A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Easy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown: Why Are the Monarchs Surviving as the Republics Fall?

I'm on vacation. As I did last year, I've prepared a series of posts ahead of time on historical, cultural, and linguistic topics that are not time-constrained. If events warrant, I will add current posts, but at least one new post will appear daily in my absence. Enjoy.
Canst thou, O partial sleep, give thy repose
To the wet sea-boy in an hour so rude,
And in the calmest and most stillest night,
With all appliances and means to boot,
Deny it to a king? Then happy low, lie down!
Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.

Henry IV, Part II

For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court and there thE antic sits,

Richard II, Act 3, Scene 2

Shakespeare's troubled kings do not find models among the crowned heads of the Middle East (though in an earlier era the late King Hussein of Jordan, or his ghostwriters, wrote a book entitled Uneasy Lies the Head). In the last decade, the heads of almost every mainstream Arab republic has been toppled or is on the verge of it:
Iraq: Saddam Hussein, toppled 2003, subsequently executed
Tunisia: Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, toppled 2011, in exile
Egypt: Husni Mubarak, toppled  2011, imprisoned
Libya: Mu‘ammar Qadhafi, toppled 2011, killed while fleeing
Yemen: ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih, negotiated out of office
Syria: Bashar al-Asad, fighting a civil war he appears to be losing
Sudan: ‘Umar al-Bashir, engaged in the early stages of an Arab Spring-type revolt
With the exception of Lebanon, the debatable "Algerian exception," and rather marginal states like Mauritania and Djibouti, Arab republics have either undergone dramatic transitions or are in the process of them.

The Kings, Amirs and Sultan are another matter. One might edit Shakespeare: in the Middle East, Easy Lies the Head That Wears a Crown. Not one monarch has fallen, at least not since the overthrows of the Libyan monarchy in 1969 and the Iranian Shah in 1979. Only Bahrain's throne has truly been in jeopardy, saved by Saudi intervention. Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan, Morocco, Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE and Iran have faced some demonstrations and challenges, but of these only Jordan, and the aforementioned Bahrain, seem to have even had much worry. A fair amount has been written about a "Moroccan exception," but it's true of the other monarchies, again Bahrain excepted, as well.

Of course everyone knows that some of the richer states, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE, have all used their oil revenues to provide lavish welfare states for their people, and have increased the flow whenever protest reared its head. But not all the Gulf states, and certainly not Jordan or Morocco, can turn on the oil largesse at will. So is the common ground really monarchy? Does the Divine Right of Kings (and Amirs and a Sultan) trump popular will?

If you're reading this expecting a clear cut answer, I don't have one. The monarchies are enormously different from each other. Morocco has had a unified state since the Middle Ages, was never under Ottoman rule, had only a brief colonial period (1911-56 ), and the present Alaouite dynasty has ruled since the 1600s. The first two statements and to some extent the third are also true of Oman, and the ruling Al Bu Said dynasty has ruled since 1749. Both have historical depth, national identity, and dynastic legitimacy working for them. Moroccan Sultans and, more recently, Kings have long been called "amir al-mu'minin" (commander of the faithful), a traditional title of Muslim caliphs, and have historical religious leadership claims.

The other monarchies have differing claims on legitimacy. Most of the rulers of the Arabian Peninsula, other than Oman, emerged from local ruling families (in the Saudi case, local rulers in the Najd, but with alliance with the Wahhabi religious establishment). Many of the families have roots in the 1700s, often under British protection during the 19th and 20th centuries.

Jordan's Hashemites have an impeccable descent from the Prophet and were hereditary Sharifs of Mecca, but only achieved political rule in the 20th century, under British patronage, in the Hijaz, (briefly) Syria, Iraq and Jordan. Today they cling only to Jordan.

It is no coincidence that Bahrain, where a Sunni family rules a Shi‘ite majority, has been most unstable during the present upheavals, dependent on Saudi intervention. Other states (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Dubai) have Shi‘ite citizens but in the minority. Moroccan Kings have long finessed the Arab-Berber split in Morocco by at various times portraying both identities (many Kings, including Hassan II, took both Arab and Berber wives). The Sultan of Oman is an Ibadi so the country's historic majority, though increasingly eclipsed by Sunnis, share some identification with the ruler.

So legitimacy is a factor. So is the ability of the oil states to buy off their populace. And so to some extent is the fact that in Jordan and Morocco at least, there are enough of the trappings of a constitutional monarchy to allow the King to deflect blame to a Prime Minister (as Jordan tends to do) or to allow the opposition a role (as in the creation of an Islamist PJD-dominated ministry in Morocco). Of course these may prove to be temporary solutions, but they've worked so far.

If you were expecting profound answers or theoretical ones, ask some political scientist. I'm a historian and I examine the context without trying to fit the facts to some Procrustean theoretical bed. (Sorry, political scientists, forgive the zinger.) But I thought I'd leave you with my ruminations on the matter, though with no answers.

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