Why Mideast Monarchies Survive

By Robert Kaplan

A startling fact has emerged from the Arab Spring that few have remarked upon: despite the pining for democracy by the Muslim masses, it's comparatively safe to be a king or sultan. Royal families have survived better in this age of upheaval than secular autocrats, despite the latter's pretension to revolutionary traditions. No Arab royal family has been toppled, and most have made deft adjustments in the face of public unrest. Compare that with military dictators and security service thugs who have either been killed, driven into exile or who are fighting quite bloodily for their survival.

King Mohammed VI of Morocco, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah II of Jordan, Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman and the various sheikhs of the Persian Gulf are, to be sure, more nervous on their thrones than a few years ago: in particular the monarchs of Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, they are not angels. Strong and regularly ruthless security services help keep these monarchs in power. Nevertheless, as comparison is the beginning of all serious scholarship, compared to other regimes in the region these monarchs have been both enlightened and Machiavellian in the best sense of the word.

Algeria's military-cum-revolutionary regime contended with a civil war in the 1990s; and, with the looming death of President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika, stability there is seriously questionable. Tunisia's secular strongman Zine El Abdine Ben Ali was toppled in a popular uprising in 2011; so was military dictator Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Libyan tyrant Moammar Gadhafi was hunted down by a crowd and murdered, following another popular uprising. Mubarak was in a line of revolutionary military pharaohs and Gadhafi was an avowed radical: a self-declared enemy of the reactionary order of kings. Yet, the Egyptian and Libyan masses were not impressed.

Of course, the sturdiest revolutionary credentials were possessed by the Baathist socialist rulers of Iraq and Syria. Though the Americans toppled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, many in the country did not mourn his death. And had the Americans not invaded, the Arab Spring might have claimed Saddam, too, as a victim. Finally, there is Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad, who thus far has had to wage a civil war that has claimed 93,000 lives and created millions of refugees in order to stay in power.

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Modernizing officer corps have bitten the desert dust; antiquated dynasties have held on, at least so far. Why?

It's legitimacy, stupid!

The fact is, monarchs are identified with their states to a degree that the officers and the dark-suited security heavies are not. Tunisia is an age-old cluster of civilization emanating from ancient Carthage, the incredibly corrupt, plain-clothed policeman (because that's what he was) Ben Ali was superfluous to Tunisia's identity. Egypt constitutes a river valley civilization going back thousands of years. Toppling Mubarak was not going to lead to the breakup of the country. Then there are the revolutionary leaders who governed no real states at all. Libya is but a vague geographical expression that was held together only by Gadhafi's tyranny -- a tyranny so suffocating that it sowed the seeds of its own destruction. Syria and Iraq are also artificial states, and their erstwhile rulers, al Assad and Hussein, have represented sectarian minority regimes with questionable legitimacy at best. In sum, either the rulers were not sufficiently identified with their states, or there weren't any states underneath them.

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Robert D. Kaplan is Chief Geopolitical Analyst at Stratfor, a geopolitical analysis firm, and author of the bestselling book The Revenge of Geography. Reprinted with permission.

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