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I can't seem to wrap my head around how the Arab monarchies have faced little to no resistance to their respective regimes. On both a domestic and international front, these monarchies have beaten back opposition and remained relatively stable. When states like Libya and Egypt essentially collapsed during the Arab Spring, I wonder how Arab monarchies were left relatively unharmed.

Is there any research into the seeming stability of Arab monarchies even though the region seems relatively unstable?

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    Why would you say that, the whole premise is wrong. There are no more monarchies in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, or Libya. They all fell to nationalist resistance movements. The ones that remain are aligned/funded/and armed by the USA and the west. Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 4:21
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    @EvanCarroll : I think that when the OP says "Arab monarchies", they mean "monarchies in the Arabic peninsula", so Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Koweit, Oman, Bahrein, and maybe Jordan, vs all the other Middle East countries you list.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 11:19
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    Post WWII, there have been three powerful alternatives to monarchy that gain power in the region from time to time - Arab nationalism, theocracy, and socialism. Each were considered inferior to absolute monarchy and dictatorship by the international community, which rather often supported the authoritarians and monarchs. The 2011 revolution and subsequent restoration in Egypt is an instructive example, but there are literally dozens of historical episodes of this grand pattern in the past 60 years
    – Pete W
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 13:49
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    @PeteW The international community general prefers authoritarians everywhere regardless of region or time. The interests of the people residing in the country will always be against the interests of international companies and other countries that want to exploit it for resources and geopolitics. But I agree with you, the difference between dictatorship and monarchy is only genetic, and just look at Africa you can easily conclude that Arab countries aren't unique. Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 15:04
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    Murdering those who say things like "perhaps we shouldn't have a monarchy"?
    – Valorum
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 7:00

5 Answers 5

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Several points. Not all of them (especially the first) are equally applicable in each case. But, most of the points apply to all of them.

1. Monarchies work well when the economy is dominated by rents from property.

In Europe, monarchies gave way to representative government historically, because in an increasingly commercial economy, rents made up a declining share of the economy and commercial activity from business people whom the monarchy did not control so directly and absolutely became important. So, at times of financial need, European monarchs traded acceptance of other taxes in exchange for political power.

In oil and gas based economies, like that of Saudi Arabia, the economy is still predominantly natural resources rent based, so the King doesn't need to impose significant taxation on his people, and doesn't need to give them a say in governance. The remaining monarchies are predominantly those which have rent based economies.

Indeed, oil and gas dominated economies are at an even greater edge that those with the agricultural rents of historical European monarchies. The share of the population doing the work is a tiny percentage of the share of the population that tended to fields generating feudal wealth, and many of those workers are foreigners who can be deported from lucrative positions on a whim.

In these monarchies, most sovereign wealth comes from ownership of resources, not taxation. There are also substantial social welfare benefits that are made available to the people at royal expense. So, the average person sees themselves as giving up little to get a lot in return, for living in a monarchy. Pocket book considerations end up trumping ideological considerations.

In contrast, regional republics, less well endowed with natural resources, have citizens who are paying significant taxes and not necessarily getting something that is so obviously worth their tax dollars in return (in part due to incompetence and corruption), sowing the seeds of potential dissent. Even when there is substantial oil and gas wealth in addition to other sources of national wealth, for example, in Iraq, largess from a monarch feels like a gift, while use of national resources by a republican regime feels like a tax.

This is less true in Jordan and Morocco, where inertia has been a major factor in keeping the monarchies in place. But both are still heavily reliant on natural resources - phosphate mining in both cases, potash mining in Jordan, and 40% of the population employed in agriculture in Morocco. Both Jordan and Morocco are in the process of transitioning from absolute monarchies to constitutional monarchies. Jordan has a freely elected lower house of parliament, a royally appointed upper house, a Western style and an Islamic judiciary, and a king who leads the executive branch and is about where England was at the time of the American Revolution in 1776 - democratization is, in part, to appease the people who have a very high (35%+) unemployment rate. Morocco is less far in the process of transitioning to a constitutional monarchy (it was upgraded from "authoritarian" to a "hybrid regime" by analysts in 2017), with the King still retaining more absolute power, but faces somewhat less economic pressure than Jordan to do so.

2. Foreign Deference

The world depends upon oil and gas wealth from these countries so the world tends to leave them alone in matters of self-governance. In contrast, both Libya and Syria fell into civil war after severe Western criticism.

Also, the monarchies have positioned themselves as more Western than their nation's legally established religious leaders, so Western countries that intervene face a likely prospect in a regime change of a transition to a more anti-Western theocratic regime.

3. Flexible Succession.

In Saudi Arabia and most other Arab monarchies, the kingship is not passed by strict primogeniture. The King may name any successor of his choice from the adult males of the royal family, a group including several hundred people. So, while it may not maximize meritocracy, the system allows kings to pass over weak potential rulers and to give his royal relatives real incentives to shine.

Many historical monarchies have stumbled in the face of weak monarchs. This is less likely in a more flexible arrangement.

Monarchies also provide a way for poor regimes (as they were before oil and gas was discovered) to use scarce national resources to have at least the royals and aristocrats receive full quality educations, which makes this class more competent than lay people even if elected and popular.

Their natural resource rents also make it possible to bring in outsiders to provide competence when it is not available domestically, which can be a challenging decision to make in a fledgling republic with nepotistic tendencies.

Incompetence by leaders and a shortage of educated competent senior civil servants has been a perennial problem in almost all developing countries and was, for example, a major reason that Sudan's Western-style parliamentary and legal regime quickly collapsed in favor of a dictatorial arrangement.

4. Legitimacy of succession and lack of corruption.

Arab and North African monarchies have had clear undisputed transfers of power, which are critical to building legitimacy.

Monarchies have also been, relative to Western-style regimes in the region, uncorrupt, because nepotism of a leader towards his family is not corruption, but the design of the system in a monarchy.

In contrast, Western-style regimes in the region in a largely clan based society where many people have tribal and clan affiliations and cousin marriage rates are very high, place family over the state and produce a comparatively corrupt political system. The dynamic is discussed, for example, in a case study of Arab towns in Israel. Frustration with the resulting corruption has been a major force behind movements seeking to restore an Islamic Caliphate. Many recent elections in non-monarchies there have been seriously disputed.

This legitimacy has also caused the public to accept ruthless measures to shut down dissent. For example, the most recent Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia has rounded up dissenters in the royal family, seized their resources and allowances, and confined them to hotels that are fancy jails, consolidating power in a way that a leader even in a non-democratic republic would be hard pressed to do.

5. Alliances with religious leaders.

In Saudi Arabia and other monarchies in the region, monarchs have built alliances with an established religious sect, removing a potential basis for dissent at the cost of ceding power over some matters to religious officials. This has cemented the power of both.

Egypt, Syria and Iraq, in contrast, have their origins in left-leaning, secular minded Western-style regimes that have antagonized religious leaders, creating a natural, well organized, architecture of dissent that resembles in some ways, the way that the occupying English in Ireland tried to suppress the Roman Catholic church and only solidified public support of it as a focal point of opposition to their English overlords.

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    "both Libya and Syria fell into civil war after severe Western criticism." is a serious understatement. France simply sent arms to the rebels in Libya. reuters.com/article/uk-libya-idUKTRE75O1ER20110630 Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 0:55
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    The partnership with religion goes even deeper. Saudi Arabia is a particularly good example: the royal family has encouraged and helped the Wahabbi sect, but its own policies tend to be more moderate and more pro-American. This means that if anyone were to depose the royal family, it is quite likely that they'd be replaced by someone more hostile to western interests and more repugnant to western norms, ensuring there is no geopolitical or moral argument for intervention. Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 10:51
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    Many claims in this answer would need to be back up by sources.
    – Evargalo
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 11:26
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    The first point about rent economy may work for some monarchies, but doesn't seem to fit the general trend. It doesn't explain why the oil rich Irak and Libya monarchies fell (and the non Arab Iran too), but the non oily Morocco and Jordan still stand - and Egypt with the Suez Canal could be another rent monarchy that fell.
    – Pere
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 16:20
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    Can you explain what “rent” means here? I know it’s an economic term and it doesn’t have the everyday meaning of “renting a flat,” but I don’t really understand it.
    – Alex
    Commented Nov 2, 2021 at 20:41
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Western noninterference.

the Arab states, which seem to have been stable, have deep western connections in terms of oil trade, arms trade, and investment. Therefore, the West prefers not to fuel their internal conflicts, or don't invade them.

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    Uh, surely you mean interference, right?
    – einpoklum
    Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 13:07
  • @einpoklum, No. I said non-interference. The countries which experienced interference are gone. E.g. Ottoman Caliphate, Libya, etc.
    – user366312
    Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 15:44
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Your question is based on a false assumption.

how the Arab monarchies have faced little to no resistance to their respective regimes.

Western media do not dare to talk very much about rebellions and subsequent repressions in that area. They may report something when such rebellions become too visible, like the uprising in Bahrain that was crushed by the Saudi intervention. But these scant reports do not give the idea of the actual situation in the area.

Furthermore often actions by local rebels are blamed on Iran in order to hide the scale of the unrest.

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    It was in fact reported rather widely and my first thought when reading the question but that's hardly enough to invalidate it. There was also some protests in Kuwait, Jordan or Oman, almost nothing in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In all those countries the regime was not fundamentally upset and far fewer people died. Even a comparison between Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia seem to support the notion that monarchies are more stable even without oil revenue.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 17:28
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    @Relaxed [There was also some protests in Kuwait, Jordan or Oman, almost nothing in Saudi Arabia and the UAE] In UAE maybe, since the local population is small. But in Saudi Arabia "nothing" is due to "nothing" being reported by the media.
    – FluidCode
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 17:32
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Most of the kingdoms, emirates, dictatorships, and other governments in the Middle East were established under late European Colonialism, relying on the economic and military resources of (primarily) the British and French. Prior to the late 19th/early 20th centuries there was nothing like the modern 'state' system there. Instead, there were nomadic tribes with loosely defined ancestral lands (particularly in the Arabian peninsula) or regions organized under the quasi-feudal Ottoman system (in areas as far flung as Iraq, Iran, and North Africa). European powers helped equip and establish these states after the fall of the Ottomans, in exchange for access to resources and land routes to the Far East that could save long ship journeys around Africa. With the increasing Western dependency on oil, it became progressively more important to retain indirect control over these states, which left Western industrialized states dependent on the autocratic leaders they had previously installed.

It is a sad fact of politics that an autocratic leader who needs arms, munitions, and resources to protect himself from his own people is far easier to control than a democratically elected leader who is dependent on his own people's good will.

Brutal anti-democratic regimes like Saudi Arabia and Syria are explicitly propped up by Western Liberal nations, who sell them 'defensive' arms, and turn a blind eye to repressive, destructive practices, because Western Liberal nations need a secure and guaranteed source of fossil fuels. Most of these regimes would have collapsed long ago without foreign aid and intervention — much as the Shah's regime in Iran was overthrown and replaced by the current Islamic regime — and Western nations are afraid of a similar political backlash. It's a devil's bargain all the way around.

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  • In addition to selling arms, there are US mercenary companies with thousands of employees ("ex" US military and intelligence) in Saudi etc. keeping the royals' heads on their shoulders. Commented Nov 6, 2021 at 0:27
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Though ohwilleke's answer is very comprehensive, I feel that it lacks one of the most important elements leading to the stability of Arab monarchies: brutality.

The reigns of the Asad family (Syria), Hussein (Iraq), Kadthafi (Lybia), and other long-standing Arab monarchies were famous for their brutality - even famous beyond their own borders. Culturally, this is more acceptable in the Arab world than in the Western world, where e.g. corporal punishment of children and other forms of violence-induced compliance strategies have been largely abandoned.

Fear of violence has been a tool used by countless governments to dissuade revolution over countless aeons. And it remained a very visible tool typical of Arab monarchies well past the time in which Western governments (at least publicly) began to prefer other tools.

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    This answer just makes no sense on its face. Gaddafi or Hussein lost power and were not monarchs as understood by the OP (Libya is even mentioned in the question). The question is precisely why they proved less durable than the rulers of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, Jordan, etc. If the three you mentioned were uniquely brutal then it would follow that the answer is that brutality is actually detrimental to stability.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 9:47
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    Gaddafi and Hussein lost power due to foreign intervention.
    – dotancohen
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 9:54
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    Maybe but they lost it all the same and the premise of the question is that their grip on power was weaker. The question even mentions the ability to maintain international support as one thing Gulf monarchies do more successfully than “Republican” leaders. Have you actually read it or did you just skim the title? Or maybe you want to argue the question's premise is flawed? Either way, it's absurd to use Hussein or Gaddafi as examples.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 10:03
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    While this is doubtless true of these regimes; it was also true of other monarchies, so I do not see how it can be used as an explanatory factor here. Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 15:33
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    @dotancohen: These things were also entirely normal in Europe within living memory. Schools in England and Wales were only finally banned from beating children in 1998 (earlier in state schools). These aren't deep cultural differences that can be used to explain differences like this, they're constantly shifting. Commented Nov 4, 2021 at 7:54

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