The key fact that underlies the struggles of monarchies in the Middle East & North Africa is that most of them are modern inventions. In many cases, existing noble families were imported or given assistance in taking control of territories that they had not held previously. In fact, as Russell points out in “Monarchical Authoritarianism”, many states imported monarchies in order to conform to the “modern” standard of the time, as existed throughout Europe and independent parts of the world. (Russell, 107). That standard changed very rapidly. European monarchies have had long periods of adjustment in which to learn how to manage different parts of ruling coalitions, how to give gradual concessions to different parts of society in order to retain power, in some fashion or another. Many MENA monarchies have not had this luxury.
What this means in practice is that monarchies are engaged in a constant balancing act with regards to different elements of society. They need to constantly allocate resources, favors, and political energy in such a way that no potential opposition gains too much strength. At the core of this balancing act is the inherent tension between the traditionalism that justifies their rule and the modern mechanisms that sustain it. This is to say that they rely on religious, traditional authority to explain why they have a right to rule. The practical maintenance of that rule, however, is sustained by modern economic activities, through diplomacy with modern powers, most of whom are republics or are governed by elected leaders, and through the employment of modernized militaries and security forces. They need to govern effectively, but not in such a way that it removes the assumptions that allow them to govern.
In some fashion, these monarchies need to maintain the idea that they were lifted into their roles by God, even when they are often in the positions that they are due to Western powers. The difficulty of this routine probably explains why several monarchies were overthrown within a few decades of independence, particularly in Iraq and Libya, and why several others fell in a similar period of time. The new monarchies failed to legitimize themselves by failing to distinguish themselves from the European powers that had previously dominated affairs. A similar fate befell the Egyptian monarchy, which, though not particularly “new”, was seen as being too British. Many could simply not compete with varying types of Arab nationalism and what those tendencies demanded. This is a different historical trajectory to what we observe in Europe. The French monarchs were not dropped in to an environment where French nationalism was already prominent and an important political force; rather, the idea of a French nation developed alongside the development of a powerful, comprehensive monarchical state. What this meant was that European monarchies could sometimes get ahead of nationalist fervor, and in some cases manipulate it to their advantage. Many MENA monarchies have no such luck. At the same time, it is difficult to endure without relying on some level of foreign assistance. It is certainly difficult to imagine the endurance of a monarchical regime that was openly hostile to Western powers. Furthermore, many of these monarchies are dependent on other regional powers, especially in the Gulf. Saudi intervention was decisive in stifling revolutionary behavior in Bahrain, for instance (Khatib & Lust, 194). Being overly-reliant on foreign powers is a domestic liability. Being under-reliant deprives one of highly useful allies, (and, depending on your relative power to a more powerful entity, is not an option).
This is not to say that monarchies have no inherent legitimacy. Especially when they are well-established, their claim to powerful, noble lineages can be a major asset. This is especially true in a state like Morocco, which has more than a thousand years of history behind it (224). This is helpful in a few respects. The first is simply the reverence that traditionally-minded people will always have for the monarchy through the appeal to tradition. Furthermore, the prolonged nature of monarchies. (that some of these dynasties have been in power for some time, and that all currently existing have passed through multiple generations of rulers), allows time to build the patronage networks that can more practically support a monarch. This is similarly the case in Morocco, where the Makzhen, the “unofficial network of patronage and allegiance-based relationships” are “indisputably in command of Morocco’s public affairs” (Khatib & Lust, 202). As with anyone else in a position of control over a nation’s assets, monarchs can distribute resources to supporters and people that they believe are either currently loyal or will be made “loyal” through gifts. With monarchs, however, it might be the case that this patronage system is strengthened by the ideology of the monarchy. This might both be the case because you believe that the monarch has a more inherent right to possess the things that they gift to you, that is to say that, that you do not view them as a bribe in the way that you might coming from another person. If you are also a noble, or otherwise somebody who possesses privileges by virtue of birth, it stands to reason that you are similarly likely to be more sympathetic to the monarch. There is even an extent to which the monarch’s position as something “above” the nation may be an advantage. It allows monarchs to position themselves as problem-solvers, as individuals who can be avenues through which protestors and reformers can channel their energy, given their seemingly detached status relative to what is more commonly understood as the political system. This is best expressed as the “linchpin” monarchy: one who holds together the different and conflicting groups that compose the nation. Many monarchies in the region play this role to some extent, given their dominion over territories featuring varying degrees of ethnic, religious, and political diversity. Due to their unique claim to rule, monarchs have methods of interacting with other national actors that allow them to wield influence to a greater degree than an authoritarian president might be able to.
The problem is that these methods are inherently unstable. The ideological legitimacy of monarchy relies on a population that are generally accepting of tradition. In states that are young in terms of their existence, have young populations, and are in the midst of somewhat dramatic change and upheaval, as many nations in the region have been for some time, this cannot be taken for granted. If the population ceases to view the monarch as someone above themselves, and begins to see them as yet another privileged elite, resentment is somewhat inevitable. As of the Arab Spring, it is clear that ideas about monarchs are shifting somewhat. Protesters in Morocco began to demonstrate against “absolutism” (Khatib & Lust 216). Protesters in Jordan have begun to distinguish between “privileges” granted by the King and “rights” that he is obligated to relinquish to the people (248). Especially in the Jordanian case, this is a generational shift. Furthermore, the “patronage” systems on which many monarchs rely are increasingly being challenged as corruption. These are broadly targeting individuals beneath the King, as they have in Bahrain, as well as in Kuwait (283). Religious dissidents in Saudi Arabia have begun to cast the monarchy as a primarily corrupt entity (300). Once again, these rumblings have not yet been adopted by the population as a whole. But they demonstrate that many of the mechanisms upon which the monarchy rests its claim to power may be viewed as evils under slightly different conditions. It seems unlikely that they can be relied on indefinitely.
The linchpin notion seems the most unstable. Most monarchies in the region rely on some level of divide-and-rule. This can be true between different ethnicities, such as between Jordanians and Palestinians (ethnicity seeming to be the best category there); between different political or religious groups, such as between liberals and Islamists in Saudi Arabia; or between different regional groups, such as between tribal and urban Kuwaitis. It is the existence of these divisions that gives the “linchpin” idea any utility as a source of political power. But these divisions have to be managed carefully. A monarch cannot allow these divisions to become so profound as to tear the nation apart. They also cannot allow themselves to be seen as irrevocably joining one faction or another, because to do so would remove their influence over the other. At the same time, they cannot be too good at their job as a linchpin; they cannot risk joining the disparate elements of society into one coherent whole. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia displays the inherent difficulties of this approach to the greatest extent. It has been historically reliant on “an alliance between princes and the [Wahhabi] ulama” (300). However, it cannot indefinitely rely on Sunni clerics. The Sawha movement, which was a radically Sunni movement that could not bring itself to unit with Shia dissidents, turned substantial energy against the regime (301). In response, the monarchy had to consult another group of Sunni clerics to mobilize against the dissident Sunni clerics (303). It has since relied on maintaining careful conflict between Islamists and liberals, but the 2011 period saw the development of “Islamo-liberalism” (307). Obviously, this movement did not succeed in the long term. That being said, it is a clear example of the tension inherent in this approach. Monarchs rely on being able to indefinitely maintain a constant vigilance and balancing and rebalancing of political allegiance and favorability to one group, and then another, and then a third group, while not letting any obtain too much power, while not being seen as being overly favoring, while keeping sufficient support among different elite groups to not lose their support, while dealing with the inherent absurdities of being a monarch in the twenty-first century. That is quite a task indeed, and it seems unlikely that the region’s monarchs can sustain it in the long term.
This piece pulls from the following scholarly works:
Khatib, Lina and Ellen Lust (2014). Taking to the Streets: The Transformation of Arab Activism. Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press.
Russell, Lucas. 2004. “Monarchical Authoritarianism: Survival And Political Liberalization In A Middle Eastern Regime Type” International Journal of Middle East Studies 36, 1: 103-119