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Does Arab monarchy matter?

What does it mean that no Kings have thus far fallen in the Arab uprisings while four non-monarchical rulers (Ben Ali, Mubarak, Qaddafi and Saleh) have toppled from their (non-royal) thrones and a fifth has plunged his country into a brutal civil war?   Is there a monarchical exception in the Arab world?   The significance of monarchy has been one of the most vibrant debates among political scientists over the last two years, as I wrote about a few months ago.  A new article in the Journal of Politics by Victor Menaldo claiming statistical evidence for a monarchical advantage prompted me to revisit these arguments this week.    

The advantages of monarchy have taken on the feel of "common sense" among the public and in academic debates. But I remain highly skeptical about the more ambitious arguments for a monarchical exception. Access to vast wealth and useful international allies seems a more plausible explanation for the resilience of most of the Arab monarchies.  Surviving with the financial resources and international allies available to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE seems like no great trick.  The active, concerted economic, political, media (and occasionally military) Saudi and Qatari support for their less wealthy fellow monarchs seems to be more important to the survival of the current crop of kings than the intrinsic institutional characteristics of a throne. 

There has been a robust academic argument over the possible political benefits of monarchy at least since Lisa Anderson's influential 1991 article "Absolutism and the Resilience of Monarchy."  The operation of dynastic monarchies in relation to other regime types have been detailed and analyzed in important work by Michael Herb and many other political scientists over the last two decades.  That debate intersects in productive ways with broader research trends in political science over the last decade over the many varieties of authoritarianism.  In that context, I certainly don't mean to say that monarchy doesn't matter at all.  It seems obvious that different regime types will create different incentives, institutions, and possibilities for political contention.  And the relative survival rate of the monarchies during the Arab uprisings of the last years is certainly suggestive of something.  But I remain highly skeptical of the stronger theoretical and policy claims about the positive political benefits of Arab monarchy.   

I am particularly unpersuaded by arguments that the Arab monarchies enjoy a distinctive legitimacy.  Some Kings no doubt have been popular due to their personalities, their policies, or their ability to play their assigned role effectively.  But it is difficult to reconcile the idea of monarchical legitimacy with the tightly controlled media, carefully cultivated personality cults, and brutally policed "red lines" which generally characterize such regimes.  The alleged unique legitimacy of Arab monarchs strikes me as a carefully cultivated and ruthlessly policed political myth which could dissolve as quickly as did the universal adoration for Bashar al-Assad or Moammar Qaddafi when challenged.  If monarchy confers unique legitimacy on, say, King Abdullah of Jordan, then why the need for a draconian l'ese majeste law criminalizing insulting the King or escalating controls on the online media?  Why the need for Kuwait to jail someone for posting a YouTube video of a poem criticizing the Emir?  Why such concern among the Saudi leadership over the grumblings of the religious establishment?  

The claim for a unique legitimacy among the Arab monarchies is further undermined by the fact that they have in fact experienced significant political dissent over the last two years, to which they responded through fairly typical (albeit unusually well-resourced) combinations of repression and co-optation.   Kuwait experienced the most dramatic, largest and most effective political protests in its history, leading to a political crisis which has shut down Parliament and for the first time brought the prerogatives of the royal family directly into the public debate.  Quiet Oman faced unprecedented levels of protest which forced significant political reforms.  Saudi Arabia has faced persistent and growing protest in its Eastern Province, and forcefully cracked down on dissent elsewhere even as it lavished $130 billion on its restive population.  Bahrain's monarchy survived (for now) against truly massive popular mobilization only through the application of a brutal, sweeping campaign of sectarian repression.  Morocco's monarch diverted popular mobilization through an early offer of limited political reforms, while Jordan's monarch struggles with growing  popular mobilization and an ever-shrinking ruling coalition as his regime fails to effectively adapt. In other words, the resources and capabilities of the Arab monarchies may be different from their non-kingly peers, but the challenges facing them from popular mobilization really were not.

Other popular arguments in the literature for the monarchical exception also strike me as limited. It's true that the monarchies practice divide and rule, selectively co-opt and repress, and in some cases allow controlled elections to Parliaments with limited power --- but is this so different from the games played by Ben Ali, Mubarak, or Assad?  Perhaps monarchies offer a sense of predictability to politics and reduce the stakes of competition -- but were Syrians or Egyptians really under the illusion that their leaders might be voted out of office?  Perhaps monarchy allows all other citizens to know their place and not get any uppity ideas about a role in governing or oversight of their government's budgets -- but is such a second-class citizenship really viable in today's political environment?  And can we really say that monarchs are better at offering an inclusive national identity in the face of the virulent anti-Shi'a exclusions in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, or the constant exploitation of Transjordanian-Palestinian identity divides in Jordan? (I'd rather not get into Menaldo's arguments as to why the monarchies have less corruption, since the premise seems so implausible on its face.)

To me, the monarchies look like fairly typical Arab authoritarian regimes, surviving because they enjoy greater financial resources, less demanding international allies, and powerful media assets to perpetuate their legitimation myths.  And that means that they will not likely be spared should those assets lose value -- as they well might, given young, often underemployed populations that have some of the highest smartphone and media penetration in the world; dysfunctional political institutions; extravagant promises of public spending which may soon put serious strain on even Gulf budgets;  shifting regional political dynamics and reduced U.S. commitments; and uncertain leadership successions.  The monarchs may be on offense around the region right now, but their defense might not be a strong as it appears.

To paraphrase one of our great living philosopher kings, the Arab monarchies may be forced to choose among three dreams: the Saudi King's, Dr. King's and Rodney King's.   The monarchs would like their own people and the outside world to believe that they survive because of their effective and benevolent leadership, their unique political culture, and their distinctive legitimacy which requires no great concessions to meaningful democratic political participation.  But that very myth can blind them to the ever more urgent calls by reformists for just such political inclusion, transparency, an end to corruption, and equality of citizenship.  The violent repression and angry protests in Manama or Qatif provide stark warning of the danger of believing such comforting mythologies of resilience or legitimacy.  

The discussion of Arab monarchy really should be a debate, of course.  A lot of smart people do think that monarchy matters, and have developed sophisticated arguments and evidence to support the contention.  They may be right.  There's an outstanding literature in political science on the nature of various regime types, to which Middle East specialists have contributed significantly.  But if Gulf regimes start to suddenly fall, as predicted in this forthcoming book by Christopher Davidson, or the popular mobilization which already exists takes on new forms, then the embrace of the monarchical exception could soon look as foolish as did the passion for Lebanese consociationalism in the 1960s, the admiration for the Shah's developmental state in Iran in the 1970s, or the confidence in the resilience of Arab authoritarian regimes in the 2000s. 

AFP/Getty Images

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