When the Arab Spring protests erupted in 2010, many political pundits predicted the uprisings would ripple through the entire region and ultimately reach the oil-rich Gulf states, sweeping away monarchies.
But ultimately, the Gulf monarchies of Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates — and to a lesser extent, Bahrain — were the least affected by the Arab Spring. These six Gulf monarchies were more successful in weathering the political storm than their republican neighbours, which in some cases were plunged into civil wars with a heavy humanitarian and economic toll.
I spent a good deal of my life in the region and during the uncertain times of the Arab Spring, so curious colleagues ask me how the Gulf monarchies continue to hold on. In response, I draw not on my memories but on my political training. And I believe there are lessons to learn from the durability of these regimes that could enhance global efforts to understand the region and build sustainable peace in the Middle East.
Most Middle East countries are oil-rich
I generally scoff at the argument that Gulf monarchies have only managed to navigate the tricky waters of the region’s geopolitics and avoided a mass exodus of their citizens because of their oil wealth. This popular wisdom holds that petrodollars allow the Gulf monarchies to coax people into submission, and that’s why they endure.
Missing from this assessment is acknowledgement that the Gulf monarchies aren’t the only countries in the broader region with ample hydrocarbon riches. Yet petrodollars in the broader region that often benefited citizens of those countries didn’t prevent public anger or major challenges to authority.
Brief comparisons between the Gulf monarchies and other oil-producing countries in the region reveal other common ground besides oil, such as culture and religion. Yet their respective trajectories since the 1950s — Gulf monarchies modernized quickly, while other oil-exporting countries (for example Iraq, Libya, Algeria and Iran) have undergone political crises, coups and even regime change. That’s only added to the sense that Gulf monarchies and other oil-producing countries in the region are heading in different directions.
So oil alone doesn’t explain the longevity of the Gulf monarchies. Other factors help explain their success.
Monarchies accepted in Gulf region
First and foremost is whether people in the Gulf region see monarchy as a legitimate form of government. In Western political thought, elections represent one of the key benchmarks for judging the legitimacy of government. This is the foundation of participatory democracy.
By this token, only leaders from presidential republics pass muster in terms of Western legitimacy. After all, these countries hold regular presidential elections.
But are those elections themselves legitimate?
In 2011, at the height of the Arab Spring, Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser to former U.S. President George W. Bush, wrote that “Arab monarchies … are more legitimate than the false republics.” This assessment raises two critical issues.
The first is the reliability of elections in the Gulf. Presidential elections in Middle Eastern republics have often been fraudulent. It would make a mockery of democracy to consider these elections proof of legitimacy.
The second concerns the compatibility between society and its political institutions. This is one of the pillars of stability in any society. Hereditary monarchies like the ones in the Gulf aren’t a novelty for the native cultures of the region. These monarchies therefore derive legitimacy from the fit between their royal institutions and the cultural norms of their people. This is a traditional form of political legitimacy.
With their emphasis on tradition, hierarchy, loyalties and social alliances, monarchies are accepted by many of the cultures of the Arabian Peninsula. The Gulf monarchies were borne out of their own socio-cultural heritages, and this gives them more legitimacy.
Ruling at a distance
This legitimacy however sets certain limits on executive authority and places demands on the monarchs, who are expected to be arbiters between competing interests — benevolent stabilizers, so to speak. In fact, problems have arisen when monarchs fail to project this image or perform this role.
An example is Bahrain’s mass protests in 2011, when many citizens felt their king showed little commitment to the principles of compromise and moderation that had largely characterized his predecessors’ reign.
The arbiter status gives the monarchs respect and authority, which enables them to rule at distance.
This has helped them maintain power with less reliance on force than their non-monarchy neighbours, which base their claims for legitimacy on political ideology like nationalism and independence. More often than not, these ideologies don’t resonate with people. This poses a major challenge to their ability to maintain power, so the republics rely more on force and security to maintain power.
This best expresses itself in Syria, where the Al-Assad regime has ruled for decades through a network of overlapping security agencies to enforce questionable legitimacy.
That’s why the regional republics were hit harder by the Arab Spring. Popular uprisings there were fuelled by greater discontent.
This has spared the Gulf monarchies from frequent legitimacy crises and allowed them to divert resources to other aspects of governance, like building state capacity. This refers to the ability of governments to employ administrative and technical processes, rather than force, to address societal challenges and create stability.
State capacity is bound with a country’s investment in education and human capital, which in turn create a capacity for informed decision-making. This is evident in the volume of publications by Gulf universities. Despite the relative youth of universities in Gulf monarchy states — most of them were founded in the mid-1970s — they outperform their counterparts in Arab republics in terms of quantity of publications.
The future success of the Gulf monarchies probably hinges on further investment in education.
Doing so will enhance the quantity and quality of intellectual activity and produce citizens who can share power, steer economies in response to societal and technological challenges and guarantee long-term stability.