Why Middle East Monarchies Might Hold On

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

Arab monarchies were long thought to be more favorable to democratization than republics. Monarchs who enjoyed popular legitimacy and political security are on balance more willing to take risks, the argument went, gradually letting go of power and embarking on potentially destabilizing reforms. Since kings do not depend on elections to maintain power, they have less to fear from holding them. But the region’s uprisings seem to demonstrate that republics are the most promising candidates for systemic change. Egypt and Tunisia, both led by unpopular presidents, were the first to go. The other likely candidates for revolutions — Libya, Yemen, and possibly Algeria — are all republics.

Two distinct models for change are emerging. In republics, the person of the president, because of his dominating, partisan role, provides a rallying point for an otherwise fractious opposition. The protesters may disagree on how their country should be run and by whom, but they at least agree one thing: the president must go. The goal isn’t political change, which can mean many different things in execution, but regime change.

Protesters in monarchies lack a similarly clear mission. They face a more formidable opponent –kings can be just as repressive as presidents but can draw on greater religious and historical legitimacy, often allowing them to retain some popularity. Kings, in other words, manage to still be autocrats but in a less overt way, which is in part what makes their reign more acceptable to their people. Where Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya resorted to flagrantly rigged elections, monarchs in Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, and Kuwait hold reasonably free polls and permit legal opposition. It just so happens that these elections determine relatively little of real importance. Decision-making authority remains with the king and the cabinets that he appoints. These regimes have been able to create the illusion of reform even as they strengthened their grip on power. Jordan went from having, in 1992, the best ever Freedom House scores for an Arab country to full-blown authoritarianism fifteen years later.

Nearly two months after Tunisia’s revolution, monarchs have emerged largely unscathed. Protest movements and opposition groups have largely respected regime red lines, avoiding direct attacks on the monarchy. In late January, Jordanian protesters called for the downfall of Prime Minister Samir al-Rifai’s government, though they knew that Rifai openly served at the king’s pleasure. Rifai stepped down, but King Abdullah — the leader — stayed on, as powerful as before.

Opposition groups in Arab monarchies, however, are beginning to shake off their longstanding caution. The king’s prerogatives, if not the fact of his rule, have made the lists of protester grievances in Jordan as well as Bahrain, Morocco, and even Saudi Arabia. Protesters have taken to calling for “constitutional monarchy.” This would likely mean that the king transfer some of his considerable powers to elected governments. Of course, monarchs are not known for voluntarily giving up power. As Jordan’s new prime minister, presumably channeling the king’s vision, explained to skeptics, “I’m not opting for a temporary containment policy, but real reform is a gradual process.” Egyptians and Tunisians, whose presidents made similarly vague promises days before their ousters, would probably beg to differ.

Self-democratizing monarchies are rare in recent history. More often, they’re overthrown. In the case of Europe, the transition from absolute to constitutional monarchy took decades or centuries and usually involved bloodshed or even, as in Portugal, assassination. Spain’s King Juan Carlos oversaw the country’s transition to democracy in the 1970s, but he had never ruled as an absolute monarch in the first place. Indeed, Juan Carlos lived in exile until just a few years before the death of Spain’s dictator for 36 years, Francisco Franco, who enacted a law of succession that would restore the monarchy-in-exile after he died. Perhaps the most relevant case of recent years is Bhutan, where the monarchy began a “democratic transition” in 2002. But that transition has since stalled, with the king retaining important powers and criticism of the monarchy still a punishable crime. Kings, even the most benevolent, don’t often give up their power willingly.

Assuming Jordanians are unwilling to wait decades for “gradual” reform, there are no obvious models to copy, except perhaps their own. In 1989, King Hussein initiated democratic reforms, holding free elections that returned an opposition majority. In 1991, the Muslim Brotherhood joined a coalition government with five ministries in one of the first and only times an Islamist group has held executive power in the Arab world. But the optimism soon turned to disappointment in 1993 as the regime began a concerted process of de-liberalization, which left the country in its current less-than-democratic state.

Bahrain’s ruling al-Khalifa family led their own reform initiative in 2001, which included the establishment of an elected parliament. But the reforms did not alter the system of Sunni minority rule over the poorer Shia majority, part of the underlying structure of inequality driving the ongoing demonstrations there.

The growing unrest in these two strategically vital, U.S.-backed autocracies is, in part, a ,result and reaction to failed transition processes. Still, most Arab monarchs stand a good chance of weathering the mounting discontent. When things go wrong, kings can always claim plausible deniability. They can blame their governments and then dismiss them. Kings like to see themselves as above the fray — umpires rather than partisans. As the late King Hassan II of Morocco famously said, “I will never be put into an equation.” His successors, however, are finding that the equation is changing.

It’s been decades since any country in the world has met the challenge of peacefully transitioning from a non-democratic monarchy to a democracy. So the increasingly emboldened oppositions in the monarchies of North Africa or the Middle East will need to devise a new model for change. No matter what they do, it won’t be easy. Let’s just hope it won’t be bloody.