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Vermont Quarterly

Behind monarchies' quiet Arab Spring

Protest in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt
While Arab republics erupted in revolution, monarchies remained intact. Professor Gregory Gause examines why. AP/Khalil Hamra


Behind monarchies’
quiet Arab Spring

Two years after the revolutionary start of the Arab Spring, a key question remains regarding the wave of uprisings and regime takeovers in the Middle East: why did so many Arab republics like Tunisia and Libya fall while every Arab monarchy remained intact?

The popular media-driven theory purports that because monarchs enjoy traditional religious and tribal legitimacy, their citizens feel an intense loyalty, and they also maintain power through controlled reforms that defuse public discontent. Many academics agree and consider it the primary reason why royals from the eight Arab monarchies—Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the Persian Gulf littoral states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates—remain in absolute power.

Gregory Gause, professor of political science and Middle East expert, isn’t one of them. He questions the focus on monarchies by those examining why countries with kings fared better than those with presidents. “It’s kind of an obvious question and the simple answer has been, ‘Well, it must be something about monarchies.’ It’s the kind of one-step removed, news analysis accounts that have been developing in the Middle East. I don’t mean it in a derogatory way, but I think it was kind of an easy answer. Such explanations do not hold up under scrutiny. That’s what I wanted to push back.”
Gause’s self-described “counterpunch” came in the form of an article he co-authored with Sean L. Yom, assistant professor of political science at Temple University, in last October’s issue of the Journal of Democracy, a publication produced by the National Endowment for Democracy. In “Resilient Royals: How Arab Monarchies Hang On,” Gause predicts the prospects for popular revolution in Arab kingdoms will remain slim as long as their leaders continue to maintain the following advantages: broad-based coalitions; access to hydrocarbon rents; and support from foreign patrons.

“Ruling monarchism flourishes in the Arab world, but the reasons for this do not stem from any mysterious essence of kingship,” writes Gause. “They stem, rather, from historical choices and physical resources amenable to matter-of-fact analysis. To be sure, culture and institutions are central forces in the politics of any state. Yet they do not constitute convincing explanations for the resilience of royalism in the Arab world.”

Another reason revolt may not come as intensely in some monarchies, according to Gause, is because even though people living in the Middle East may not necessarily believe in them philosophically, they might prefer them to republics, where life doesn’t always look so good.

“If you are a Jordanian or a Saudi and you look around at Iraq, Egypt, and Syria you might say, ‘Hey, we’ve got it a lot better than those guys do,’” he says.

“And that might not have anything to do with a profound belief that monarchy is culturally consistent with your world view or the way you live your life. It could just be a very practical thing like, ‘Places with presidents seem to screw up while places with kings seem to be better off.’ One of things we should have learned from the Arab Spring is that just because people didn’t rebel doesn’t necessarily mean that the regime is popular. All these regimes that fell were pretty quiet, stable regimes—and then all of a sudden they weren’t.”

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