The Arab monarchies have weathered the revolutions of the Arab Spring surprisingly well for supposedly autocratic regimes. As corrupt and parochial governments are toppled and replaced in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria (which is just a matter of time), not a single monarchy within the Arab world has been overthrown.
These countries’ governments are ostensibly republican in nature, but all this really means is that a charismatic strongman and his family’s tribal affiliations dominate the society. In all of these places, the regime in power is also backed by the military and is opposed by Islamists and fundamentalists of all stripes. This is why the well mobilized and extremely motivated Islamist parties are shaping events in Arab monarchies in profound ways that would have been unthinkable just two or three years ago. In Egypt for example, not only do Islamists dominate the post-authoritarian political system’s legislature, but a member of the long-banned Muslim Brotherhood has even ascended to the presidency. To be fair, however, the president’s powers are still in doubt since the constitution has yet to be written and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces still controls the military, retains executive power, wields significant influence over the judiciary, and receives billions of dollars per year in American foreign assistance.
So how have the kingdoms, sheikhdoms and emirates of the Arab world managed to survive? Oil helps. The monarchs of the Arabian Gulf – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman – are all rich in energy and have been able to mollify their populations with bribes and handouts, or “subsidies”. The Bahraini royal family even absconded by inviting Saudi and Emirati armed forces to help with the military crackdown on their own population. But King Abdullah II of Jordan and King Mohammed VI of Morocco are not so fortunate in energy resources, yet they too have survived this long. Perhaps they are well insulated by some manufactured legitimacy of the ruling monarchy among the country’s people that took place over the course of decades of constancy. Cosmetic changes have been made in both these countries to their respective political systems, governing legislatures, and bureaucracies, and somehow these changes have been enough to keep protestors from ousting those regimes like they did in neighbouring North African countries and the in southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.
Arab Monarchies are far from invincible, though. They have been decimated before, just not during the revolutionary turmoil that has shaken the region since late 2010. The Arab Kingdom of Syria existed for four short months in 1920 and was abruptly terminated by the French as they assumed control of the Lebanese and Syrian territories under League of Nations mandates following the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. King Faisal of Syria was hastily installed by the British as ruler of Iraq as a consolation prize, a country which he managed to administer as a family business until the late 1950s. The Muhammad Ali dynasty reigned over Egypt and Sudan for almost 150 years, ending in King Farouk’s demise after the Free Officers Coup of 1952. The Mutawakkalite Kingdom of Yemen existed in some form or another in what is now Yemen for much of the early and mid-twentieth century, but finally dissolved in the struggle between North and South Yemen, a brutal civil war that lasted from the 1960s until the late 1980s.
In Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Yemen, from the 1920s through the 1960s, royalist forces were deposed in military coups and replaced by authoritarian despots. Now many of these same staunchly secular, republican-inspired governments are facing widespread popular disenchantment with their rule. For some reason, these countries’ governments remain permanently insecure, while the monarchies of Jordan, Morocco and the Arabian Gulf continue to build their own legitimacy and support networks, coalescing most concretely in the economic and political union that is the Gulf Cooperation Council. The enigma with this latest round of revolutionary upheaval in the Middle East is that these kingdoms are seemingly immune to the same populist pressures afflicting nearby governments which are every bit as repressive.
Whatever the eventual fate of these countries, it is an interesting phenomenon to note that the monarchies of the Arab World have all tenaciously clung to survival amidst the unpredictability of the so-called Arab Spring. Strategically speaking, these royal families have all fallen to some extent under the influence of the proverbial elephant in the room, the United States. Monarchism in the Arab geopolitical context has become synonymous with Americanism, so any fall from grace among these quasi-client states’ regimes would inevitably impact America’s role in the Middle East drastically. From global energy supplies to the War on Terror, these monarchies have cooperated with the world’s sole superpower to ensure stability and security in their part of the world. Therefore, what happens next to the rulers of these royal realms could have unimaginable ripple effects across the region and indeed, the world.