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Text by: Richard Phelps

Issue name: The Royalty Issue


It seems - with the exception of Bahrain – that the Arab world’s royalty have largely been spared the dissent that its republics currently face.

The crude conventional depiction was that two types of regimes rule the Arab world: the ‘traditional monarchies’ and the post-colonial republics. Accordingly, the long-standing anxiety of European and American governments was that the former could one day become the latter. Unless, of course, they were sufficiently propped-up – militarily and financially. Such a presentation, of course, is at best anachronistic, for regimes of both types have long been propped up in the name of ‘stability’. However, as the Arab Spring continues to show, for better or worse - with the major exception of Bahrain - it is the Arab world’s royalty that are proving to be the most stable in their rule.

‘Traditional monarchies’ – in inverted commas, because many ruling families are of a relatively recent pedigree, and many don’t have kings so are therefore not ‘royal’ - were long considered vulnerable. Less so today. Throughout the Cold War though, many sleepless nights in Whitehall and Washington were caused by the prospect of one of Britain or America’s regional allies being overthrown by republican forces. The perceived threat was deeply familiar: junior officers in the army would launch a coup, proclaim it to be a glorious revolution, depose the monarchy, nationalise the country’s resources, expel the foreign garrisons, and steer the country on a more assertive and confrontational course with Europe and the US. Although the circumstances varied in each case: Egypt, Iraq, Libya etc.; and although the great bugaboo evolved over time from the fear of pro-Soviet proclivities to pro-Islamist ones, the perception of such a threat remained constant.

Generalisations are never water-tight. Thus Lebanon, which has always been a republic, was also still deemed to be vulnerable and in its government in need of shoring-up. Likewise with Tunisia, whose post-colonial regime has always enjoyed close relations with Europe and the US – indeed arguably closer than when it was under foreign rule. In this way, the broad division reflects a perception on the part of European and American policymakers more than it does an independent reality. Still, it is those regimes so long viewed as vulnerable: Jordan, the Gulf states, and – most importantly – Saudi Arabia, that have been the least challenged by the pressures of the Arab Spring. Few are immune from the same sources of popular discontent that gave rise to the rebellion, but all appear more stable.

Turning to the Arab Spring, the states now witnessing the most accelerated political change are the republics. In all cases: Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Syria, a grievance of the protestors was that their post-colonial republics were being transformed into pseudo-monarchies.

Such a vantage offers a perspective that is too remote though: after all, the demonstrators of the Arab Spring do not protests because the President’s son, son-in-law, or nephew was being groomed to succeed him per se. After all, Bashar al-Asad inherited power from his father Hafiz more than a decade ago, and faced minimal dissent for doing so. Instead, such handovers were seen as a symptom of a wider corruption and cause of disaffection. Likewise, all the republics (bar Tunisia, to any meaningful extent) had histories of opposition to ‘the West’, but which have since given way to relationships of alliance and dependence. Compare the confrontation of the Nasser, Gadddafi, or Asad Snr years, with the rapprochement and shared interests of more recent times. Such a move even occurred within space of one rule in Libya’s case. Again, such a trend is not a cause, but a symptom.

The royal ‘stability’ spoken of here is a euphemism. It means a lack of popular dissent, and therefore a lack of state coercion. And the two are very clearly related. That authoritarian regimes do not exercise their rule by coercion simply means they have no need to, rather than meaning that they have moved beyond such a phase. The point is not that ‘traditional monarchies’ would not use coercion if faced with similar challenges to their rule; on the contrary. Rather, they simply do not face such challenges to anything like the same degree at present, though that may change.

Bahrain, as mentioned, is the outlier. There, a vocal and public challenge to the rule of the Al Khalifa did emerge, and it was met with state coercion in a way that clearly resembled the experiences of the republics elsewhere in the Arab world. The voices of dissent were crushed though, and have dispersed for the time being. Further violence is likely, and the spectre of urban violence by the un-enfranchised looms large. Indeed, further violence is likely in many Arab states, and again those that face the greatest upheaval are the republics. Compare the prospects of violence in Libya (already manifest), Syria, or Egypt, with those of Kuwait or Jordan.

Those regimes that once boasted of the liberation and revolution they had given their people today face the loudest demands for further freedoms. Meanwhile, those who celebrate no such thing now face far quieter demands from their royal subjects.