Magazine article The Spectator

The Royal Road to Peace in the Middle East

Magazine article The Spectator

The Royal Road to Peace in the Middle East

Article excerpt

What the Middle East needs is more constitutional monarchies

Watch the videos of 1950s Iraq on YouTube and you glimpse something close to an idyll. It's true that Pathé News was not big on gritty realism, but history relates that here it was not using a heavily rose-tinted lens; Hugh Trevor-Roper even went so far as to describe Iraq at the time as a Levantine Switzerland. Or you can go to Google Images, tap in '1960s Afghan women' and be offered photographs of a mixed university biology class, and others of young women with short skirts, long hair and smiling faces.

This was life under the kings, and knowing what followed is enough to make a grown man weep. But let's be hard-headed and forward-looking: the creation of new constitutional monarchies is a sensible solution to such clear and present dangers as Isis. Life without them has been a disaster in the Middle East. Why can't we bring back the monarchs?

In Iraq the blood started flowing in 1958 when a group of army officers gunned down the royal family. The violence only increased when Saddam Hussein took power in the 1970s, but he did at least bring back one benefit of the old kingdom: stability. So despite it all -- the genocide of the Kurds, the invasion of a peaceful and fairly liberal neighbour (the constitutional monarchy of Kuwait) -- wise heads cautioned against his removal. Not only did he act as a bulwark against Iran, but like the old monarchy, he protected his own Sunni minority within Iraq. Nevertheless, America and its allies did topple Saddam -- and then were somehow surprised when the new democratic republic ill-served the Sunnis. The persecution carried out by the Shia majority wasn't as great as that carried out by the dictator, but its consequences couldn't have been more terrible, as it became a devastatingly successful recruiting sergeant for the Sunni terrorists of Isis. The present government is certainly less sectarian, but by now Isis atrocities mean that Sunnis won't be forming any part of the government in the foreseeable future.

The West cannot clear up the mess that it has made by dropping more bombs from on high. The answer to defeating Islamic State in Iraq lies with ordinary Sunnis, who would cease to tolerate the group if they were re-integrated into their national society and politics. And it is hard to think of a simpler, more practical or faster route to that end than a democratic government, with a Sunni sovereign maintaining a solid and self-perpetuating check on the tyranny of the majority. Syria's situation is ominously similar, except with the bloodstained boot on the other foot; why not consider, if the opportunity comes, a Shia monarch as a replacement for the Shia Assad?

In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, opinion polls commissioned by the Pentagon showed no appetite among Iraqis for a republic. So why was one imposed on them? After the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, why was a blind eye turned to the royalist flags, a deaf ear to the royalist anthem? And in Afghanistan, why was pressure put on the old king, Zahir Shah, to rule himself out when just his quiet return to the country produced a level of support that looked likely to have him elected head of state?

A large part of the blame lies with America. The land of the free, which threw off the rule of King George, is fiercely democratic -- even police chiefs and judges are elected. Let's overlook the likely dynastic clash between a Clinton and a Bush in 2016, and agree that the US constitution looks great on paper. …

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