Arab Spring Analysis: Why Kings Fared Better Than Presidents
- By Jon Reidel
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 believe monarchs have an advantage over republics because they can spearhead 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 and questions the focus on monarchies by those trying to come up with an answer to 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’ 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 the October 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 to 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.”
Permissive international environment linked to successful monarchies
Gause provides a strategic explanation for monarchical exceptionalism linking the historical legacy of domestic choices with a permissive international environment.
“First, many of these royal houses have historically mobilized cross-cutting coalitions of popular support, coalitions that have helped to forestall mass opposition and to bolster the ruling family against whatever opposition has emerged,” claims Gause. “Second, most have also reaped ample rents from oil or foreign aid, allowing them to pay for welfare and development programs meant to alleviate public discord. Finally, when all else fails, these kingdoms have enjoyed the backing of foreign patrons who assist them through diplomatic assurances, economic grants, and military interventions. For a long time, the United States played this role.”
Gause gives historical examples of inherent qualities of Arab monarchism that are “hardly safeguards against deposition.” In the postcolonial era, for example, monarchies were overthrown in Egypt (1952), Tunisia (1957), Iraq (1958), North Yemen (1962), South Arabia (1967) and Libya (1969). If Muslim (albeit non-Arab) countries are included in Southwest Asia, then Afghanistan (1973) and Iran (1979) join the list. “If royal authoritarianism has intrinsic cultural legitimacy, how could so many Arab kings have lost their thrones? If kings by nature wisely handle opposition with visionary reforms through institutional manipulation, then why did so many fail to do so?”
Another reasons 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.”