God save the Arab kings?

Brian Whitaker writes:

One of the less-discussed facts about the wave of uprisings in the Middle East is that the Arab monarchies are still relatively unscathed. The regimes most seriously challenged by popular protests – in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria – have all been republics. This may seem odd to Europeans whose revolutions over the centuries have been mainly about overthrowing kings.

To some extent, the apparent resilience of Arab monarchies may be a matter of luck. Most of them are in the Gulf and they have oil, which means they can (and do) use their money to buy off discontent. That does not apply to the kingdoms of Jordan and Morocco, however, and oil wealth has not saved the Gaddafi regime from trouble in the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

Another possible explanation is that Arab monarchs, in the eyes of many of their citizens, have a stronger claim to legitimacy than republican leaders who came to power – or clung on to it – in dubious circumstances.

The monarchies base their legitimacy on religious or tribal roots. The rulers of Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and the Emirates all came from old and prominent tribes and the “right” to rule was derived from their families’ status.

The Sabah family, for instance, was a clan of the Anizah tribe which migrated from Nejd – the central plateau of Saudi Arabia – to Kuwait in the 18th century and has ruled locally ever since. The Khalifa family was another clan from the same tribe that had arrived in Bahrain about the same time. The Thani family that rules Qatar is a branch of the Bani Tameem tribe and also arrived from Nejd in the 18th century.

The Saudi royal family has tribal roots too, though its main claim to legitimacy today is religious – so much so that the king’s religious title, Guardian of the Two Holy Shrines (Mecca and Medina, the two holiest sites in Islam) takes precedence over his royal title.

Similarly, the king of Jordan is official guardian of al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, regarded as Islam’s third holiest site. Jordan’s current monarch, Abdullah II, also boasts of being a “43rd generation direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad”. Meanwhile the king of Morocco embodies both “spiritual and temporal authority” and is known as Amir al-Mu’mineen – the prince (or commander) of the believers.

Although rule by birthright might seem an inherently objectionable form of government, the tribal and religious background makes it difficult to challenge in what are often highly traditional and patriarchal societies. In the monarchies where there have been significant protests, such as Morocco, Oman and Jordan, demonstrators have been demanding reform but without questioning the ruler’s right to govern – which is still very much a taboo. (Bahrain is a special case, where a Sunni Muslim minority rules over a Shia majority, making the legitimacy question much more obvious.)

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1 thought on “God save the Arab kings?

  1. Christopher Hoare

    This whole issue of regime legitimacy — be it monarchical, republican, or kleptosecular — misses the main objection. All the rulers have usurped their authority from the real owners of sovereignty — the mass of citizens. No ruling system is legitimate if it does not seek and gain regular expressions of endorsement from those it rules. By that standard, there are no legitimate governments anywhere in the Middle East or North Africa — and Israel is included in that parade of illegitimacy for its racist rule over the Palestinians who are excluded from full citizenship.

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