As Egyptians go to the polls on May 23 and 24 it is worth considering just who
is not going to the polls this year in the Middle East. The Arab monarchies,
which include half a dozen states from the Arabian Sea to the Strait of
Gibraltar, have proven remarkably resilient in the face of the inconstantly
named Arab Spring. It is worthwhile to ponder whether their strength is drawn
from historical patterns or if they are merely the last dominoes to
Middle East monarchies are a relatively recent feature on the
Although the Omani sultans and Moroccan kings trace
their lineage back many hundreds of years, their kingdoms only arose in current
form in the post-colonial period.
The Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan claims
a pedigree that dates back to the great-grandfather of Muhammad, and since the
10th century they were the “Sharifs” or religious stewards of
However, their royalty only emerged with the support of the
British and that swashbuckling hero T.E. Lawrence, who helped place them on the
string of mountains that has come to be known as Jordan.
nature of their reign is highlighted by the fact that they initially sought
power in Arabia, only to be thrown out by the Wahhabi-backed Saud family, from
which the eponymous kingdom takes its name.
Moreover, the short-lived
Hashemite monarchy of Iraq was hacked to death in 1958 after a coup, while all
of the gulf monarchies arose with the departure of the British in the 1960s and
THE MONARCHIES that came into power with the birth of the modern
state structure in the region did so against a backdrop of Arab nationalism.
This nationalism has hastened the departure – and untimely deaths in some
instances – of monarchs in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Iraq. During the years of the
so-called Arab Cold War, the conservative monarchies found themselves in
conflict with Nasserite and Ba’athist movements that mobilized the street under
the banner of Arab socialism and the support of educated young army
But all that military-socialist fervor came to naught as the
“revolutionary” regimes in Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and elsewhere petrified
and withered on the vine. Islamist parties, terrorism and Facebook zealots
destroyed almost all vestiges of these dictatorial power structures in 2011.
Those that have refused to bend, like the Assad family in Syria, face
That the monarchies have survived has not been lost on
commentators. Ariana Keyman, a political scientist and graduate of McGill
University in Montreal, argues: “Arab monarchies are fundamentally better able
to withstand the Arab Spring than autocratic presidents of neighboring republics
in the short run, and their long run survival will be contingent on their
She also maintains that the monarchies gain
legitimacy from their claim to “divine right,” and the fact that they have
worked together to foster stability, as evidenced by the work of the Gulf
When the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
hosted an expert panel on this issue in November 2011, the only item they added
to this list was the the monarchies’ greater access to money.
voices, such as Samer Araabi, a commentator at the Foreign Policy in Focus think
tank, and Associate Prof. Joseph Massad at Columbia University have
argued that a “US-Saudi axis” is behind their success at weathering the
UNLESS WE imagine that the kingdoms will be swept away in the next
year or so, it is worth considering why the monarchy appears more stable than
these other governmental systems. In the Book of Samuel, the prophet comes upon
petitions from the Jewish people who demand that the chaos of sometimes corrupt
judges be replaced by a kingdom.
Samuel warns them that while kings are
stable, they also may abuse their power.
In ancient Greece in the Archaic
period, the small city-states were initially ruled by kings – but this form of
government went out of fashion with the rise of Athenian democracy around 500
BCE. Athens proposed the extension of its political influence over other states
and found itself challenged by Sparta and its Peloponnesian League. It is of no
small consequence that Athenian democracy was actually defeated by Spartan
monarchy in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE).
The great philosophers
also dealt with the issue of monarchy. Plato recognized its merits but came to
favor what he called aristocracy. Aristotle argued that while monarchy might be
an ideal form of government, in its worse form – tyranny – it was ripe for
abuse. St. Thomas Aquinas, picking up on this debate, argued that it was a
favorable form of government, which he defined as “one who rules over the people
of a city or province for the common good.”
These philosophers found
favor with monarchy primarily because of the proviso that it rules in the name
of the “common good,” not in the name of the self or tyranny.
monarchies that arose in Europe in the period after the fall of the Roman Empire
proved relatively long-lasting.
Challenges to them were shot through with
chaos and an inability to establish an acceptable alternative. For instance, in
the wake of the English Civil War and the execution of Charles I, a new
government was promptly put in place that was supposed to be superior to the
However, Oliver Cromwell, who styled himself “Lord Protector”
in place of king, not only behaved much like a tyrant, but passed on power to
his son at his death in 1658.
It is also no surprise that at the advent
of the American Revolution in 1776, many – such as James Madison and Alexander
Hamilton – felt that factions and anarchy would destroy democracy. The
chaos of the French Revolution and the revolutions of 1848 merely reinforced the
notion that monarchy was a more stable form of government that protected the
people from dangerous, tyrannical charlatans.
When considering why the
Arab monarchies appeared to fare better during the Arab Spring it is worth
recalling this past.
Monarchy has generally outlived tyranny precisely
because they are two sides of the same Aristotelian model, one being a more
perfect version of the other.
Assad, Mubarak and Gadaffi all had pretensions, fulfilled or not, of passing power to relatives. Their weak form of monarchy failed.
Monarchy need not triumph. It appears that the current Middle Eastern kings have such a monopoly on power that deposing them in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates would be impossible at present.
The monarchs in Morocco, Jordan and Bahrain, on the other hand, may be less able to adapt to ever-shifting regional events – and more easily toppled.