Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Arab Spring: The Arab Spring and the Middle East’s Monarchies

Source: ISN

The Arab Spring and the Middle East’s Monarchies

With the notable exception of Bahrain, the monarchies of the Middle East have emerged from the Arab Spring relatively unscathed. In today’s Questions and Answers presentation, the CSS’ Lorenzo Vidino explains why they have been able to contend with the political upheavals gripping the region.

By Lorenzo Vidino for the ISN

In the wake of the Arab Spring, revolutionary unrest has spread unevenly throughout the Middle East. To what extent have monarchies been affected by popular protests?

Arab monarchies seem to have been less affected by the protests of the Arab Spring than the various presidents and generals throughout the region. None of the eight Arab monarchic states has been toppled or faced the kind of challenge the Assad regime is trying to resist in Syria. However, each state should be analyzed individually. In Morocco, the largely peaceful February 20 movement organized massive protests against the king but seems to have recently lost traction. The Jordanian monarchy has also seen large protests, exacerbated by the deep economic crisis plaguing the country. In both countries, the monarchies reacted to the protests with a mix of political and economic reforms (the depth of which is debatable).

The Arab Gulf monarchies seem to have been only minimally touched, at least internally, by the phenomenon. Although expressions of discontent influenced by the Arab Spring have surfaced from various quarters, no notable protests have taken place in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar or Oman—countries, to be sure, where political dissent is not commonly voiced in public protests.

The obvious exception is Bahrain, where massive street protests have been quashed by the government with often repressive measures. It must be said, however, that the Arab Spring re-energized preexisting sectarian tensions between the Shia majority and the ruling Sunni minority in Bahrain.

Why have they been better able to withstand the protests compared to the region’s other authoritarian regimes?

I do not believe there is one answer to this question, as each case is different. Moreover, in all cases a combination of factors has contributed to the monarchs’ ability to hold on to power.

It can be argued that Arab monarchs enjoy a degree of legitimacy among their populations that the region’s presidents and generals do not. In some cases this legitimacy is rooted in religion, as in the case of the kings of Morocco and Jordan, who both claim links to the prophet Mohammed, or the Saudi royal family, which portrays itself as the protector of the holy places of Islam (Mecca and Medina). In other cases, this alleged legitimacy is derived by deep roots in the country’s tribal system and the king is seen as the guarantor of that system’s stability.

Another possible explanation is that monarchies find it easier to carry out reforms. Most Arab countries have reacted to the Arab Spring by seeking to enact economic and social reforms in order to placate protesters. The region’s authoritarian monarchies can implement such reforms (irrespective of how deep and authentic) in a top-down manner that guarantees a fast implementation that civilian rulers throughout the region have been unable to provide.

Monarchs also arguably possess a significantly larger ability to avoid blame in the eyes of the population than their civilian counterparts. It has been a common behavior for kings and emirs in the region to scapegoat unpopular elected politicians and ineffective administrations for their country’s ills, thereby avoiding their arguably deserved share of the blame.

But particularly when it comes to the kingdoms of the Arab Gulf, a key factor that needs to be considered is the ability of the ruling families to dispense massive economic handouts to the population. As the winds of the Arab Spring began to blow through the Gulf, the Kuwaiti regime, for example, gave $3,500 to every citizen and the Saudis invested more than $130 billion in job creation and salary increases. There is no question that the distribution of these massive resources - often to an extensive patronage network - has helped the Gulf region’s kings and emirs to avoid ending up like Mubarak or Ben Ali.

Finally, the geopolitical situation of these countries should not be overlooked. Fearing the spread of the Arab Spring to their region, the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council reinforced their joint efforts to maintain stability and this mutual support has had its effects. As the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s (FPRI) Sean Yom correctly points out, had it not been for the Saudi-led GCC troops entering Bahrain, it is quite likely that the Manama government would have collapsed under the pressure of the paralyzing street protests organized by the Shia population. The stability of these countries is also strongly supported for economic and strategic reasons by the United States, which has refrained from directing against the monarchies the same level of criticism it levied towards regimes in North Africa.

Having said all this, I am still not completely sure that the monarchies necessarily possess special traits that provide them with a unique ability to withstand change. If tomorrow, for example, the Jordanian monarchy were to collapse—hardly a far-fetched hypothesis—we will find ourselves disputing all of the abovementioned theories.

What are the wider implications of the political transformations in the region for monarchies?

Arab monarchies, being quintessential status quo entities, have perceived the Arab Spring as a major threat to their interests. Internally, they fear the possibility of a contagion leading their own citizens to challenge their power. Externally, they fear both the instability that the Arab Spring has created in various countries throughout their neighborhood (Yemen and Syria, for example) and the possibility that the new Islamist governments of various Arab countries could pursue policies inimical to their own. In that regard, particularly acute among Gulf monarchies is the fear that Islamist governments might ally themselves with Iran, which is universally perceived by them as their foremost threat.

Indeed, the relationship between Gulf monarchies and the Muslim Brotherhood has been particularly interesting. Throughout the last few decades most Gulf countries have maintained a “keep your friends close but your enemies closer” relationship with the global network of the Muslim Brotherhood. On one hand Gulf monarchies have been the main benefactors of the movement, generously financing their activities throughout the world since the 1960s. On the other hand, most Gulf countries have never allowed the Brotherhood to formally establish a presence on their territory, fearing that they might eventually challenge their power.

These fears have significantly worsened since the beginning of the Arab Spring. For instance, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has become particularly wary of the Muslim Brotherhood. Senior figures in the UAE government have openly accused the Brotherhood of seeking to “export the revolution” to the Gulf. Over the last few months, Emirati authorities have severely clamped down on Brotherhood-related networks, arresting dozens of suspected Brotherhood activists and accusing them of subversive activities and plotting to overthrow the government.

Qatar, on the other hand, has adopted a different policy. It has become the most enthusiastic political and financial sponsor of Brotherhood entities throughout the Arab world since the beginning of the Arab Spring—a position motivated both by ideological affinities and by pragmatic strategic calculations on the part of Doha.

Lorenzo Vidino is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies (CSS) and a lecturer at the University of Zurich.