In the years since the Arab uprisings of 2011, political unrest has spread and emerged throughout the entire Middle East and Northern Africa (MENA). But this distribution of political revolution in MENA is not what one would describe as “even.” Nearly each of the regimes that have significantly been impacted by this social mobilization all classify as autocratic governments, while monarchies largely escaped unscathed. In a 2004 article regarding the survival of MENA monarchies, Russel Lucas states that the eight monarchs who remain in power, “not only reign, but rule as well.” This is indicative of a fundamental question in political science that has emerged since 2011, which is why certain types of monarchies have survived in MENA, and others have not.
The map here shows that from a global perspective, a vast majority of the remaining ruling monarchies are in the MENA Region
By their nature, monarchies are a sub-type of authoritarian regimes – and yes, monarchies too, have further sub-types. The first monarchical group may be categorized as “rentier monarchies,” which include Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and other GCC monarchies. States such as Jordan and Morocco are most accurately categorized as “non-rentier monarchies,” which since the uprisings of 2011, have developed their socioeconomic infrastructure. The third group is the failed monarchies. The 20th century saw the dissolution of many Middle Eastern royal families and monarchs, including Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Iraq – nearly all by military coups or forceful overthrow. Each monarch in MENA faces different geopolitical obstacles, as well as resource restrictions, in their efforts to remain in power.
One of the main demographic challenges monarchs in this region face is the influx of young people, called the “youth bulge.” The youth bulge is the culmination of a frustrated and educated society, that is often unemployed and dissatisfied in their government. This is often increased further due to high levels of corruption and succession uncertainty in the royal family. Scholars describe this breakdown between society and the ruling class as “linchpin monarchies,” in that there is a disconnect between the elites and the society. These unchecked “Sultanistic” regimes with absolute dictators often face being overthrown due to a combination of these factors, such was the case with Gaddafi.
Faced with various challenges of differing natures, MENA monarchs often respond with efforts of legitimization – which often does not include political reform. Coercion is often used to decrease levels of social mobilization against the monarchy, such as violent repression in the form of riot shields and tear gas. Some regimes take a monetary approach and award doles to families or provide cash rents within the domestic economy. Saudi Arabia’s “Saudi 2030” is a prime example of such efforts of economic diversification, that contemporary MENA economists preach. From the religious perspective, Arab societies are hindered from revolting against unjust regimes because of an adherence to Taqwa. This word in Islam is representative of their commitment to obedience to authority, having this “fear of God,” apply to their monarch as well. This is also aided by the fact that in addition to MENA as a whole, numerous GCC countries have religious requisites for heads of state and monarchs – seen below in the chart.
Political liberalization is ultimately the greatest defense monarchs have in the Middle Eastern Region. With pushes for democratization occurring all throughout the world, allowing for more pluralistic values and modernized domestic customs is the only way it seems monarchs will be able to survive the 21st century in MENA.
By Drew Stern