Become a Member!

Sign In

Are Arab Monarchies more Resistant to Change?

by Nadine Mansour on 20 Jan 2012 | Comments

Revolutions have been sweeping the Middle East and North Africa for a year now, in what has been commonly referred to as the Arab Spring. When looking back and examining which Arab countries have not yet experienced large-scale protests or anything commonly considered a revolution, one realizes that these countries govern through traditional versus legal forms of domination, i.e., they are hereditary monarchies. The Kingdoms of Morocco, Jordan, Bahrain, as well as those of Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the U.A.E. and Qatar, have been left relatively unscathed by the regional revolutionary zeitgeist, which begs the question, why? This piece will not attempt to prove if a monarchy as a form of government is more or less prone to popular revolt, or resilient to calls for reform. It will instead explain certain dynamics of such regimes as compared to their republican counterparts, which have already seen large-scale protests or democratic transition. I find that there are structural differences between the two forms of government, but ultimately there might not be such drastic differences in the prospects of change between the two.

Sources of Change

Arab monarchies have not been characterized by the persistent mass mobilization of their populations, but rather, by appeasement policies and repeated promises of reform. In the past year Saudi Arabia has allowed its women to vote (though not yet to drive); cabinets have been continuously reshuffled, constitutional amendments passed, reviews of government performance published, and economic incentives promised. There has been the constant reminder that the government is willing to engage in ‘open dialogue’ and the King of Jordan has even stated that the “failure to change is a lose-lose proposition”. But what kind of change can really emerge from within the regime itself? The government may promise reform, but essentially, the source of the ‘change’ would remain the monarch.

Initial promises of reform in Arab republics were not enough to diminish escalating protests, and ultimately, leaders were forced to resign. Libya was, and Syria remains, an exception. It was citizens of Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya who were the source of change, and who still continue to work toward achieving democracy. Yet even these bottom-up processes toward reform have faced difficulties, especially as competing opinions arise on how to form new governments and manage the democratic transition. Might it be more effective, then, to instate reform in a top-down fashion, as these monarchies claim to be doing?

Leaderless Revolutions versus Top-down Reform

The revolutions which have so far advanced the furthest are those of Tunisia and Egypt. No doubt they were bottom-up processes, with the social advantage of allowing for the participation of a vast array of society; the poor and the well-educated, Muslims and Christians, men and women. A leaderless revolution has its virtue in mass inclusion, bringing it one step closer toward democracy through mass mobilization. But beyond the point of removing the leader is when the leaderless revolution perhaps presents some difficulties, if not disadvantages.

The issue to be taken with mass inclusion is that during times of disagreement on how to put in place a new government, the remaining reform elements are often established upon what the country had already agreed upon, namely, the old regime’s legal system. This is perhaps exemplified by Egypt’s constitutional referendum, where, given the choice of rewriting the constitution or amending certain parts of it, about seventy percent of voters chose the latter, indicating their reversion to the old legal system, and reflecting a prevalent fear of too drastic change. Essentially, even the mass movements of the Arab republics have not yet been complete removals of the old regimes. Thus, when examining monarchies, is it any different when a king attempts to institute certain changes while maintaining the present governing structure?

Forms of Government Structure and Legitimation

Protests in Arab monarchies have on the whole called for government reform rather than the toppling of the leader. Essentially, this difference comes from the different forms of authority that the people attach to their leaders. As described by sociologist Max Weber, the traditional form of legitimate domination results from a leader’s claim to divine or hereditary privilege. The legitimacy of certain Arab kings in the eyes of their subjects rests on their claims of descent from the Prophet Mohamed. Conversely, legal forms, most commonly associated with democracies and republics, are based on legally rational measures, such as elections. If citizens have placed the leader in power though their consent, the removal of their consent therefore rationalizes his removal.

Perhaps it is then more difficult to imagine the monarch’s cross-generational familial ties with the throne severed in just a few months. Perhaps not. Lisa Anderson indicates in her 1991 article, Absolutism and the Resilience of Monarchy in the Middle East, that “monarchy as currently understood in the Middle East is no more indigenous than liberal democracy”. The families of the current leaders- King Mohammed VI of Morocco and King Abdullah II of Jordan- were actually instated by French and British colonial rule in the 20th century. Left with remnants of colonial structures, these monarchies have been able to remain strong and centralized. The removal of presidents like Mubarak and Ben Ali, and not any Arab kings as of yet, essentially comes down to what it means to cause the downfall of the regime, and not merely the head of state. In Egypt, the army, a strong U.S. ally, still holds power after Mubarak’s fall and maintains certain stabilizing policies of the Mubarak era. But when a monarch is toppled, essentially, the state’s legislative, military, and sometimes even religious allegiances shift, allowing for a greater chance of state decentralization and regional uncertainty. Perhaps fear of this uncertainty is what had deterred the call for the monarch’s removal, until now.

The People Demand the Downfall of the…. King?

Throughout the revolutions, people have expressed their will by chanting, “The people demand the downfall of the regime”. Despite the more drastic outcomes that might result from the removal of a monarch as opposed to a president, citizens of kingdoms have begun expressing the same ambitions. Following sustained protests since February, it was only recently that protestors in Bahrain began calling for the removal of the king himself. This call and response to the king’s speech given last week was voiced by the head of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, who claimed that it was actually the king whom the people faulted and that that it was since his ascendancy to the throne in 2002 that injustice has been rampant.

In Morocco, the desire for the removal of the king has also been displayed during street protests. According to the NYTimes, the country’s motto “God, the Nation, the King,” has been transformed into “God, the Nation, Liberty”; and “Long live the King” has become “Long Live the People.” Morocco, unlike Jordan and Bahrain, was officially an absolutist monarchy. The king’s first step toward reform was announcing a transition to a constitutional monarchy, yet still allotting himself supreme military and religious authority. But top-down reform measures are not effectively appeasing the people. Just today, AlJazeera has reported the self-immolation of unemployed college graduates, echoing the catalytic action of Mohamed Bouazizi at the start of the Arab Spring. Protestors in kingdoms are slowly starting to adopt methods resembling those of their counterparts in republics. Whether these mass movements will be effective in countries with a heavily centralized king, or whether monarchies will prove themselves immune to change by the people, is to be discovered as the movements develop.

Please send any observations or interesting articles to my attention at or to our Facebook page.