Arab Monarchies Cannot Survive by Divine Right Alone

Article excerpt

Jane Kinninmont demolishes the theory of monarchical exceptionism

It's a testing time for Western policymakers as they try to get to grips with an increasingly politically diverse Middle East. While they declare support for more democratic forms of government in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Yemen and Syria, they are also seeking to maintain traditional alliances with governments none too keen on democratic change. No wonder the theory of monarchical exceptionalism - that Arab monarchies are somehow more resilient to political challenges than their republican counterparts - is becoming so popular. But is it true?

The idea that Arab monarchies in the Gulf, Jordan and Morocco are more likely to survive has gained currency since the Arab Spring, based on the observation that only republican leaders have been overthrown to date. This is true as far as it goes, but it is a short-term view ignoring the fact that most of the republics - including Egypt, Iraq and Libya, all of which saw their hereditary rulers overthrown by coups in the 1950s and 1960s - were monarchies once too. It seems more likely that today's monarchies have remained in place because they are resilient, rather than being resilient because they are monarchies.

To understand this resilience, analysts need to look at other factors: the loyalty of the armed forces; the opposition's effectiveness; and support received from larger powers. Indeed these factors may help to explain why some republican governments, such as Algeria's, have also contained protest pressures to date.

The monarchical exceptionalism theory might obscure significant differences between the royal regimes in the eight Arab countries that have them and overstate the differences with republican regimes.

Two arguments are made in favour of the resilience of monarchy. First, that they enjoy a legitimacy that more recently formed republics do not, with their own established methods of consultation and consensus-building, and, especially in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, claims to religious legitimacy. Second, that the monarchies are better equipped to adapt and reform, and have European models to follow where rulers have ceded power gradually while retaining status and dignity as national figureheads.

One problem with the first argument is that perceptions of royal legitimacy are difficult to evaluate in political contexts which lack reliable opinion polls or a free press, and which typically have laws against 'insulting the ruler'. Any claim that the Arab awakenings have passed the monarchies by is offthe mark. …