Allah Save the King

Image: Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al-Sabah, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa​. Flickr/Tribes of the World

Arab monarchies have been more stable.

Watchers of contemporary Arab politics will quickly notice one thing: the Arab monarchies—Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait—have proven to be the most politically resilient Arab states. Not a single monarchy fell during the Arab Spring.

Attempts elsewhere in the Arab world at democracy, military regimes and one-party states have all proven unstable and bloody in the long run. Moreover, in addition to stability, monarchies in the Arab world have been able to provide some semblance of the institutional stability and rule of law necessary for economic, and eventually social development while still being rooted in tradition. This is the golden mean between an excess of fundamentalism and an excess of Westernization.

Moreover, many former Arab monarchies were fairly popular and were overthrown only due to the determined action of small groups of military officers, inspired by the example of Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser, as was the case in Libya, Yemen and Iraq.

The primary advantage of a monarch in an Arab country is his role as a unifying, paternal figure in tribally or religiously fragmented countries with little else to hold them together. The traditional Arab ruler—whether called emir, sultan, sheikh or malik (king)—was never an absolute ruler, but remained powerful and influential through constant compromise and arbitration between numerous bickering tribal, merchant and clerical groups. Moreover, the traditional Arab ruler embodied in himself certain egalitarian features that guaranteed his legitimacy and made him attractive in the eyes of his people: for example, he was usually available to his people, and generous and magnanimous. Certainly, oil wealth has helped the rich Gulf monarchies maintain power through liberal spending on their people.

Arab rulers also traditionally consulted with their relatives, clerics and tribal leaders, which together were informal councils of oligarchs. This is still the case today in many countries such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait. Succession does not always pass directly from the ruler to his eldest son, so there is latitude to promote effective members of a ruling family. In other words, when following some of the traditional attributes of Arab customs, Arab monarchy has advantages over European-style monarchies, let alone republics. Many dynasties have been in power for hundreds of years and enjoy the prestige of longevity and tradition and memories of past glory that are hard to change overnight. It took a lot longer for revolutionary France to get rid of King Louis XVI (three years), the scion of a thousand years of monarchy, than Robespierre, a man who came out of nowhere to briefly rule his country.

The importance of the role of the king as a conciliatory figure is borne out in all the Arab monarchies. For example in Jordan, where Kings Hussein and Abdullah II have both balanced the country’s sedentary, often Palestinian, and Bedouin elements. In Morocco, the monarchy plays a similar role, helping Islamist and secular parties get along in the same system in a way that was impossible in post-Mubarak Egypt, where various factions tried to push their own political regimes to the exclusion of the interests of all the other factions. Unlike Morocco, Egypt had no umbrella-type institution or figure to negotiate with and temper its various political elements. Even in Bahrain, the Sunni monarchy retains a certain amount of prestige.