Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies: A Reference Guide.
It is difficult to tell how much of the misinformation published about government and politics in the Arab world is the result of malice aforethought or just plain ignorance. Either way, it is extremely difficult to winnow out the wheat from so much chaff for those in the West seeking a better informed, more objective understanding of how Arab governments are actually run. This is particularly true of Arab monarchies. There is a predisposition in the West to view them with a combination, on the one hand, of fear and contempt toward what are perceived as "oriental despotisms" on which the West is dependent for oil; and, on the other hand, of fascination with the glamorous image they evoke of Rudolph Valentino in "The Sheik of Araby."
Joseph Kechichian's new book, Power and Succession in Arab Monarchies: A Reference Guide, does not pander to either extreme; it is an excellent place to begin a search for a better understanding of what in the Western world is an anachronism, modern Arab monarchies. As the subtitle states, the book is a reference guide, not a monograph. It covers all eight contemporary Arab monarchies--Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Morocco--presenting detailed factual information and thumbnail sketches of rulers, royal families, political institutions, constituents, royal succession, current problems and dilemmas. It also includes very informative appendices and a detailed bibliography.
The book, however, is more than thumbnail sketches and factual information. It is, as its title states, a guide for the study of the little-known political dynamics of countries that, though many in the West would have trouble locating them on the map, are of major importance in global politics and economics. It begins with introductory chapters on challenges facing the traditional Arab monarchies and the powerful impact of Islam on their histories. A major focus is on royal succession as a key element in the survival of these traditional Arab-Islamic political systems, and the concluding chapter addresses future prospects in the twenty-first century. All in all, the book substantiates the author's assertion:
Although Arab monarchies appear to be anachronistic entities, in reality they are not. Still, their main challenge is to maintain a balance between traditional demands and growing demands for modernization. In many cases, ruling families are the anchors that guarantee stability as all eight countries slowly evolve their contemporary political structures into stable political entities (p. 30).
There are, however, a few anomalies that might have benefited from being explained in more detail, particularly for the benefit of those who do not have a personal acquaintance with Arab political behavior. While the author does identify major characteristics that influence the political actions of Arab monarchies, the book does not always clearly differentiate between characteristics that apply only to Arab monarchies and those that are common to all Arab regimes.
For example, one major characteristic common to all Arab regimes, republican as well as monarchial, is the importance of consensus (ijma) in group decision making, which is sanctified in Islamic law. Although it is mentioned briefly in the chapter "Islam and Monarchy" (pp. 29-30), reliance on consensus extends far beyond strictly legal activity. Long a key vehicle in traditional Arab (and other Islamic) cultures for legitimizing group decisions, it is still widely used in interpersonal, extended family, tribal and business as well as governmental decision making. In that context, all Arab rulers are not only chief executives but also chief consensus makers by whatever means they choose to exert their influence.
The process of building consensus begins with consultation (shura), the ultimate object of which is to reach a unanimous consensus or "group think," in which there are no winners or losers, as there would be by taking a vote. In theory at least, traditional Arab-Islamic consultation is a two-way street that the decision maker is obligated to take into account.
The choice of those who are consulted is thus a crucial political issue. Much depends on how institutionalized the process is. Traditionally, those consulted were the recognized elders of the group: trusted friends, relatives, tribal leaders and/or business associates. As government operations have become more complicated with the advent of modernization, the process has become more institutionalized, whether in the form of a Western legislature or a more traditional consultative assembly (majlis al-shura). In short, consensus, whether institutionalized or not, is a key method for legitimizing group decisions throughout the Arab world. All rulers can be arbitrary, but in the Arab world, if there is a strong consensus on a given issue, ignoring it entirely can be done only at one's peril.
Kechichian does not always identify behavioral characteristics of some Arab monarchies that are not necessarily shared by other Arab monarchies. For example, the monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula all share common characteristics based on ancient Arabian tribal, as well as Islamic cultural, norms and practices that may not be found in the other Arab monarchies. As products of traditional Arabian political culture, however, they are shared by the republican regime in Yemen.
Tribal, ethnic and Islamic traditions are also important characteristics of the political cultures of Morocco and Jordan (whose royal families are descendants of the Prophet Muhammad and members of the Bani Hashim clan of the Quraysh tribe of Arabia), but the nature and impact of those traditions are demonstrably different from those found in Arabia. Moreover, the political culture of Morocco is probably closer to that of other North African states than to the Arab monarchies further east.
Finally, each Arab monarchy also has unique characteristics molding its political dynamics, for example, the assumed responsibility of the Saudi regime as Custodians of the Two Holy Places (Khadim al-Haramayn). Maintaining the safety and sanctity of Makkah and al-Madinah and accessibility for all Muslims visiting them is taken very seriously by the Saudi regime as a religious, not a political, obligation. Another example is the United Arab Emirates. Structurally, it is not a monarchy but a federation of monarchial sheikhdoms (emirates), the president of which is the Sheikh of Abu Dhabi.
These observations, however, do not detract from the value of the book. In sum, understanding the complexities of the behavioral characteristics of Arab monarchies is a basic requirement for fully understanding the political dynamics of Arab monarchies. That said, the extensive research and keen understanding of his subject by the author makes this book an excellent place to start.
David E. Long, teacher, author and U.S. Foreign Service Officer (ret.)
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|Author:||Long, David E.|
|Publication:||Middle East Policy|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2008|
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