Lords of the Realm

The wealthy, unaccountable monarchs of the Persian Gulf have long thought themselves exempt from Middle East turmoil. No longer.

As the history of the ruling dynasties of the Gulf monarchies seemingly begins its final chapter, or -- in Bahrain's case -- final weeks, it's worth pausing to consider where these families came from, how they ruled, and who's who. So here's a short guide to keeping your al-Khalifas straight from your al-Sauds, and avoid mixing up your al-Maktoums and your al-Thanis.

Of the current rulers, most had ancestors who were British creations. The 19th-century empire had been grappling with expensive far-flung colonies and preferred to make its new Persian Gulf dominions low-cost protectorates by signing peace treaties with whichever clan happened to be on top at the time. Britain provided signatory sheikhs with protection from all threats (including internal insurrection) in return for pledges to keep vital shipping lanes to India free from pirates. By the end of 1971, Britain had left the Gulf, but not before putting a new sultan on the Omani throne the year before, swapping Abu Dhabi's ruler in 1966, and extricating Kuwait from Iraqi annexation in 1961. The al-Saud dynasty of the Arabian interior -- a fierce Bedouin tribe from the unforgiving Nejd region -- were, as an exception, largely disconnected from British interests. But by 1933, with the founding of the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), their fortunes became increasingly tied to Western interests as they filled out the political vacuum of the oil-rich peninsula.

Prospering in the post-imperial, latter part of the 20th century, the various dynasties of the Gulf consolidated their grips on power by establishing extensive social contracts or "ruling bargains" with their citizenry. By receiving a portion of the oil wealth in the form of subsidies, housing, welfare, and easy public-sector employment, the bulk of the indigenous population forwent political participation, while the masses of imported foreign workers enjoyed better salaries than at home, could be deported at any time, and could never aspire to citizenship. With this setup, the dynasties were able to shift quietly from their former role as time-honored tribal leaders to their present-day role as autocrats presiding over closed, censorious societies and police states with appalling human rights records and few structural differences from dictators elsewhere in the pre-2011 Arab world.

In many ways, with political parties mostly forbidden in the Gulf, the ever-expanding dynasties have become akin to large parties in a single-party system. With hundreds of members, and in Saudi Arabia's case many thousands, they occupy most key government and business positions and are able -- through shell companies -- to take cuts in most substantial domestic enterprises and joint ventures with foreign companies. All receive annual "stipends" from the ruler himself, ranging from about $140,000 for lowly members of the Bahraini ruling family to far more substantial sums for members of the more affluent Abu Dhabi and Qatar dynasties. Much of this wealth -- which future governments should try to recover given that it was derived from the region's oil -- has been secreted abroad, funding substantial properties in Western capitals and other destinations, both for leisure use and for setting up bolt-holes should the Gulf become unstable. Moreover, as proved time and again, the dynasties are often above the law, with it proving all but impossible to prosecute successfully senior members of ruling families in their home countries.

The al-Saud family, presiding over the largest of the Gulf states, deserves the most attention. Given its guardianship of the two holy shrines of Mecca and Medina, and a historic alliance with the Wahhabi movement, it has always maintained a conservative edge. This has been a blessing and a curse for the family, for while it has been able to draw on greater religious legitimacy than its neighbors, it has also made it difficult to enact meaningful social reforms. The current king -- Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud -- has stated that he is in favor of women driving and has even set up a coeducational university. But he faces opposition every step of the way. Another difficulty for the family is the looming succession crisis. The crown prince -- Sultan bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud -- is 83 years old and nearly as aged as the king. The powerful Nayef bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud -- the kingdom's minister for interior -- is 77, and the long-serving governor of Riyadh -- Salman bin Abdel Aziz Al Saud -- is 71. Very soon the dynasty will have to decide how to shift away from appointing the sons of Saudi Arabia's original patriarch, and move on to the next generation. There are several contenders, including Sultan's son, Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud -- a former ambassador to the United States; Nayef's son and effective deputy Mohammed bin Nayef al-Saud; and Mohammed bin Fahd al-Saud -- a son of the former king, Fahd bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud.

The United Arab Emirates is an equally complex case. Made up seven different emirates bound together in a loose confederation, each has its own monarchy, but with Abu Dhabi commanding the bulk of the UAE's oil wealth, that emirate's leaders have always been synonymous with the UAE's presidency. The al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi have historically been quite cautious and conservative rulers, preferring to keep family matters as private as possible and position themselves as "honest brokers" in trying to fix disputes elsewhere in the UAE. Their patriarch -- Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan -- was ruler up until 2004, when he was succeeded peacefully by his eldest son, Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Khalifa rules as a figurehead, having been described in a recent WikiLeaks cable signed by the U.S. ambassador as a "distant and uncharismatic personage." The real power rests with Khalifa's crown prince and younger half-brother, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Mohammed has five younger full brothers, including the UAE's minister for foreign affairs, and these represent the future of the regime. Dubai's ruler, Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, serves as the UAE's prime minister and minister of defense. But these are meaningless positions, and his role in Dubai's spectacular economic collapse will ensure he plays little part in future UAE-wide politics. The rulers of the smaller emirates have minimal influence and have ended up as subsidized vassals. Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, deserves special mention as an educated and well-respected figure. (That said, Sharjah has been the scene of some horrific human rights violations in recent years.)

Kuwait's al-Sabah family has historically been the least autocratic of the Gulf dynasties, having operated a parliament -- on and off -- for several decades. This relative openness is not out of choice, however, as it is best explained by Kuwait's relatively early independence, which came at a time when the merchant classes were still powerful and had to be consulted by the ruling family. The emir, Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, was formerly Kuwait's prime minister and minister for foreign affairs, and is generally well liked, though perhaps regarded as unable to control members of the family underneath him. The crown prince is the emir's brother, Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, while the current prime minister, also a royal, is Nasser Mohammed al-Ahmed al-Sabah.

Qatar's ruling al-Thani dynasty is small and dynamic. With massive gas reserves it is in the best position of all the monarchies, able to distribute wealth freely to its small citizen base. Moreover, with an "active neutral" foreign policy and as guardians of the hard-hitting Al Jazeera network, it has been able to claim credit with protesters across the Arab world. Four people matter within the family: the emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani; his crown prince and son, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani; his powerful prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani; and his much-feted wife, Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, who oversees the flush Qatar Foundation and many of the emirate's high-profile education projects.

Oman's Al-Bu Said dynasty is the most difficult to understand. Having ousted his father with British help in 1970, the current sultan, Qaboos bin Said Al-Bu Said, is childless and without heirs. As with Saudi Arabia, a succession crisis looms as Qaboos is now 70. Also complicating matters, Qaboos has historically kept relatives out of government, fearing parallel power bases. As such, there is much speculation about who may come next. According to primogeniture, it should be one of the sons of his late uncle, Tariq bin Taimur Al-Bu Said, who was Oman's only-ever prime minister in the early 1970s.

Finally, the smallest and most embattled of the Gulf dynasties, the al-Khalifa of Bahrain, have always had the hardest job. With much less oil wealth than their neighbors, they have been unable to subsidize their population as effectively and have been dogged by accusations of torture and human rights abuses. Moreover, the majority of the population is Shiite, while the ruling elite are all Sunni. This has added a sectarian tinge to Bahrain's problems, as most Shiite have been excluded from significant positions and have complained that the al-Khalifa have been trying to alter the demographic makeup of Bahrain by offering passports to expatriate Sunnis. Only three people really matter in Bahrain: the self-proclaimed king since 2002 and ruler since 1999, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa; his crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa; and the much-disliked uncle of the king, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has been Bahrain's prime minister for 40 years. Of the three, Crown Prince Salman is seen as the most moderate. Unsurprisingly, therefore, he has been pushed to the fore in negotiating with protesters. But given the small size of the Bahraini ruling family, any portrayal of one member as more moderate than another is meaningless, as all operate within the very core of the regime.

Now that the al-Khalifa have sanctioned the use of live ammunition, rubber bullets, and tear gas on the population, and were quick to deploy tanks and mercenary troops, it's unlikely that the protesters will give up until they achieve full regime change. At the very least, the long-serving prime minister will have to go, and a genuine constitutional monarchy set up. Given Bahrain's historic role as a political and cultural hub in the region, its protesters are already having a demonstration effect on disgruntled citizens in the other Gulf monarchies. Qatar remains fairly secure given the masses of distributed wealth, while Kuwait -- courtesy of its parliament -- should have enough of a safety valve to avoid full-blown riots. This is ironic, as for many years its stumbling parliament was derided by its more autocratic neighbors.

Saudi Arabia and Oman, however, have large numbers of poor, disenfranchised nationals, many of whom will now see a future without dynasties, palaces, and subsidies. They will likely take action. Even in the UAE, where there are hundreds of thousands of nationals living in modest conditions in the northern emirates, plus up to a hundred-thousand stateless "bidoon" people, there are protests planned against their Abu Dhabi masters.



Let Mubarak Go

Sometimes trying dictators for their crimes can do more damage than good.

The overthrow of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's dictatorship in Tunisia and fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt led almost immediately to calls for both men to be brought to justice. One of the first acts of the new Tunisian government was to issue an arrest warrant for Ben Ali, his wife Leila Trabelsi, and a number of members of their immediate family. It then asked Interpol to pressure Saudi Arabia to stop giving them sanctuary and turn them over to the Tunisian authorities. Mubarak has not suffered a similar fate -- not so far, anyway -- but already the Egyptian authorities have arrested three ex-ministers, as well as steel magnate Ahmed Ezz, on corruption charges. It is unlikely that this will be enough to satisfy those who took to the streets in Cairo and Alexandria to demand that the tyrant give up power.

Their determination should come as no surprise. The deep roots of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt may be economic, but the calls in the street were for democracy and human rights. It may have taken awhile for the notion of international justice to arrive in the Arab world, but that it did was inevitable -- it is the signature achievement of the human rights movement over the past 30 years. Whether it takes the form of truth commissions, as in post-apartheid South Africa and Argentina after the fall of the military dictatorship; special tribunals as were established in Sierra Leone, East Timor, and Cambodia; or the International Criminal Court, the idea that there can be no lasting end to a conflict or no certainty a people can safely put the bitter experience of a dictatorship behind them without sooner or later bringing warlords, torturers, and tyrants to justice is now gospel in the human rights community and at the United Nations, and almost as widely accepted among the other major international actors. In the post-Cold War era of human rights, the classical international relations view that often a choice has to be made between peace and justice has largely given way to the assumption that unless the two are pursued together, neither will be realized.

It is a lopsided debate. People may make a point about timing -- for example, that it would have been a mistake to try to hold accountable Chilean tyrant Augusto Pinochet for his crimes immediately after he stepped down from power, because the army might have launched another coup. Whereas some years later, they argue, that threat had largely abated and justice could safely be served. But such is the intellectual and moral hegemony of "human-rightism" (and whatever its partisans may contend, it is an ideology, not just a set of legal benchmarks) that almost no one in any reputable international forum now dares suggest that actually sometimes it is crucial to give up justice in favor of peace. To do so would be to accept something that decent people in the early 21st century seem to find all but unthinkable -- that victims of torture and repression will not get the moral restitution that indictments and trials promise and that the democratic regimes that succeed oppressive ones have both a practical and ethical obligation to provide that relief, that closure.

Some human rights activists believe that the desire of the new Tunisian government to establish that it has the democratic legitimacy to try Ben Ali has led it to move so quickly to ratify a number of the most important human rights treaties that the dictator had steadfastly refused to sign. They point to the fact that the Council of Ministers of Tunisia's transitional government announced on the evening of Feb. 1 that the country would ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, as well as the two optional protocols to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The second protocol, incidentally, commits Tunisia to formally abolishing the death penalty (Ben Ali had, last year, imposed a moratorium). If this theory is correct, as it appears to be, then it marks a watershed moment. In the past, changes in international human rights norms were seen as leading, however slowly and painfully, to trials and other practical steps to reform the abusive practices of the past. But the process seems to have been reversed in the Tunisian case: The populist desire to bring Ben Ali and the Trabelsis to justice has led authorities to embrace the broad norms associated with global human rights. And, again, it is certainly possible that a similar dynamic will take hold in Egypt.

The larger question, however, is whether -- as human rights activists take as an article of faith -- such trials will strengthen the democratization of those countries in the Arab Middle East that have or may yet depose their long-ruling dictators, just as they have in other parts of the world. Or will this newfound willingness to jump into the arms of international justice be more of an impediment to peaceful democratization? To put the matter starkly, is it really better to go after Ben Ali in his Saudi Arabian exile and keep the pressure up on the House of Saud to disgorge him to Interpol? Or might it not be better to leave well enough alone, going after the Ben Ali clan's global assets but leaving the man himself to fade to an irrelevance that a reopening of wounds -- as a trial most certainly would -- actually might prevent?

To state the obvious, neither Ben Ali, let alone Mubarak, ruled alone. Nor will even the most thorough-going political and bureaucratic housecleaning sweep all their cronies away. To the contrary, it is a virtual certainty than many, though of course not all, of those who collaborated with these tyrants -- or held positions of power thanks to their patronage or made immense amounts of money under the old system -- will remain central in the new Tunisia and the new Egypt. Mubarak is 82 and has cancer, so surely there is a question of whether the passions (not to mention the embarrassing revelations) that a trial would stir would best be left unkindled? It is true, of course, that if the dictator's former ministers of interior, tourism, and housing really are brought to trial, much detail about Mubarak's role in the corrupt practices with which they are charged will inevitably come out. But they do not compare with the revelations that likely would be disgorged were Mubarak himself put in the dock.

For all the easy talk in human rights circles about the central importance of post-conflict or post-tyranny justice, the empirical evidence about the long-term effects of this process on durable peace or social comity is thin at best and varies greatly from place to place. There can be no question that the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission process -- where, if abusers publicly admitted to their crimes, they would not be prosecuted -- played an essential role in the forging of a post-apartheid society. On the other hand, the Pinochet indictment took place after there no longer existed any serious threat to Chilean democracy. And one can certainly make the case that sending tyrants into exile has in many cases done as much to speed reconciliation and facilitate durable peace as any trial. Idi Amin in Uganda and Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti are two obvious examples from the past. So why do we automatically suppose the citizens of Egypt and Tunisia deserve a formal reckoning with their former leaders? And why do we insist that they could not possibly be better off if their leaders were simply left to run out their days in impotent exile?

Strip away the wishful thinking about human nature, political reality, or the redemptive potential of the law, and the case that fallen dictators and those who served them should always be brought to justice becomes far more debatable. Indeed, the certainty that democracy cannot take root without an end to impunity looks more, in its inflexibility, like the intellectual Achilles' heel of the global human rights movement. There has not been a revolution yet that has fully met the expectations of those who made it. In Tunisia and Egypt, the degree of anger and cynicism that would surely be engendered by what these trials would reveal might do more to impede the peaceful movement toward democracy than allowing Ben Ali and Mubarak to simply fade away. Democracy is hard enough. And however much we would like democracy, peace, justice, and reconciliation, the sad truth is that not all good things can always be reconciled.

My suspicion is that this is one of those times.

Mohammad Abed/AFP