Arab Spring spares region’s royals

Dynasts’ Club: Monarchs may be as repressive as dictators, but they do it more kindly, gently.

By DAVID ROSENBERG / THE MEDIA LINE
November 28, 2011 01:17
Jordan's King Abdullah II

Jordan's King Abdullah II 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed)

The contrasts couldn’t be any more stark.

In a space of five days, voters in the Gulf emirate of Oman quietly went to the polls to elect members to the country’s Shoura Council, a quasi-legislature that the country’s absolute ruler has promised will be granted more power, while in Libya another autocrat, Muammar Gaddafi was dragged out of a drainpipe where he had sought refugee to be pummeled and killed by rebels, the denouement to a bloody six-month civil war.

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Gaddafi is the third Arab leader to lose his job in the 11 months since the Arab Spring erupted while a fourth, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, announced Wednesday that he was ready to step down. The fate of another, Syria’s Bashar Assad, hangs in the balance. But other leaders faced unrest in the early days of the Arab Spring only to turn back the popular tide.

Besides Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said Said, King Muhammed VI of Morocco has also succeeded in containing unrest as has King Abdullah of Jordan. At the outset of the Arab Spring, all looked ripe for revolution and experienced varying levels of unrest, but 11 months later all four leaders are still standing.

It pays to be a dynast rather than a dictator, or the son of a dictator. None of the region’s many royals has been toppled and only one – Bahrain’s Shaikh Hamad bin Isa Khalifa – has faced a serious challenge to his rule. All four autocrats to fall, as well as a fifth most likely to succumb, were dictators who made pretensions to democratic rule with rigged elections. Among non-royals, only Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has succeeded in restoring quiet.

The staying power of kings could be due to early-childhood training in statecraft or a traditional deference on the part of people to royalty, but Ibrahim Saif, a resident scholar at the Carnegie International Endowment for Peace suggests it is because  royals rely more on their paternal image than on fear to maintain their rule.

“They are more responsive to the demands of the street. Historically they have been more tolerant,” Saif told The Media Line in a telephone interview from Beirut. “If you compare the monarchy in Jordan, for instance, to the regimes in Syria or Egypt, they try to respond to the demands of the people, like quality of education, social conditions.”

The kingdom of Jordan scores 0.698 on the United Nations Human Development Index (the highest score is a 1.0), compared with 0.632 for the neighboring dictatorship of Syria. Oman scores a higher 0.705. Morocco is a much lower 0.582, but over the last decades its score has jumped by 14.8 percent. Politically, the monarchies are also relatively liberal.

Morocco is one of the few Arab countries to enjoy a “partly free” designation by Freedom House. In 2010, the human rights organization categorized Jordan and Oman as “not free,” but they scored higher on political rights and civil liberties than Tunisia, Syria or Libya.

Like much of the Middle East, Oman was by hit unrest, which left five people dead in the early weeks of the Arab Spring. But the opposition never gained traction as Qaboos responded with promises of limited reforms and financial handouts. The sultan fired ministers with the worst reputations for corruption and is promising the Shoura Council will get more powers.

Qaboos, 70 and in power for more than four decades, has used Oman's limited oil revenue on social and economic infrastructure, but he has offered little in the way of political reform.

Months ago, he promised a $2.6 billion spending package and 50,000 public sector jobs. He also reshuffled his cabinet three times, removing some unpopular figures. The Shoura Council, for which voting took place October 15, is being given some legislative and regulatory powers for the first time, but only as part of the Oman Council, which includes an appointed upper house.

But other autocrats have promised reforms only to be laughed at or ignored. Syrian President Bashar Assad, who only weeks before rebellion exploded across his country boasted that his anti-Israel credentials made him popular, has repeatedly promised change to no avail. All the region’s autocrats have increased subsidies, raised public sector wages and created jobs where they can.

Marc Valeri, a Middle East politics lecturer at Britain’s Exeter University, told The Media Line that Qaboos built up a lot of credit with Omanis for his early steps, but he has failed to undertake deep reforms and time may be running out for him.

“He’s considered by the majority of population to be the one who can cope with corruption and implement reform. He still has a lot of legitimacy among the majority of the population,” said Valeri, who was in Oman for the elections. The sacking of corruption-tainted ministers was probably his most popular move, but he needs an Act II. “The problem is he doesn’t have anyone more to sacrifice.”

“Many people are saying the sultan has all the elements in his hands to decide but that he hasn’t implemented the reforms we want. So now he will become the target of complaints and demands which was not the case before,” Valeri said.

A largely Shiite rebellion in Sunni-ruled Bahrain – the only monarchy to face serious unrest – was quashed when Saudi Arabia dispatched troops. Despite amnesties and promises of reform, the island emirate remains gripped by sectarian tensions. Valeri said sectarian tensions were an important factor, but perhaps just as importantly Bahrain’s king, Hamad Bin Isa Khalifa, couldn’t count on the undivided support of his family and retainers.

“In Oman, the sultan is still regarded as very legitimate in contrast to Bahrain where the king has had to cope with a lot of opposition and division within the royal family,” he said. “That’s not the case in Oman, where the ruling family is very small in number and the sultan hasn’t given much power to other members of the royal family.”

Jordan has been shaken over the months by street protests led by a disparate group of Islamists, tribal figures and leftist opposition figures demanding more political freedoms and an end to corruption. But a reform-minded man was sworn in last month and has the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, buying King Abdullah more time.

Saif of the Carnegie Endowment says that despite the turmoil in Jordan, no major group, including the country’s powerful Islamists, is calling for the king to step down. But, he adds, that King Abdullah has to keep on a pathway to reform to continue enjoying broad support.

“The monarchy in many cases is acting as a moderator between various groups – Islamists, East Bankers and Jordanians of Palestinian origin,” Saif says. “It has reduced tensions by focusing on the future of the country rather than taking the side of one faction or the other. People admire it as a guarantor for stability, an insurance policy for everyone.”

In Morocco, the youth-based February 20 movement organized weeks of pro-reform demonstrations through websites such as Facebook and YouTube which brought thousands on to the streets. In response, King Mohammad, scion of a 400-year-old dynasty, quickly undertook a program of reforms to gently push Morocco into constitutional monarchy. He also almost tripled subsidies used to keep down the cost of food.

In June, voters overwhelmingly approved a package of constitutional amendments designed to rein in the king’s powers and expand civil rights, ignoring critics who said the reforms were granted by the king in an opaque rather than democratic process. Parliamentary elections last week, in which the Islamist Justice and Development Party (PJD) emerged as the leader, went smoothly. PJD is loyal to the monarchy.

Nevertheless, Moroccan politics remain tumultuous. Last month, the February 20th movement brought thousands of supporters into the streets of Casablanca for a demonstration to demand deep political reform. But protests and sparse and analysts say Mohammad remains personally popular and trusted. Moroccan kings have a tradition of initiating reform from the top.

Anouar Boukhars, an expert on political extremism in the Middle East who teaches at Maryland’s McDaniel College, says that the February 20 movement lacks enough focus to mobilize great masses of people.

But, he adds, Moroccans are not ready to push for fundamental and radical change. They have seen the violence and anarchy in places like Egypt, Syria and Libya and have gotten a small taste of it themselves. Morocco has experienced continual small-scale strikes and protests as well as growing public disorder in the form of illegal construction and street vendors taking over public spaces, he says.

“Most Moroccans desperately want change, but insist on a peaceful transition that averts taking the country down the road of destabilizing protests that meet with violent state repression,” Boukhars  wrote in the on-line journal Jadaliyya, following a field trip to Morocco.

But, he warned, if democratic reforms don’t advance, Moroccans may change their minds. “Such cycles of demonstrations and repression might eventually be the only means to advance the democratic process forward.”


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