Monarchy and the Middle East

By Nash, Michael L. | Contemporary Review, September 2012 | Go to article overview
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Monarchy and the Middle East


Nash, Michael L., Contemporary Review


IT is extraordinary. The Great Republic, which eschewed and rejected monarchy in 1776, now considers 'Constitutional monarchy a form of democracy', and supports this concept above the Presidents of the Middle East and North Africa--where both kings and presidents remain beleaguered after the Arab awakening early in 2011. Of course, the American rejection was of what they imagined was an autocratic king and the issue of 'no taxation without representation', with which he was associated; but the realpolitik which may dictate accommodation with autocratic regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, is another issue altogether. This is an American support for constitutional monarchy as such.

The International Herald Tribune (26-27 February, 2011) ran an article on its front page 'US wagers Arab monarchs will stand', continuing its headline: 'US bets on kings, while presidents fall'. Why this, on the surface, astonishing volte-face? It is as if Walter Bagehot had been resurrected and had infiltrated the C.I.A.

The British experience of constitutional monarchy is the model which the US is inclined to back today, and which seems to be the type of government which will weather the storm more easily. Power has been diffused; it may legally belong to one office of state, but is exercised by others, who are accountable to a third and a fourth organ of the state. Herein lies a balance of power, so dear to the American heart. A truly constitutional monarchy becomes a strength, not a weakness as has been so superbly demonstrated in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations. The unfortunate example of Nepal, where the monarchy was abolished in 2008, is a case in point. The state is now floundering in a power vacuum. How much better it would have been to have kept a symbol of the nation, a constitutional head of state in a reformed monarchy. Interestingly, the last king of Afghanistan, Zadir Shah, returned to his country under President Karsai as 'the symbol of the nation' to confirm the new constitutional armagement. The suggestion that he himself should run as President was at that time suppressed by American advisers.

Some of the language of the US's political stance in North Africa and the Middle East is surprising. Kenneth M. Pollack, the director of the Saban Center for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, said: 'What the monarchies have going for them are royal families that allow them to stand above the fray, to a certain extent. It allows them to sack the government without sacking themselves'. This is said as if it is a surprising truth which has just been discovered, but it is what every defender of monarchy has been saying from Walter Bagehot to Vernon Bogdanor.

If the monarchies concerned are considered, some are more conscious of their position than others, and have started a process which promises to save them: Morocco, Jordan, and some of the Gulf States.

'This approach ... is the right approach; these are countries that have moved in the right direction, but not enough', said Elliott Abrams, a Middle East adviser in the Administration of George W. Bush, who has been a frequent critic of the Obama Administration. 'Constitutional monarchy is a form of democracy'.

Britain had in the past sponsored the creation of a monarchy in Libya. The east of that country had been suggestible to the idea of an 'Islamic Emirate' in the early days of the present turmoil, harking back to the days, not so long ago, of the proclamation in 1949, that the head of the Senussi tribe, Mohammed Idris es-Senussi, should be Emir of Libya. By his constitution, promulgated in the same year, a federal state came into being, with alternating capitals at Tripoli and Benghazi. On 24 December, 1951, sovereignty was transferred to the Emir, and he became King Idris I of the Kingdom of Libya. It is certainly arguable that this served Libya well for eighteen years, from 1951 until 1969, and was certainly preferable to what followed.

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