Jack Nitschke on the Arab Monarchies during the recent uprisings
In Marrakesh, King Mohammed VI basks in the success of his new constitution, which grants modest, mostly cosmetic new powers to the Moroccan Parliament and strips him of some of his more superfluous titles. To the east in Jordan, King Abdullah II replaces his entire cabinet in response to protests. Further south, the outnumbered citizens of the United Arab Emirates are promised universal suffrage by 2020. In Oman, Sultan Qaboos bin Said likewise toys with the idea of a more representative legislature. The things here mentioned are not at all negative, they represent a step forward for the Arab monarchs, who are now beginning to pay at least lip service to the idea of democracy; but in contrast to the dramatic and often violent upheaval that those Arab dictatorships of less regal bearing have experience since January, these reforms ring especially hollow.
As popular uprising spreads across the Arab world, unseating despots and regimes at breakneck speed, the Arab monarchies watch placidly from the sidelines, quietly contemplating the gravity of this new order in the region, and seeking to ingratiate themselves towards their newly democratic fellow Arab states. It seems at first glance to be little to distinguish these monarchies from their Republican neighbours besides the crowned heads that sit atop them. One could be forgiven for thinking that this shouldn’t actually count for that much, seeing as the “Republics” experiencing insurrection are veritable monarchies in all but name. True enough, Bahrain experienced a large series of protests, primarily from its Shia majority (the Al Kalifa dynasty that rules Bahrain is Sunni and tends to discriminate against Shias), but this was more or less quashed in March following a brutal crackdown partially undertaken by neighbouring Saudi Arabia. In contrast, such brutal tactics have only made protest movements stronger in places like Libya and Syria, yet they seem to have all but ended protests in the tiny Gulf Kingdom. It seems more than coincidental that as totalitarian regimes fall like dominoes, none of the Arab monarchies have experienced tangible loss due to the Arab Spring. There are a number of explanations to be had:
The first let us examine the Monarchies of the Arabian Gulf. The Gulf Cooperation Council, ostensibly an economic partnership consisting of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Oman is has proven itself a manifestation of both the intermeshed political interest of its members and the regional supremacy of the Saudi monarchy. When Saudi Arabia intervened in Bahrain to end the protests erupting therein, it did so out of a mix of religious chauvinism (helping preserve the Sunni Al Kalifa against their Shia subjects) and concerted self-interest. The Saudis fear that a democratic Bahrain, which would inevitably take into account the views of its Shia majority, would be susceptible to the influence of Iran, the Shia bogeyman that acts as a terrifying example of heretical anti-royalism in the eyes of Arabia’s Sunni dynasts. Saudi Arabia has no intention of permitting another Iran to develop on its border and threaten the status quo. In February The Onion, a satirical news website published a story with the headline: “Saudi Arabian King To Populace: ‘Don’t Even Think About It’”, despite the humorous nature of this article it bears all the sinister underpinnings of an ironically expressed truth. The Saudi regime has throughout its history made use of its obscene oil wealth to effectively employ both carrot and stick when dealing with its populace, pacifying them with handouts and using repression when that fails. With its vast oil reserves and effective armed forces, Saudi Arabia is the lynchpin that binds the Gulf Monarchies together. By their very nature of government, and in light of the dangerous precedent that a successful anti-monarchical revolution within a member state would set, the interests and internal security of each of the Gulf monarchies is intrinsically tied to one another. The Domino Theory of Cold War days pervades within the thoughts of Arabia’s crowned heads and guides their approaches to regional stability.
Keeping this in mind, it is also important to remember that although the differences between an Omani Sultan and a Syrian President may seem entirely cosmetic, they do in fact represent two entirely different forms of totalitarianism. Monarchies for one are inherently autocratic; there is no need to adopt democratic trappings, like the rubber stamp parliaments of Syria or Mubarak’s Egypt or to periodically hold rigged elections to bolster one’s legitimacy. Monarchies also have the advantage of being inherently dynastic (at least in the case of the surviving Arab ones), so succession is not as contentious an issue in Saudi Arabia as it was in Qaddafi’s Libya (to digress briefly, such ingrained dynastic traditions can be a double edged sword in some cases, as the homosexual, childless Omani Sultan is no doubt painfully aware). Indeed the Arab monarchies have the distinct advantage of being able to use religion as a tool of legitimacy in a way that the faux-democracies that now teeter of the brink of destruction never could. The Saudi dynasty has both the history of its 19th-20th Century insurrection against the Ottoman Empire and its guardianship of the Islamic Holy Places to bolster its legitimacy and its Islamic credentials. It also imposes Wahhabi Islam as a means of controlling and conditioning its subjects. Morocco’s King uses the title of Amir al-Mu’Minin (Commander of the Faithful), the title adopted by Mohammed’s immediate successors during Islam’s formative century. It is easy for observers from the increasingly secular Occident (to borrow Edward Said’s useful terminology) to scoff at such things and primitive and anachronistic. But in a part of the world as purposefully underdeveloped and uneducated as the Middle East, religious credentials still count for something and should not be underestimated.
This aside, it must be mentioned that Monarchs of the Middle East have by and large been a great deal shrewder in their attitudes towards protesters. At the first sign of protests in their respective realms, the rulers of Morocco, Oman, Jordan and Kuwait were quick to offer concessions in the form off constitutional changes, the firing of unpopular ministers, cash handouts and economic reform. Such are much like the “too little, too late” measures offered to protesters in Egypt and Tunisia as the ruling regimes in these nations were in their death throes; yet they have proven very effective in the Arab monarchies, probably because they were offered immediately, and were not proceeded by any heavy handed attempts at crackdown. The rulers of Morocco and Oman have often been touted as reformers, and whilst this may not have manifest itself much during their respective reigns, there does pervade amongst the two men a somewhat benign and pragmatic attitude towards their subjects; that of a benevolent dictator.
For the time being, the Gulf Monarchies sit on the sidelines cheering on the protesters that now rebel against oft-despised neighbours. Qatar, the second nation (after France) to recognise Libya’s Rebel Council as its legitimate government and also its primary source of arms, has made use of its Al-Jazeera news station to influence popular opinion in the Arab world and has certainly done so thus far, with Al-Jazeera becoming a major source of commentary and a prime tool of information dissemination for protestors across the Middle East. The monarchies self-righteously wag their fingers at the likes of Bashar al-Assad even as revolts are violently supressed in Bahrain, secure in the knowledge that their fabulous oil wealth and vital strategic position (The United States’ Fifth Fleet operates out of Bahrain) induce a convenient myopia amongst those Occidental powers that now clamour for the heads of those like Qaddafi, less shrewd than themselves.