seems that geological fortune, geographical providence, and external strategic attention has prolonged the survival of Arab monarchies; the monarchical structure itself bears little survival significance. Remove oil from Saudi Arabia, take the GCC away from Bahrain, and rob Jordan and Morocco of western support – and the potential for monarchical downfall seems rather more plausible.

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