This paper examines the future of traditional political systems in Arab countries, with a focus on the monarchical systems in the Arab Gulf states as a potential model. It provides an overview of the current political landscape in the Arab world, analyzing the challenges facing both republican and monarchical systems. The paper argues that while republican systems have struggled with instability, monarchies have shown greater resilience and adaptability. Their stability and legitimacy stem from traditional and religious sources of authority, as well as redistributive oil wealth. However, pressures for democratization have pushed Gulf monarchies to gradually reform and open their political systems. The paper highlights the models provided by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan, which have held managed elections for national assemblies. While these hybrid systems fall short of full democratization, they offer examples of how traditional monarchies can integrate limited popular participation. The paper concludes that traditional monarchies which liberalize and blend elements of democracy, may offer the best path forward for political reform in the Arab world. This provides an incremental alternative to unstable transitions toward complete democratization.
The political landscape of the Arab world has been marked by turbulence and uncertainty over the past decade. The Arab uprisings that began in 2011 toppled long-standing dictators in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. However, with the exception of Tunisia, the transitions in these countries stalled or collapsed entirely. Elsewhere, protests and demands for reform were met with violent crackdowns or cooptation. Consequently, the region remains dominated by authoritarianism, and the prospects for meaningful democratization appear dim. This paper examines the future of traditional political systems in Arab countries against this backdrop of turmoil. It focuses specifically on the hereditary monarchies in the Arab Gulf states as a model that potentially offers lessons for political reform across the wider Arab world.
The first section provides an overview of the current political systems found in Arab states, analyzing the challenges facing both republican and monarchical regimes. The next section focuses on the persistence and stability of the Gulf monarchies, examining the sources of their legitimacy and resilience. It outlines the advantages they enjoy compared to other Arab regimes in adapting to pressures for reform. The following sections highlight the examples set by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan in grafting limited forms of popular participation onto traditional monarchical rule. The paper argues that such hybrid systems offer a pathway for gradual reform that avoids the instability of rapid democratization efforts. The conclusion summarizes the potential lessons the Gulf monarchies hold for political reform in Arab countries while acknowledging their limitations in fully democratizing.
Overview of Political Systems in Arab Countries
The Arab world spans the Middle East and North Africa, encompassing nearly two dozen diverse countries. Despite this diversity, the region exhibits certain common political patterns rooted in its history and culture. Since gaining independence from European colonial rule after World War II, most Arab states established republican systems of government modeled after those in the West (Anderson, 1987). A president, prime minister, parliament, and judiciary made up the structure of these republics. However, in practice, governance typically centered around a strong president backed by the military. Elections were held but often marred by fraud and repression against opposition groups. Single or dominant parties emerged, coopting parliaments and governing autocratically (Salame, 1994). Over time, these systems tended to descend into personalist dictatorships, subordinating institutions to the will of the ruler. The longevity of such authoritarian presidents fostered corruption, patronage networks, and stagnation (Yom & Gause, 2012).
The Arab republics contrasted with the region’s monarchies, predominantly located in the Gulf area. These included Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Their traditional rule was legitimized through lineage ties back to the Prophet Muhammad, along with tribal alliances and Islamic jurisprudence (Herb, 1999). Importantly, the Gulf states also relied on their vast oil and gas reserves to fund government spending and provide citizens economic benefits. This contrasted with the Arab republics that lacked substantial natural resource wealth.
The Arab Spring uprisings that erupted in 2010-11 posed a monumental challenge to both republican and monarchical regimes (Brownlee et al., 2015). The protests called for democratic reforms after decades of stagnant authoritarianism. The presidents of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen were eventually ousted from office under this pressure. However, the transitions after their removal stumbled. Tunisia successfully adopted democratic reforms, while the other states collapsed into renewed authoritarianism or civil war. The Bahraini monarchy also faced major protests during 2011 calling for democracy. But it resisted with Saudi help, suppressing dissent while offering only minimal reforms (Gengler, 2013). Elsewhere, autocrats in Algeria, Sudan, and Iraq contained public mobilization through cooptation and repression. Protests in Jordan, Morocco, and Oman were met with modest reform initiatives by rulers. But these measures aimed to release pressure without meaningfully democratizing (Yom & Gause, 2012).
Overall, the Arab Spring largely failed in transforming regional governance. Most republican regimes reverted to authoritarianism or instability, while monarchies only enacted superficial changes. The stubborn persistence of autocracy highlights the barriers to establishing sustainable democracy in Arab countries. Traditional sources of legitimacy, rentier wealth, personalist rule, and powerful security apparatuses all enable entrenched regimes to weather crises (Ross et al., 2015). Looking ahead, the central challenge facing Arab politics is identifying alternative models that blend continuity with gradual reform. As discussed in the next sections, the durable and flexible Gulf monarchies may offer examples of such hybrid systems. Their traditional legitimacy and redistributive oil wealth provide them greater latitude to liberalize without entirely democratizing.
Stability and Adaptability of Gulf Monarchies
The contrasting fates of Arab republics and monarchies during and after 2011 underscore key advantages enjoyed by the Gulf regimes. Their stability and resilience stem from legitimizing religious and tribal ideologies, as well as abundant resource revenues to coopt citizens (Herb, 1999; Ross et al., 2015). These sustaining pillars of Gulf monarchies enabled most of them to avoid the chaotic transitions experienced by other Arab autocracies. However, repressing all dissent is unsustainable. With youth bulges and digital connectivity, Gulf societies face growing demands for political participation. The challenge facing these ruling families is adapting while retaining power. Their responses have involved incrementally opening their political systems to widen participation and release public frustrations. Yet such limited liberalization aims to bolster monarchy rather than pave the way for full democratization (Wehrey et al., 2007).
Islam forms the primary legitimizing ideology of Gulf monarchies through the historical tradition of Muslim dynastic rule. The royal families claim direct lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad himself (Herb, 1999). This confers tremendous religious legitimacy on their right to rule. Rituals like majlis gatherings allow monarchs to reinforce piety, humility, and accessibility to citizens. The Gulf monarchies have also relied on alliances with influential tribal groups and clerics. By coopting these local intermediaries, the royals built support networks and credibility in traditional society. Such ideological foundations differ starkly from the secular nationalist legitimacy proclaimed by Arab presidents, making Gulf monarchies less vulnerable when their legitimacy is contested (Yom & Gause, 2012).
Additionally, copious oil revenues underwrite the stability of Gulf monarchies. They can lavish patronage, public sector jobs, and benefits on citizens to dampen frustrations (Ross et al., 2015). While republics like Iraq and Algeria also enjoyed hydrocarbon wealth, Gulf monarchies employed it more effectively to purchase loyalty. During 2011, regimes like Saudi Arabia further increased payouts to defuse unrest. The kingdom spent $130 billion in new welfare programs in response to protests (Forstenlechner et al., 2012). The UAE similarly provided additional social benefits. Such patronage serves as insurance for royals, helping weather challenges until their legitimacy is restored. The ample wealth enjoyed by Gulf monarchies increases their flexibility in confronting crises.
Yet rentier largesse alone cannot satisfy societies with expanding education and connectivity. Modern Gulf states now contain vocal constituencies for greater openness, transparency, and participation in governance. Members of royal families themselves recognize that doing nothing is untenable if they hope to pass power to the next generation. Thus, adjusting course and enacting gradual reforms enables these monarchies to release pressure while retaining control over the pace and extent of change (Wehrey et al., 2007). The priority remains upholding stability and the ruling family’s position rather than instituting full democratic opening. But controlled liberalization demonstrates responsiveness and helps strengthen the traditional legitimacy of the regime. The following sections detail examples of such managed reform efforts in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan.
Saudi Arabia’s Cautiously Expanded Consultation
Saudi Arabia possesses the most influential monarchy in the Arab world, but it also faces rising domestic pressures. Its 28 million citizens now include a bulging youth cohort accustomed to digital lifestyles and increasingly vocal about desiring participation (AlShebli et al., 2018). Women’s rights activism has also gained traction and publicity. To release some steam, King Abdullah and his successor King Salman have taken measured steps to widen political space. They treaded carefully to avoid rapid democratization that could empower hostile Islamist or liberal opposition forces. But stagnation was untenable given the societal and economic challenges facing the kingdom (Hertog, 2013). Expanding consultation and supervision within limits has been key to preserving stability.
The most significant move was holding elections for municipal councils first in 2005 and later expanded in 2015 (AlShebli et al., 2018). Allowing Saudi citizens, including women, to elect local officials helped satisfy the public’s desire for more rights. However, the councils largely deal with local administration and services, avoiding sensitive political issues. Turnout was predictably low in these elections with just token influence over governance. The other milestone came in 2011 when then-King Abdullah announced elections to choose two-thirds of the previously appointed Shura Council (Kechichian, 2013). This 150-member national advisory body can now propose laws and scrutinize ministers, though it lacks binding authority. Such modest concessions illustrate the kingdom’s careful approach to controlled reform without meaningful power shifts.
Appointing younger royals to high government posts reinforces the message of responsiveness and openness to change. For example, Muhammad bin Salman’s becoming Crown Prince in 2017 placed him next in line to be king despite being only in his early 30s. Such youthful faces at the top along with gradual expansion of consultation mechanisms allow the monarchy to strengthen its legitimacy among citizens (Seznec, 2019). The Saudi case highlights that monarchies seeking to endure in the modern era must embrace some greater power sharing. Yet they aim to do so in limited fashion that presents no threat to their overarching authority.
Kuwait’s Hybrid System with Regular Elections
Kuwait possesses the most participatory political system in the Gulf region. Its hybrid model blending elections with hereditary monarchy provides a unique example of liberalization under traditional rule. The roots of Kuwait’s system lie in its 1962 constitution establishing a national assembly (Crystal, 1990). Given a historic merchant class and pluralistic society, demands for consultation took hold earlier than elsewhere in the Gulf. The emir is required to accept legislation passed by the elected 50-seat National Assembly, though he can suspend the parliament. This institutionalized avenue for public representation stands apart in the region.
For much of its history, political strife paralyzed Kuwaiti politics with frequent deadlocks and assembly dissolutions by the emir (Crystal, 1990). But the latest phase from the mid-2000s brought greater balance between the royal family and elected MPs. The executive now usually negotiates to secure passage of its priorities. Continuing protests pressured the emir to avoid overturning assembly results. He typically accepts election outcomes, working with parliament rather than ruling by decree. Kuwait’s hybrid system successfully integrates democratic features under ultimate monarchical authority.
Regular elections foster public buy-in and release frustrations, enhancing the traditional legitimacy of Kuwait’s rulers. This contrasts with other Gulf states where elections are still novel or merely advisory. During the Arab Spring, Kuwait already had an institutionalized outlet for dissent in parliament (Gengler, 2013). The regime made additional concessions like the prime minister’s resignation and enlarging the assembly. This helped contain activism without endangering royal dominance. Kuwait thus provides an innovative Arab model blending modern electoral participation and scrutiny of government within an absolute monarchy. The emir retains control over appointing ministers, breaking deadlocks when necessary to move forward. But oversight by an elected assembly bolsters stability.
Jordan’s Steady Liberalization Under the Monarchy
Jordan is another influential monarchy that has taken gradual steps to open its political system. The kingdom faced protests and demands for reform during 2011 Arab uprisings (Yom, 2014). But unlike other regional autocracies, Jordan was able to weather unrest by presenting a controlled path to greater public participation. While King Abdullah II firmly retains authority, he has permitted wider criticism of the government and freer elections over time. These measures aim to boost popular legitimacy of the Hashemite monarchy in contrast to republics that rigidly resisted change (Schwedler, 2013).
Several liberalization initiatives stand out over the past decade. Parliament was granted the ability to select the prime minister rather than having one appointed by the king. Electoral laws were also reformed to reduce vote rigging, allowing greater opposition representation in parliament. Restrictions on public gatherings and the media, including controversial websites, were lifted to permit greater criticism of officials (Yom, 2014). The king even established a committee to propose constitutional amendments that were adopted in 2011. These included establishing a constitutional court and elections commission. Such institutionalization of participation provides transparency.
Yet Jordan’s liberalization remains carefully bounded to avoid direct challenges to the monarchy. The king retains authority to appoint senators, judges, and high officials. He can still dissolve parliament and pass temporary laws during periods of deadlock (Schwedler, 2013). Public criticism does not extend to the king’s family members. The security apparatus also remains dominant and retains broad powers of arrest. So Jordan’s political opening illustrates a bargain where rulers allow greater pluralism and participation in exchange for protection of royal authority. This balances responding to public demands with retaining regime control.
Overall, the three cases highlighted demonstrate pathways for traditional monarchies to adapt and liberalize without full democratization. Blending elections, expanded consultation, and increased pluralism under continuing royal oversight offers a formula to strengthen legitimacy. This allows monarchies to endure by keeping pace with modern pressures. Such hybrid systems provide valuable examples as other Arab countries contend with demands for reform in the wake of the failed Arab Spring.
The tumultuous changes triggered by the 2011 Arab uprisings have largely not resulted in sustainable democratization. The weak republican autocracies were toppled or nearly collapsed, while monarchies proved more adept at managing demands for reform. The Arab Gulf states exemplify resilient dynastic regimes buttressed by ample wealth, religious legitimacy, and tactical adaptation. Their regimes face rising societal pressures for greater participation, transparency, and rights. However, the ruptures experienced by rapidly democratizing Arab republics offer a cautionary tale.
The examples set by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan present an alternative pathway of bounded liberalization that releases public frustrations while avoiding instability. Their models maintain monarchical rule through limited power sharing. While imperfect, such hybrid systems reflect strategic concessions and adaptation by entrenched regimes. Elements like advisory councils, wider media freedom, and regular elections allow greater pluralism under continued authoritarian constraints. Monarchical oversight ultimately perseveres to block meaningful democratization that could threaten royal dominance.
Looking ahead, the record since the Arab uprisings provides few examples of democratization from below through mass protest. Gradual reform pursued from above by governing elites appears more viable. In this context, the political learning and bargains struck by Arab monarchies offer useful lessons. Their incremental opening guided from the top may present the most realistic path forward for the region. While falling short of full democracy, injecting aspects of consultation and competition preserves stability. The legitimacy conferred by tradition also buys these regimes time and latitude to manage demands for change.
Arab republics like Egypt and Syria lack the deeper well of religious and historical legitimacy enjoyed by monarchies. But even there, lessons from the Gulf could apply. Transitions incorporating some electoral openings and enlarged civil liberties appear preferable to holding out and risking violent upheaval. Elements of power sharing allow authoritarian incumbents to retain core power while offering sufficient concessions to relieve public pressure. The experiences of Arab countries over the past decade suggest that gradual reform presents the best course. While their political systems remain far from democratic, modest liberalization initiated by rulers may offer greater stability. With sensitivity to local conditions, the Gulf monarchies offer examples of balancing regime stability with demands for higher participation. Their evolving models sanctioned by tradition could provide guidance across the wider Arab world.
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