Terra Incognita: The King’s peace

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.

Saudi King Abdullah 390 (photo credit: Reuters/Saudi Press Agency)
Saudi King Abdullah 390
(photo credit: Reuters/Saudi Press Agency)
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 fall.
Middle East monarchies are a relatively recent feature on the political landscape.
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 Mecca.
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.
The precarious 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 1970s.
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 officers.
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 rebellion.
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 institutional flexibility.”
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 Cooperation Council.
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.
Several 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 storm.
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.
The 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 monarchy.
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.