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June 1, 2012

The Resilience of Arab Monarchy

How hereditary rulers should respond to popular pressure

Revolutions are not mechanical processes of social engineering. They unfold as an intrinsically unpredictable flow of events. Structurally, revolutions will go through phases, often through contradictory periods. Hardly any revolution will evolve without turbulences and phases of consolidation. And revolutions do not happen without moments of stagnation, surprising advancement, and unexpected transformation. The beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011 has not been of a different nature. It started as a fundamental surprise to most, took different turns in different countries, and was far from over by the end of 2011. Transatlantic partners are fully aware of the stark differences among Arab countries. They realize the genuine nature of each nation’s struggle for democracy. Yet, they are inclined to take the Western experience with democracy as the key benchmark for judging current progress in the Arab world. The constitutional promise of the U.S. or the success of the peaceful revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989 and 1990 are inspiring, but one must be cautious in applying them to the Arab Spring. Preconditions have to be taken into account. Beside, the history of Europe’s 19th and 20th century also suggest room for failure in the process of moving toward rule of law and participatory democracy. Some cynics have already suggested that the Arab Spring could be followed by an Arab autumn or even winter.

Even if one discards such visions as inappropriate self-fulfilling prophecy, certain European experiences should probably not be forgotten: In the 1830s, Germany experienced its own Spring toward pluralism and democracy called Vormärz. That German spring movement (Sturm und Drang) was essentially a cultural uprising without the follow-up of transformational political change. In 1848, across Europe, revolutionary upheavals promoted the hope for an early parliamentary constitutionalism across the continent. In most places, this hope was soon to be replaced by variants of a restrictive consolidation of the ancient regimes. In 1989, the experience of Romania deviated strongly from most of the peaceful revolutions across Europe. Ousting and even killing the former dictator was a camouflage for the old regime to prevail for almost another decade. While the rest of Central and South Eastern Europe struggled with regime change and renewal, Romania prolonged regime atrophy and resistance to renewal.

For the time, the Arab Spring has evolved into the prelude of revolutionary transformation that will go on for many years.

For the time being, the Arab Spring has evolved into the prelude of a revolutionary transformation that will go on, most likely for many more years to come. The Prague Spring of 1968, in the former Czechoslovakia, comes to mind: It was welcomed with euphoria in the West and in secrecy by many citizens under communist rule in the east of Europe. Yet, it turned out to be just the beginning of a transformative period in the communist world. It took another two decades before a substantial change of the political order in most communist states came about. The Prague Spring was the spring of a generation, not the spring of a year.

No matter what direction the Arab Spring may take in the years ahead, two trends are startling: First, the Arab Spring has initiated a wide range of different reactions and trends around the Arab world. The homogenous Arab world is a myth. Likewise, the notion that Arab societies are permanently stagnant and immobile is a myth. The quest for dignity, voice, and inclusion under rule of law, and a true structure of social pluralism, has been the signature of peaceful protest all over the Arab world. The reactions of incumbent regimes have demonstrated a variety of strategies but also different levels of strength, legitimacy, and criminal energy. Second, and more surprising, is the relative resilience of the Arab monarchies to the Arab Spring: Morocco and Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar and Bahrain have been reasonably unaffected and remain stable (in spite of the temporary clashes in Bahrain and their oppression with the help of Saudi Arabia’s army). While the quest for dignity, voice, and inclusion has posed a challenge to all regimes in the Arab world, Arab monarchies emerged relatively undisturbed from the first wave of popular unrest and protest.

This contrasts with the protest against personal rule in most Arab republics: the flight of a corrupt president whose security apparatus was no longer predictable (Tunisia); the arrest of a deposed president who seemed to be in fullest command of his nation’s security apparatus but could not maintain support of his army (Egypt); the eventual deposition of a ruler who was torn between security factions and split traditional loyalties (Yemen); the criminal attack on its own people by the security forces loyal to a beleaguered president (Syria); the oppression of all potential unrest by an old regime still clutching to absolute power (Algeria); and the military defeat of a dictator after he had launched a war against his own people (Libya) were variations of a complex theme across Arab republics in 2011. Lebanon has been a special case for years, with its own transformational revolution (the Cedar Revolution) going on since 2005. Iraq and Sudan have also been of a unique character due to their specific domestic and geopolitical position in the past decade.

How is it that hereditary monarchies seem to be less affected by the Arab protests than other forms of government?

How can one explain the almost paradoxical phenomenon that hereditary monarchies — at least for the time being — seem to be less affected by the protest against personal rule and patrimonial authoritarianism that has resonated across the Arab world? One initial observation is undeniable: Saudi Arabia is particularly interested in supporting Arab monarchies. In fact, Saudi Arabia may even be interested in preventing too-far-reaching democratization in Arab republics. But the vested interests of the Saudi family and its financial leverage alone do not explain why Arab monarchies tend to be more resilient to the current wave of protest heard all over the Arab world. One has to go beyond the obvious and look for structural explanations. Most evident — and well beyond the Arab world — is the fact that power based on traditional legitimacy continues to play a stabilizing role in the transformation of societies and their political systems. Usually, republican, authoritarian, personal rule built on a political ideology (e.g., independence, socialism, nationalism, development) can only be maintained through a security apparatus and the pressure this apparatus can exert on a rising popular demand for change. In contrast, traditional hereditary rule seems to be able to maintain power with more respect, possibly even with acquired legitimacy, and with less need for the exercise of violence against citizens.

The most interesting question stemming from this observation is: Do we know what it may take for monarchies to be successful over time? It is not enough to simply recall the religious roots of Arab monarchical legitimacy, especially the case in Saudi-Arabia and in Morocco. No matter their religious or moral-based authority, the historical record of monarchies confronted with the pressure for change is mixed. Reference to traditional religious sources of legitimacy has not, in the past, been enough for some monarchies to survive the winds of change with which their societies were confronted. While going beyond this perspective, several insights into the nature of hereditary systems have stood the test of societal change. They are pertinent and may be a useful mirror to keep in mind as the future path of hereditary rule in the Arab world unfolds.

The historical fate of hereditary rule

The historical record of hereditary rule when confronted with the challenges of social, political, or economic transformation, or even revolution, has not been very impressive. From the 17th century (Great Britain) to the 19th century (France, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Mexico) and to 20th century (Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, China, Greece, Cambodia, Persia, Nepal, Egypt, Libya, Iraq), more monarchies were toppled than rebuilt whenever their societies were fundamentally transformed. The current European hereditary monarchies (United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Luxemburg, Monaco, Liechtenstein) as well as non-European monarchies (Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, Bhutan, Cambodia, Tonga, Lesotho, Swaziland plus the Arab monarchies) are rather the exception to the rule — the global trend seems to favor republican political order as the answer to socioeconomic and political modernization (and many of these monarchies are such only figuratively). However, restorations in Great Britain (in the 17th century) and in Spain (in the 20th century) as well as the transformation of imperial rule in Japan after 1945 indicate the potential for the revival of hereditary rule in times of great upheaval. The panorama of an ongoing survival of almost two dozen monarchies and systems of hereditary rules should not obscure the more than 2,000-year-old electoral monarchy of the Catholic Church. After all, the Pope is also head of state of the Holy See.

The main lessons to be drawn from the survival or revival of hereditary rule elsewhere could be of inspirational insight for the future of contemporary Arab hereditary rulers. These lessons include the need to prevent or terminate warfare with, or the threat of violence toward, any neighbor. Consolidated monarchies across the world have recognized the legitimacy of borders and the sovereign rights of their neighbors. This, in turn, has helped consolidated monarchies stay out of international conflicts over territory or power. For Arab monarchies, this global experience would imply that for the sake of their own interest they would be well-advised to search for peace with Israel: to recognize Israel and to facilitate a two-state solution that would allow Israel to live in security and an independent Palestinian state to live in decency, without any border dispute between either of the two states and between them and the Arab monarchies.

Among the fundamental lessons to be learned from the struggle of monarchic survival elsewhere would be the need to turn the monarchy from a rule of fear into a symbol of respect and national unity. Consolidated monarchies have been able to disconnect the court from the national security apparatus and to project the monarch as the benevolent symbol of national unity, sometimes coupled with a certain religious authority. For Arab monarchies, this global experience would imply full parliamentary control over security forces and the military; initiate lustration processes aimed at bringing to justice past crimes of the security apparatus without deconstructing the security apparatus as such; and introduce strict rule of law over all security forces and military authorities, without sidelining them from the future processes of society and politics.

Historically, hereditary rule has not done well when confronted by social, political, or economic challenges.

A third essential suggestion would imply the need to separate authority from power. Consolidated monarchies have decoupled their traditional authority from the daily business of politics and the structure of national power. They have accepted an independent government and parliamentary rule as the main source of national political power. Consolidated monarchies have surrendered their power to constitutional rule and thus maintained their symbolic and traditional authority. For Arab monarchies, this global experience would imply empowering parliamentary governance through a prime ministerial system with full accountability to the respective parliamentary majority; to terminate the appointment of prime ministers or members of parliaments, including the upper houses; to initiate a process of rewriting the national constitution aimed at properly organizing a new national consensus framed by a constitution-based parliamentary monarchy.

A fourth and certainly not final lesson to be learned would be the need to disassociate personal wealth from the wealth of the country. In consolidated monarchies, the personal budget of the monarch and the court has been disconnected from the sources of wealth of the country. The budget of today’s monarchs may still be less accountable than other elements of public spending, but the allocation of the court’s budget in consolidated monarchies is no longer based on the ruler’s arbitrary access to public goods. For Arab monarchies, this global experience would imply separating state funds from the funds available for the monarch and his entourage, and installing parliamentary control over the allocation of resources for the hereditary sovereign and a solid system of accountability for auditing these resources.

It is obvious that the specific historical, political, sociological, and economic context in which the democratization and parliamentarization of, say, the monarchies of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain took place cannot repeat itself in today’s Arab world. Arab transformation will continue down its own contingent path, which will likely be one that doesn’t follow Western expectations and aspirations.

Key challenges for Arab Spring success

The path for those countries that have been able to successfully transform from personal rule to parliamentary monarchy has always been long and often arduous. In most cases, it went through similar areas, worth recalling as the Arab Spring unfolds.

Originally, personal rule was based on control of territory and people. Gradually, intermediary elites were installed by the ruler or emerged against the initial will of the ruler. In a long process, they advanced the notion of legal rule over personal rule in a long process (e.g., the Magna Carta). Arab hereditary monarchs would be well-advised to respond to the quest for freedom and justice from within their citizenry with a sustained support of independent legal structures.

The growing diversification of economic activities — especially the emergence of capital-based production and division of labor — generated functional elites (bankers, owners of trading houses and production) who had demanded political inclusion and participation. Arab hereditary monarchs ought to support the establishment of independent representation of functional elites (including business associations and trade unions), recognizing them as a genuine sphere of open and legitimate political discourse, with the objective to fully participate in the public policy dialogue.

The calls for political inclusion of a new bourgeoisie led to an advanced rule of law and opened the way for democratic participation, which in turn stabilized the sociopolitical system. Arab hereditary monarchs should do their utmost to help their societies move beyond the prevailing oligarchic structures of a rent-seeking mindset. It is here that the experience of Turkey’s economic development may be a template for the transformation necessary in the Arab world, beyond the Arab monarchies.

Time and again, parliamentary rule came from aspirations of personal rule in the name of contingent social, cultural, and intellectual ideas and ideologies. However, no republican dictator was ever able to exercise the “natural” features of traditional rule over such a long time that he could translate his rule into legitimate hereditary succession. Today, North Korea’s ruling family and the ruling family of Assad in Syria — and in a limited way the regimes of Kabila in Congo and of Ali Bongo Ondimba in Gabon — are exceptions to this rule. Yet these contemporary hereditary dictatorships have been unable to generate legitimacy for their specific versions of authoritarian or pseudo-democratic hereditary succession. A democratic exception to this phenomenon is provided by Singapore: the third prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, is the son of the first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Arab hereditary monarchs would be well-advised to remove any family member from public offices.

Most personal and patrimonial rulers in postcolonial societies resorted to similar mechanisms to maintain their position: patronage, clientelism, theft, corruption, crime, and violence. When republican dictators lack the features of traditional authority they try to resort to charismatic rule, violence, and coercion, none of which can generate the necessary features required for transition toward legitimate hereditary succession. Arab hereditary monarchs should match political openness and transparency with personal modesty and decency in spending behavior.

Contemporary monarchies’ strongest source of authority is the traditional legitimacy that is attributed to their rule.

For now, the strongest source of authority of contemporary monarchies in the Arab world (and elsewhere) is the traditional legitimacy attributed to their rule. Beside learning from other consolidated monarchies, the current Arab hereditary rulers might think about addressing the key structural challenges that are vital for a peaceful and sustainable transformation in their societies.

Among the insights would be understanding the importance of consolidating open spaces in which a pluralistic civil society can thrive. Rulers should relate these open spaces to the political arena, and include open political spaces in the national dialogue on constitutional reform.

Another set of necessary steps to stabilize a monarchy under pressure would be rehabilitating the authority of the public sphere by promoting multiparty systems. All too often, failed monarchic systems tend to rely on the support of a state party that pretends to deal with social concerns but really prevents social preferences from being fully expressed. Only a full-fledged pluralistic, multiparty system can aggregate social interests and advance these interests onto the political agenda and into the decision-making process. Election thresholds of three to five percent may guarantee that these multiparty systems help consolidate the new constitutional consensus.

Reform-oriented monarchs need to promote strong legal sector reforms including all levels of the judiciary and the penitentiary system, and initiate public education programs that raise the awareness of the primacy of rule of law over any system of personal patronage, coercion, or arbitrariness.

Most importantly among all the necessary reforms (and yet all too often neglected) is the need to promote private investment — both domestic and international — with the prime aim of providing sustainable employment opportunities for the young generation. Reforming a hereditary political system is impossible if the economic order underlying this system and usually intrinsically linked to it will change, too. Usually this requires breaking up the monopolistic and oligarchic structures that almost intrinsically connect hereditary political rule with accumulated economic privileges and powers. These kind of feudal ligatures are not able to generate private initiative that goes beyond sustaining the ruling elites. In the end, in a hereditary political system as much as in any other republican democracy, only a stable middle class based on education and vocational training can guarantee long-term stability. This also happens to be the case in practically all Arab societies today.

Transatlantic partners

The arab spring has opened a new chapter in the political history of the Arab world. The outcome is far from predictable. It may vary from country to country and it may drag on with different speeds and intensity for years, if not decades. It began thanks to the courage of nonviolent people who wanted to revitalize their societies on the basis of dignity, freedom, and justice. In a geopolitical context, the historic opportunity the Arab Spring represents will, at least, lead to two fundamental reconfigurations:

On the one hand, the traditional prejudice according to which Africa is divided between North Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa will end. The issue of overcoming personal rule and introducing constitutional change aimed at enabling law-based pluralistic democracy is as pertinent in most of Sub-Saharan Africa as it is in the Arab world. In both regions the issue reflects the deficits of postcolonial politics. Hence, the Arab Spring has been watched with great intensity in Sub-Saharan Africa — with enthusiasm among young people and with worry among some of the petrified postcolonial elites (in Uganda, for example). In the years to come, one might predict, the Arab Spring will repeat itself in several sub-Saharan societies. There, it will most likely bring about the same mixed picture of success, stagnation, and failure we see in the Arab world. Thus, it will support the trend (and the need) for a differentiated perception of Africa. Instead of continuously and erroneously imagining Africa as one, the long-term constitutional effect of the Arab Spring will help distinguish between an emerging Africa of successful political transformation beyond the postcolonial era, and a stagnating Africa that remains trapped in postcolonial structures of personal rule and patrimonialism.

On the other hand, transatlantic partners will have to redefine their strategies toward the Arab world. Neither policies of fear and stereotypes based on distorted notions of identity nor attitudes of benevolent paternalism will help to redefine American and European relations with the Arab societies and their emerging new political structures. Transatlantic partners need to engage the Arab world — and eventually Africa, too — in a comprehensive agenda of transformation.

As for the transatlantic partners — the United States and the European Union — it will be necessary to move beyond the traditional security paradigm. For a long time, Arab monarchies were considered Western security partners based on geopolitical considerations, with little consideration for domestic issues. In the future, the Arab monarchies can be stable security partners of the West if their legitimate domestic stability provides the ground for predictable international behavior. The necessary transformation processes will accompany Arab hereditary rulers for many years to come. Transatlantic partners ought to engage Arab monarchies in multifold processes of transformation aimed at advancing modernized monarchies that eventually accept the frame of parliamentary constitutionalism. The notion of parliamentary monarchy may be new to Arab hereditary systems. It is, however, not impossible to achieve, as other monarchies around the world have proven. In fact, it may well be the only realistic option if Arab monarchies are to prevail over time.

A new problem for the West: How to deal with Islamic parties that have gained legitimacy at the ballot box?

Currently, transatlantic partners pursue independent strategies of cooperation with the Arab world. In spite of a strong normative overlap, their strategies also represent different interests and approaches. The U.S. and the eu were taken by surprise when the Arab Spring started. For the U.S., the main initial issue seemed to be the impact of the Arab Spring on the future of Israel. (Both the U.S. and Israel will have to learn that nothing will change for the better in the Middle East without a serious return to negotiations over a two-state solution that includes security for Israel and viable statehood for the Palestinians.) For the eu, the initial approach to the Arab Spring was technocratic, as enshrined in the eu’s Neighborhood Policy toward its eastern and southern neighbors. The eu will have to realize that providing more program and project support for democratic transformation is no strategy to respond to comprehensive uprising.

The first wave of democratic elections in Arab reform countries has posed a new set of problems for the West: How to deal with Islamic political parties that gained legitimacy at the ballot box? Western analysts and media differentiate between radical parties and more moderate, reformist parties. The Islamic parties that surfaced in the aftermath of regime change in the Arab world did indeed begin to take different routes. One set of parties found inspiration in the Turkish Justice and Development Party and declared loyalty to constitution-based rule of law, the legitimacy of the secular state, and the desire to contribute to a renewal of public morale based on Islamic norms. Another set of parties promulgated the reconciliation of democratic constitutionalism and sharia. Finally, a third set of parties is undecided on the recognition of constitutional liberties and political pluralism. In most Arab transformational countries, the Western world may have to learn to deal with moderate Islamic governments. This is as challenging for some in the West as the idea of continuing to cooperate with Arab monarchies that underwent only gradual transformation. As for the future of Arab monarchies, the West might end up with both hereditary rulers and Islamic governments. Formulating a reasonable and positive strategy to cope with such situations is urgent.

In the end, from a Western point of view, the current opening of the Arab political space should be seen as a golden opportunity. The United States and the European Union would be well-advised to define a joint strategy for future engagement with the Arab world. The strategy’s formative ideas should be transformation and legitimacy, its long-term objectives stability and partnership, and its driving instruments geared at promoting civil society and the private sector.

The spirit of the Arab Spring is truly new. It has brought back dignity and hope to millions of frustrated citizens.

In the global past, some monarchies went through stages of transformation that stretched over centuries. The hereditary rulers in the Arab world may not have so much time. What was truly new about the events of 2011 is the spirit of the Arab Spring: the self-empowerment of Arab societies, bringing back dignity and hope to frustrated and marginalized societies, enabling millions of citizens to act as proud, self-confident, and open partners of their neighbors. This might only be the first step in a long, vexed journey. Currently, the main focus among transatlantic partners is on the future of Arab republics, which are torn between the most extreme possible scenarios. Some may think that Arab monarchies will be the last to reform and hence can be neglected. There are good reasons to argue for the opposite. Unreformed Arab monarchies could undermine any progress currently made in Arab republics. But reformed, transformed, and consolidated Arab monarchies could become reliable agents for change and legitimacy in a renewed Arab world.

In this context, even the future of regional groupings in the Arab world has become an open issue. When Saudi Arabia invited Morocco and Jordan to join the Gulf Cooperation Council, the other gcc partners were not amused. No matter how realistic this perspective in the end may be, it certainly indicates that Saudi Arabia is prepared to strengthen Arab monarchies at the expense of cohesion and deepened integration in the Gulf region. While Morocco and Jordan are engaged in a new phase of advanced internal reforms, the Saudi offer was rather understood as a means to curb and curtail reforms that may challenge the existing structure of power in Morocco and Jordan.

A realistic assessment cannot exclude new periods of stagnation and resistance to change in certain Arab monarchies. Skeptics point to the financial support from Saudi Arabia for the more traditional, if not extremist, part of the Islamic movement in Egypt and say it’s an indication of reactionary potential, both in revolutionary Arab republics as well as in nonreformist monarchies. Optimists laud the support for the Libyan rebels offered by Qatar and the relative openness in Qatar itself, symbolized by the headquarters of Al Jazeera tv there. It is difficult to foresee which side will eventually prevail. The intrinsic links between Arab monarchies and Arab republics are manifold. Yet the West ought to understand that the instability of autocratic Arab republics does not necessary imply that Arab monarchies are the most resistant to change in the Arab world and that eventually they will disappear.

The next steps in the ongoing Arab revolution cannot be predicted. Though hopes can fail, it would be premature to downplay the potential of hereditary Arab monarchies to transform themselves into parliamentary monarchies. The advantage of the Gulf monarchies is their strong economic basis. Arab oil and gas resources are not unlimited, however. Moreover, the social structure of the Gulf monarchies (with large, poorly treated migrant labor populations) is not without implications for the future of Arab societies. Moving from rent-seeking structures to complex functional economies in which Arab youth will find its legitimate and happy place in life will not be easier in Arab monarchies than in Arab republics. Political surprises — especially in the process of succession — cannot be ruled out. But the Arab Spring, at last, has opened the windows of change in the Arab world. This is a promising new beginning that allows the West a new look at Arab societies and the implications of their development. The future of Arab monarchies is one of the important aspects in the new mapping of the Arab world.


Ludger Kühnhardt is director of the Center for European Integration Studies (zei) at Bonn University.