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Monarchy and the Middle East.

IT is extraordinary. The Great Republic, which eschewed and rejected monarchy in 1776, now considers 'Constitutional monarchy a form of democracy', and supports this concept above the Presidents of the Middle East and North Africa--where both kings and presidents remain beleaguered after the Arab awakening early in 2011. Of course, the American rejection was of what they imagined was an autocratic king and the issue of 'no taxation without representation', with which he was associated; but the realpolitik which may dictate accommodation with autocratic regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, is another issue altogether. This is an American support for constitutional monarchy as such.

The International Herald Tribune (26-27 February, 2011) ran an article on its front page 'US wagers Arab monarchs will stand', continuing its headline: 'US bets on kings, while presidents fall'. Why this, on the surface, astonishing volte-face? It is as if Walter Bagehot had been resurrected and had infiltrated the C.I.A.

The British experience of constitutional monarchy is the model which the US is inclined to back today, and which seems to be the type of government which will weather the storm more easily. Power has been diffused; it may legally belong to one office of state, but is exercised by others, who are accountable to a third and a fourth organ of the state. Herein lies a balance of power, so dear to the American heart. A truly constitutional monarchy becomes a strength, not a weakness as has been so superbly demonstrated in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations. The unfortunate example of Nepal, where the monarchy was abolished in 2008, is a case in point. The state is now floundering in a power vacuum. How much better it would have been to have kept a symbol of the nation, a constitutional head of state in a reformed monarchy. Interestingly, the last king of Afghanistan, Zadir Shah, returned to his country under President Karsai as 'the symbol of the nation' to confirm the new constitutional armagement. The suggestion that he himself should run as President was at that time suppressed by American advisers.

Some of the language of the US's political stance in North Africa and the Middle East is surprising. Kenneth M. Pollack, the director of the Saban Center for Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution, said: 'What the monarchies have going for them are royal families that allow them to stand above the fray, to a certain extent. It allows them to sack the government without sacking themselves'. This is said as if it is a surprising truth which has just been discovered, but it is what every defender of monarchy has been saying from Walter Bagehot to Vernon Bogdanor.

If the monarchies concerned are considered, some are more conscious of their position than others, and have started a process which promises to save them: Morocco, Jordan, and some of the Gulf States.

'This approach ... is the right approach; these are countries that have moved in the right direction, but not enough', said Elliott Abrams, a Middle East adviser in the Administration of George W. Bush, who has been a frequent critic of the Obama Administration. 'Constitutional monarchy is a form of democracy'.

Britain had in the past sponsored the creation of a monarchy in Libya. The east of that country had been suggestible to the idea of an 'Islamic Emirate' in the early days of the present turmoil, harking back to the days, not so long ago, of the proclamation in 1949, that the head of the Senussi tribe, Mohammed Idris es-Senussi, should be Emir of Libya. By his constitution, promulgated in the same year, a federal state came into being, with alternating capitals at Tripoli and Benghazi. On 24 December, 1951, sovereignty was transferred to the Emir, and he became King Idris I of the Kingdom of Libya. It is certainly arguable that this served Libya well for eighteen years, from 1951 until 1969, and was certainly preferable to what followed.

Similarly, the British sponsorship of the Hashemite monarchies of Jordan and Iraq surely resulted in more responsible, accountable and valid regimes than what followed in Iraq in 1958. Iraq and Jordan had been united in one state in March, 1958, a union which (echoing of course her government's feelings) our own Queen said gave her 'deep pleasure', as one monarch to two others. King Faisal II of Iraq was assassinated in July 1958, but who would now argue that the rise of a one-party state (the Ba'ath party) under President Kassem and his successors was a better thing?

Constitutional monarchy reminds those politicians who hold power that they do not do so of themselves, but from someone else, who is neutral, above them, and distanced from the political fray, and who is also, over a period of time, very much tempered by wisdom and experience; and legally a part of the body which elects or appoints its politicians.

In Morocco there had been traditionally a Sultanate. This was raised to the status of a kingdom in August 1957, when independence had been achieved following the former French protectorate. This new monarchy asserted itself in a strong authoritarian manner under King Mohammed V and particularly King Hassan H. But the necessity of adapting to change has been perceived by the present monarch, the westernised King Mohammed VI, known to his friends as 'M6'.

In an editorial in February 2011, the International Herald Tribune under the heading 'Moroccan variant' urged the continuation of this process. When a monarchy is threatened, four options present themselves--and this has happened even in Britain, the cradle of constitutional monarchy. These options are: leave things as they are, the status quo; reform the current situation; abolish it, and have a republic; or, fourthly, introduce a new dynasty altogether.

The editorial on Morocco, above referred to, continued: 'the demonstrators were not calling for an end to the existing regime, but only for evolution towards a constitutional system, limits on the monarch's powers, and government elected by popular vote'. This sounds familiar, but in the case of Morocco, unlike Bahrain, it has actually happened. As the editorial stated: 'were Mohammed Vito undertake a real democratization of his regime, and a sincere struggle against corruption, his initiative would become an exemplar to be followed by other countries in the region'.

For once, sound advice has been heeded. A committee was appointed to write a draft of the Constitution. When it reported, the new draft had a number of loopholes, which allow the king to maintain power regarding matters of religion, security, and the ambiguous 'decisions of strategic importance'. Nevertheless, the new constitution did become effective from 1st August, 2011, and a general election was eventually held on 25th November, 2011. The constitution created a number of new civil rights, including constitutional guarantees of freedom of expression, social equality for women, rights for speakers of minority languages, and the independence of judges. These were indeed several steps in the right direction. Moreover, the king rescinded his power to appoint prime ministers. The Prime Minister replaced the King as the head of government, and Chair of the Government Council, gaining power to dissolve Parliament. The office of Prime Minister was also given additional powers to appoint senior civil servants and diplomats, in consultation with the King's Ministerial Council. It is an impressive beginning.

The General Election did not return a majority for any one party, out of 395 seats in Parliament, but provision was made for a 'plurality'. No voting figures were released, but it was stated that 45 per cent of those eligible had voted; probably it was less, but nevertheless eight points up on the last election in 2007. The Justice and Development Party won 107 seats, the largest parliamentary representation, but not a majority. According to the new Constitution, the leader becomes Prime Minister.

Just before the election, the Carnegie Endowment Foundation, in a forum on 'Arab monarchies confront the Arab spring' (22nd November, 2011) concluded that there were three unique qualities which characterise the Arab monarchies. These are: Legitimacy: deeply ingrained in the citizens of the respective states; Diffusion of power: the spread of power among relatives in order to maintain patronage; and Money: funding which enables spending internally and to neighbours.

The third of these is true certainly of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, but not of Morocco or Jordan.

The Forum thought that 'Monarchs were less likely than non-monarchs to experience political instability. They are also more likely to respect the rule of law and property rights and to grow their economies'. Stress was laid on the imperative of political reform. Several, if not all the monarchies except Morocco, have not fully faced the challenge ahead of them.

Jordan has experienced no demands for a constitutional monarchy. A number of steps have been taken, nonetheless, one of which is the creation of a Constitutional Amendment Committee. Preparations have also been made for a Constitutional Court and an Electoral Commission. The powers of the king, Abdullah II, however, have been left largely untouched.

In Morocco, no placard or slogan made direct attacks on the king, although his family's influence in business has been criticised.

This leaves Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the Gulf States, all linked by geopolitics, wealth, religion and a mutual distrust of Iran at the other side of the Gulf, vying for the competitive edge. Bahrain is a cautionary tale. It has lost its legitimacy through violent suppression of protest. Radicals are calling for a republic, and liberals for a constitutional monarchy, finding resonance with European revolts of the nineteenth century. For Bahrain, as Hugh Tomlinson for The Times, reported from Manama: 'The way ahead is unclear, with the royal family divided and Opposition parties demanding greater assurances of reform before entering talks. The protesters are also split'. Diplomatic sources say that Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has been Prime Minister for 40 years, may go. Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa has led efforts for reconciliation, ordering troops off the streets and calling for national dialogue (perhaps thinking of his own future status). The situation is complicated by the fact that this is a Sunni monarchy monopolising almost all offices, ruling a Shia majority. Saudi Arabia, next door, watched and watches the situation closely, conscious also of a large Shia community in the east of the country.

Former monarchies in Tunisia, Egypt and the Yemen have all been brought to mind by recent events. They failed for a number of reasons: authoritarianism, linkage with a colonial or Imperial past, failure to function properly as monarchs. Sponsorship in those times by Imperial powers has not helped their possible return, especially in Egypt, where the last king, Fuad II, had to abdicate as a child, in 1953. He now lives in Switzerland, not hankering for restoration, but willing, if the occasion were to arise, to be of service to his country. Perhaps it is an offer which should not be ignored--an opportunity for a real constitutional monarchy. As one Egyptian observer has said, during the fall of Mubarak, 'We want a Head of State above politics--like the Queen of England or the President of Israel'. Interesting twin exemplars.

May 2012 has brought together the giant of the monarchies, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf States, the United Arab Emirates primarily. The Saudi Monarchy began in 1923, when King Abdul-Aziz, the first modern ruler, declared the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a kingdom which is referred to as 'The Kingdom', as if there were no other. Since the beginning, in the words of Hugh Tomlinson, analysing the situation for The Times, there has been 'hanging over the kingdom the issue of succession'. Protesters have called for King Abdullah (who is 86) to clarify the matter today, with some nod to the younger generation. Since that analysis, the Crown Prince, also aged, has died, quite suddenly, and Prince Nayef, who had been the Interior Minister, was appointed the new Crown Prince. This issue may have been in some way addressed, as Prince Nayef was from the next generation, but actual constitutional reform remains minimalistic. Prince Nayef died in Geneva on June 16th, 2012. His position as Crown Prince was filled two days later, June 18th, by his brother Prince Salman, who is 76, and the Defence Minister. He is part of the same influential Sudairi faction as his late brother and the late King Fa'ad. They were all sons of Princess Hassa al-Sudaiii, the favourite wife of the first king, Abdul-Aziz. The succession issue remains. There is of course the argument that, one elderly incumbent following another is like the Papacy--if one doesn't like the present incumbent, there is not long to wait!

On 17th May, 2012, on the eve of the Gulf Leaders' summit in Riyadh, regional media buzzed with expectations of an historic announcement. The Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), 30 years old, was about to declare a full political union. Much of the frenzy, it was stated, was driven by Bahrain, seeking a way out of its present impasse. The Sunni monarchy had failed to restore stability after last year's uprising, still continuing spasmodically, by the Shia majority. Bahrain was 'apparently betting that folding itself into a majority Sunni Union would be a way out of the crisis; no matter the reaction of the Shia population. Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed in Riyadh, as other members argued that the proposed blueprint for a Union contained many unanswered questions' (Financial Times Global Insight, Roula Khalaf in London). Would the political will for Union extend beyond Saudi Arabia and Bahrain? An adviser to the Bahraini King affirmed that the Union was 'so close' and 'would materialise soon', but admitted that Oman was opposed, and Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates had expressed reservations about 'certain points'.

There are great possibilities here. A Customs Union was agreed a decade ago, however, and has not yet taken affect. Plans for Monetary Union have been repeatedly delayed. They were set back further in 2009 when the U.A.E. opted out because of Saudi Arabia's insistence that the Gulf Central Bank should be located in Riyadh. Certainly the shadow of Saudi Arabia is bound to make it something of a Big Brother. Moreover, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have until recently been bitter rivals.

Traditional ways of ruling are always difficult to change, and the old autocratic order has largely remained intact in the Gulf. With the exception of Oman, whose political reforms have been speeded up in response to the street protests, and Kuwait, which has a more democratic tradition anyway, regimes 'have shielded themselves with a combination of economic handouts, political promises and security crackdowns'. Since the Arab awakening, the Gulf Co-operation Council has been acting as a re-invigorated organisation, taking the lead in Arab policy towards Libya and Syria, a crucial role.

Saudi Arabia itself remains of course the big player. Linked closely with the Wahhabi sect of Islam, which has twinned with it throughout, it bans the use of the Western (Gregorian) calendar; all ministries and agencies must use the Hijri dates of the Islamic calendar and the Arab language. This is only one indication of its profound religious conservatism.

On April 6, 2012, Ahmed Al Oman, a well-known Saudi blogger in exile (and one must acknowledge the importance of bloggers in the Arab spring) said, about reforms in Saudi Arabia: 'It is building very slowly. It is very unlikely that we will see any change in the country in the short and medium term ... the Kingdom's tradition of restricting news through broadcasting censorship however no longer works. They cannot be bought with the money the government is spending and they cannot be brainwashed the way the older generations were. We have access to many [more] sources of information than older generations [had]. We're not going to be satisfied with living, raising a family and being quiet. We want freedom. We want the ability to elect our leaders'.

Ahmed Al Omran left Saudi Arabia to study at Columbia University, and now lives in Washington DC, but what he says clearly emphasises that, like Egypt and other states, the power of the Information Technology revolution cannot be under-estimated, and may well be the cause ultimately of radical change.

There remains the question also of Iran in the Gulf, chimerical and unpredictable; so sensitive to every perceived slight that it makes the name 'Persian Gulf' an issue, and the ownership of three tiny islands, disputed with the United Arab Emirates. The Gulf States, all monarchies of one sort or another, see Iran as a threat: Iran which was a powerful monarchy and is now an Islamic Republic, equally as conservative as Saudi Arabia, but with a quite different agenda. Adelwahab Badrakhan, a political analyst, says greater Gulf Co-operation Council unity would provide a more cohesive attitude towards an Islamic regime that is seen to be intent on flexing its muscles in the region.

Abdelkhaleg Abdulla, the Emirati academic, says the GCC is at a crossroads and pressure for a Union is coming most strongly from internal pressures. 'There is an institutional maturity of a sort, and that is coming from within and it will lead to greater co-ordination' he says. At a recent meeting in Riyadh, he relates, young Gulf citizens and intellectuals were invited to debate the merits of a Union. If true, this is certainly laudable, but it has also been commented that GCC leaders might want to get the basics of economic integration right first.

One of the Saudi princes, Saud al-Faisal, said that postponing the creation of a Union was aimed at bringing all the members together, and not only two (Saudi Arabia and Bahrain). These two states were seen as the first step at countering the Shia majority and the regional rival Iran, bringing it to, of course, a balance of power in the region.

Bahrain's Information Minister, Samira Rajab, said that the Union could follow the European Union model. Meanwhile the Bahraini King, Hamad, has tried to address some of the protesters' demands by announcing Constitutional reforms intended to lead to greater accountability. Human Rights groups and the Opposition remain sceptical, and Bahrain's most famous Opposition activist, Abdullah Al-Khawaga, has been on hunger strike in his hospital room cum prison cell, where he was interviewed by the BBC's Defence Correspondent Frank Gardner.

Nabeel Rajab is also one of Bahrain's most outspoken activists, and has told Stephen Sackur of the BBC that the Inquiry commissioned by the King was not independent and that the King has failed to implement reforms. Bahrain is the monarchy most at risk, although probably Saudi Arabia would not allow it to fall; the king of Bahrain seems to be tinkering with his future when he could have gone the way of Morocco.

Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and the Yemen have all undergone regime change; the monarchies have remained. This by itself must tell the region and the world something. Whatever the situation, opportunites to strengthen the constitutional monarchies should not be missed, nor opportunities to advance authoritarian monarchies to constitutional ones. Otherwise, as the ineffective but witty King Farouk of Egypt observed: 'In the end there will only be five monarchies left in the world: the King of Hearts, the King of Clubs, the King of Spades, the King of Diamonds and the King (or Queen) of England'.

Michael L. Nash is visiting lecturer at LRG University of Applied Sciences, Bulle, Switzerland.
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Author:Nash, Michael L.
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Sep 1, 2012
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