Middle East monarchies from the Arab Cold War to the Arab Spring

A brief history of monarchism in the Middle East

Monarchism in the region

The Middle East is the last region in the world where more than a few (authoritarian) monarchies have persisted. Although a common narrative is to describe monarchies as the oldest and most traditional form of government on earth, most of the monarchies currently in existence are. in fact, modem creations (Anderson 2009). For instance, many areas controlled by Great Britain before independence were turned into newly established monarchies (like Libya, Jordan, and Iraq). In other cases, pre-existing (semi-hereditary) practices of succession were formally institutionalized into nation-state form with British help, like in the smaller Gulf states. Some of the monarchies did not survive for long: the Federation of Southern Yemeni Emirates and Tunisia were short-lived monarchies that collapsed shortly after independence, while France hindered the establishment of the newly formed Kingdom of Syria in 1920.

One the one hand, monarchies represented a political innovation in the region: even the title of king, usually translated as malik in Arabic, was not in widespread use before the 20th century and often entailed a negative connotation. The first modern Muslim ruler declaring himself king was Sharif Hussein bin Ali, the father of the founders of the Hashemite dynasties of Iraq and Jordan, who in 1916 proclaimed himself King of the Hijaz. Later Middle Eastern monarchs taking that title usually signaled their sovereignty and independence from colonial rule. Kuwait, Qatar, the UAE, and Bahrain until 2002 used the designation of emir (Arabic for prince), while Oman is a sultanate and North Yemen had an imamate instead.

On the other hand, monarchy as a form of rule by hereditary succession had a long tradition in the region, going back to the early days of Islam and sometimes to the pre-Islamic period. In many countries, monarchism was the dominant form of political rule, and republicanism arrived much later: the first Muslim republic was Azerbaijan, installed in May 1918 (Ayalon 2000; Lewis 2000). Saudi Arabia, Oman, Morocco, (North) Yemen, and Iran, for instance, already had long histories of monarchical rule, as did Egypt, for centuries an integral part of the Ottoman Empire - itself another (imperial) monarchy.

But while the legacy of monarchism in the region is as old as its European counterpart, Middle Eastern monarchies have always differed from them in their institutional setup and their deployment of religious legitimization. For instance, while none of the current eight monarchies in the Middle East could be described as parliamentary (although Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait are sometimes called constitutional monarchies) - because the powers of the parliaments are largely symbolic, while those of the monarchs are vast - they are also by no means “absolute” in the European understanding shaped by 17th-cenury to 18th-century Louis Quatorzian absolutism.

In the Middle Eastern monarchy, the family rules instead of a single absolute sovereign. Consequently, these states are very much constrained not only by their population, which may revolt, but by the balance of power within the political elite and other elites. This includes the military, which might stage a coup, but especially the royal family itself and the old Arab principles of shura and ijma’ (Herb 1999; Lewis 2000). Monarchies with a parliament and a constitution, such as Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait (and Egypt and Iraq in their monarchical periods), also have important veto players in the form of societal, tribal, or socioeconomic groups that must be considered. Middle Eastern monarchies also exhibit much more diverse and flexible systems of succession that were only exceptionally based on primogeniture, as was typical of European monarchies.

In addition, the role of religion differed starkly from the European medieval principle of rule by divine right. Only Saudi Arabia can be said to combine religious and profane authority at the core of the state and regime. However, even there, the royal Al Saud depend on the ulama’, the Islamic scholars, as well as on the Al Shaikh, the descendants of Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, to legitimize their rule in religious terms. In other words, the dynasty does not claim to derive its right to rule directly from God. While neither royal family nor the monarch is members of a particular political current (although there are certainly political factions within the family), the monarch is a representative of the particular brand of Islam in the country and the custodian of the two holy sites (khadim al-haramain), Mecca and Medina. This religious role sometimes substitutes political divisions for religious ones (cf. e.g. Rasheed 1998; Vassiliev 2013).

In other cases, religious legitimacy is based on Sharifian descent (descent from the Prophet), as by the Moroccan and Jordanian royal families as well as the Sanoussis of Libya, the Hamid al-Din imams of Yemen, and the Hashemites of Iraq. Nonetheless, even Sharifian rulers never claimed a direct divine link that makes their rule inevitable or God given. The other monarchs do not claim any religious legitimacy at all, although they also serve as protectors of the faith and religious role models in terms of public piety (Ben-Dor 2000; Krämer 2000; Maddy-Weizmann 2000).

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