Monarchies in the Middle East: How Long Can They Last?

Queen Elizabeth II, who reigned over the United Kingdom and fourteen other commonwealth realms for 70 years, was buried following a state funeral on 19 September 2022. 

The monarchy in Britain and other commonwealth countries is difficult to define and explain, largely because for almost all of living memory it has been personified by one person. 

Queen Elizabeth was not interventionist in politics. She was not domestically controversial. She met the first fourteen prime ministers she ruled over every Wednesday for a discussion, which always remained private. 

The monarch was given a heavy flow of state papers throughout her reign, and ministers universally remarked that she read and understood them, and asked pertinent questions.  

Lord Hennessy, a constitutional historian, said of the queen that all her prime ministers came to rely upon her over time, and many of them ‘fell in love with her’ and the institution of monarchy, in the same way. 

Other monarchs – especially long-lived ones – came to embody the same sense of wily skill and intuitional memory. 

Qaboos bin Said was the sultan of Oman for fifty years before his death in 2020. The longest-serving Arab leader at the time, he was widely seen as an anchor of stability for his country – which he came to rule through a military coup – and also as a seasoned observer of the region, a fount of good advice. 

Similarly, Hussein of Jordan in his own lifetime was almost revered by foreign diplomats, who wrote admiringly of the challenges he navigated both domestically and in Jordan’s neighbours. Keeping the throne in such an environment was considered a great achievement.   

This is the paradox of Arab monarchies: each is considered a possible point of stability in tumultuous times, but keeping the throne is a full-time job – and if one does it as Hussein did, it is considered an unlikely achievement.  

Many Arab monarchies were overthrown between the foundation of the modern Middle East after World War Two and the end of the Cold War: in Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya monarchies were not able to withstand changes in government. 

In a febrile Cold War environment, monarchies had to decide whether to side with the United States, in possible defiance of popular sentiment – as in Iran, where communists and the religious movement of Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the last shah in 1979 – or to join with the USSR and other contentious regimes, like that of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. 

Separate battles were fought between monarchs and pan-Arabist leaders, who often overthrew monarchies allied to the imperial powers of Britain and France in concert with the Soviet Union and sometimes, as in the 1952 Egyptian coup, the US. 

The monarchies that have survived each have different connotational roles for the king. All Middle East monarchs are more involved in politics than the strictly constitutional monarchs of Europe. Most Middle East monarchies appoint commoner prime ministers. In Saudi Arabia, politics is so driven by the House of Saud that the king is his own prime minister. 

Even then, the de facto rulers of Saudi Arabia are as often crown princes as kings, with Mohammed bin Salman, the current crown prince, effectively running the country in the name of his father. 

In the United Arab Emirates – a federation of individual monarchies – the head of state is an elected president: but the president is always the ruler of Abu Dhabi, currently Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan, who was the power behind the presidency of his brother, Khalifa, who died in May.  

Constitutionally, the exact status of the monarchy in Britain remains undefined. This is true of many monarchies – even the most absolute in the Middle East. Laws are signed in the name of the monarch. The courts answer to the monarch and administer justice in his name. But the exact mechanisms of power remain opaque. 

Much was written in the previous decade, as the Arab Spring overthrew dictators of decades, about the relative strength of Arab monarchies.   

The Jordanian Hashemite monarchy was once considered one of the most stable in the region. In power for 100 years, its members have not been overthrown by rivals within the ruling house – as happened, for example, in Oman in 1970 in the coup that brought Qaboos bin Said to power.  

But beginning in April 2021, the Jordanian monarchy has been consistently buffeted by what authorities say was a plot to overthrow the king, Abdullah II, involving his half-brother, Hamzah. 

Hamzah’s alleged grievances may have been personal, but for many in Jordan at the time, he quickly became a symbol of widespread criticism of official corruption, slow economic growth, and general political malaise.   

Hamzah is handsome and dashing and was, last year, popular enough that his arrest was seen to strengthen his ties to the parts of the population whose voices were not heard in economic debates. The king is associated with the stagnant present, while a possible challenger is associated with the possibility of better economic times to come.  

In 2022, the Jordanian monarchy once again tried to discredit Hamzah and succeeded in having him renounce his princely title and forswear more involvement in politics.  

This is a challenge all monarchies face across the region: the possibility that even if the monarchy itself remains stable and entrenched, a claimant to the throne could command more loyalty among either the military and political elite or enough of the people to create trouble for the current crowned head. 

The prevailing conditions of a country and its economy are likely to dictate the strength and survival of a monarchy.   

‘For the Gulf monarchies, it is difficult to get away from the transformative impact of gargantuan levels of hydrocarbon resources,’ said Dr David Roberts, associate professor at King’s College London. 

As hydrocarbons become less significant in the global economy as it transitions away from carbon-emitting energy, these monarchies face a profound challenge to the sources of their sway and legitimacy.   

In both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the monarchs intend to create alternative sources of national wealth designed to keep the countries rich and their monarchies in power. In the UAE, the country has pivoted to tourism and financial services. 

In Saudi Arabia, the post-oil future is the subject of the crown prince’s Vision 2030 plan, which includes large investment in entertainment – including sports like football, boxing, Formula One racing, and golf – and a new push for international tourism, including the historical site of al-Ula, and the creation of a new city of the future, Neom, and its strange counterpart The Line.   

‘Diversifying these economies away from a reliance on these kinds of basic sources of income has been a goal for generations. The results show that states fail to meaningfully diversify unless they are forced to – and even when the wells run practically dry, they switch, like Bahrain, to relying on other monarchies for financial support,’ Roberts wrote.  

Many analysts took the wrong lesson from the Arab Spring. They claimed that monarchies were more stable than the personal rule of nominally elected dictators, including Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. This is only true to an extent.   

Absolute and semi-constitutional monarchies are subject to the same problems as dictatorships: if the prevailing conditions of a country’s governance and economy are poor, the monarch can bear the same blame as a dictator would for a lack of liberty or for poverty and slow growth.  

Monarchies are not immune from overthrow, nor are they instinctively stable. Like other regimes, they survive and fall on the basis of how well they govern the country. And if they cannot do that well, they risk the unpopularity of the monarch and the ever-present threat of the loss of power. 

This piece was originally published at The New Arab.

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