When monarchies ally: the Arab Spring 2011-2015

In contrast to the period of the Arab Cold War, the main threat of the Arab Spring that ushered in a comparable period of tensions, earning the moniker of the New (Arab) Cold War (Bank and Valbjorn 2010; Khoury 2013; Stephens 2017, a.o.), derived not from rival elites but from mass uprisings. It evinced a similar sense of common threat for the rulers in 2011. While republics around them broke downor collapsed into civil war, monarchies remained stable and were (except for Bahrain) not vitally affected by the uprisings. While their durability was based on many pillars, one important element was an extensive sense of “monarchic solidarity” that was expressed via mutual support in financial (toward Bahrain, Oman, Jordan, and Morocco) and sometimes military terms (toward Bahrain) (cf. Bank, Richter, and Sunik 2014; Yom and Gause 2012).

Nabeel Khoury identifies the fronts of the New Arab Cold War as “conservative monarchies, transitioning republics and non-state Islamic groups” (Khoury 2013, 73). The monarchies felt threatened not just as individual regimes but also as a group of states, fearing a domino effect starting with just one fallen monarchy (cf. Yom 2013,13). Their “unique 'pan-royal' identity that shared a singular fate” (Yom 2016) formed into a solidarity community that supported each other against the threats that they faced.

With the impact of growing sectarianism, the blocs have shifted toward a Sunna-Shia fault line (POMEPS 2016; Wehrey 2013), but many support mechanisms hinting at monarchic ingroup favoritism are still seen.

Revolution diffusion as a common threat

While regicide nowadays is not as common as it was in the distant past, when more than every fifth monarch met a violent end,9 the wave of revolutions of the 1950 to the 1970s are well remembered in the monarchies until today: Hashemite King Faisal of Iraq and his family were shot to death, and assassination attempts (as well as actual assassinations, as in Saudi King Faisal’s case) were common. The fate of Libyan leader and monarch-like "Arab President for Life” (Owen 2012) Mu’ammar Qadhafi did not serve to calm that fear.

The sentiment has been captured succinctly by Sean Yom in an interview with an (anonymous) member of the Alaoui royal family in Morocco during the period of turmoil in 2013:

Royal families do not live in an historical vacuum. ... We know how rare it is to still think that blood matters more than ballots [emphasis his]. But when you grow up and attend the palace school with all those attendants, you learn history’ in a different vrnv. You learn all about how other royal families lost even thing because this person or that person couldn 1 solve certain problems and instead just killed or shot everyone. And nobody in my family, and I would imagine my cousins in Saudi Arabia or our friends in Jordan, wants to be cotinted among this club of kings without crowns. Also, remember that an ex-dictator lives in shame . . . like Ben Ali in Saudi Arabia now . . . but a deposed king has to face his family as well [emphasis his].

(Yom 2013,13-14)

This quote encapsulates many elements of monarchic ingroup identification: the realization that monarchism is rare, decreasing, and fragile and that it forms a bond that outsiders cannot understand, because they do not share the same constraints or experiences, and the fear for regime stability and survival. It also shows how this identity is constructed by inheritance, kinship, and shared socialization via education (palace school) and historical learning and experience and how it is affirmed in terms of family and “club membership”. These bonds tie even the seemingly peripheral Moroccan ruling family into one “community of fate”.

The uprisings led to four regime changes until 2013 - in Tunisia (2011), Egypt (twice, 2011 and 2013), Libya (2011), and Yemen (2012). Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Iraq were consequently embroiled in a civil war. But even the monarchs that were not in immediate danger to be directly overthrown faced calls for reform reaching demands for constitutional monarchy, threatening their hold on power, especially in Bahrain, where a Sunni royal family reigns over a Shia majority. Only Qatar and the UAE escaped demonstrations completely. These particular claims could not occur in republics and heightened the sense of community in the few authoritarian monarchies that still remain in the Middle East (Yom 2016).

Institutionalizing the "royal club ”

The eight remaining monarchies in the region intensified their communication early on amid the rising tensions since 2011. High- and lower-level officials, kings, princes, and ministers met, talked, and consulted with each other on a more regular and intense basis than usual, including informal meetings and talks and formalized summits (Yom 2016). Up to March 2016, five joint ministerial summits of the foreign ministers of the GCC and Jordan and Morocco took place (MOFA Qatar 2016).

The monarchies have also stepped up their cooperation with various initiatives, including a joint military command, a joint police force, and, most recently, an Islamic anti-terror alliance led by Saudi Arabia, as well as a potential monarchic "military bloc” (Gaub 2016; Mustafa 2014). While some were restricted to GCC members, most also included Jordan and Morocco. Some include the GCC members and Jordan and Morocco exclusively, making them into monarchic clubs.10

The clearest sign of monarchic solidarity was the invitation of Jordan and Morocco to join the GCC in May 2011 and the strong financial support of the richer monarchies for the poorer monarchies of Jordan, Morocco, Oman, and Bahrain (Al Lawati 2011).11 The invitation is not easily explained by geopolitical or economic needs - Jordan and Morocco would be financial burdens to the council and they cannot provide for the military security of the Gulf states. This is especially true for Morocco, which is geographically almost as distant from the Gulf of Mexico as from the Gulf of Persia. So why invite two non-Gulf states to the Gulf Cooperation Council, while Gulf and Arabian Peninsula applicants Iraq and Yemen are ignored?

Only the perspective of a formation of a pan-regional "Monarchical Bloc of Tranquility” (Barany 2012, 34-35) of alliance of systems of shared political values (Al Tamamy 2015) enables a deeper understanding of this unusual move, as an attempt to institutionalize the community, similar to previous such efforts during the period of the Arab Cold War.

The membership of the two monarchies would transform the GCC into a “club of monarchies” and include all MENA monarchies still in existence. While the invitation was retracted (or, in another interpretation, silently dropped) once the imminent domestic threat waned (Barany 2012, 35), most benefits, including mutual financial and military support, were continued well beyond the immediate period of turmoil. In 2014, the invitation was rekindled in the shape of a military union (Ryan 2014).

While the invitation seemed surprising at the time, it is consistent with GCC policy, which is "primarily concerned with the preservation of monarchism” (Bellamy 2004, 130). Bellamy goes on to elaborate on the three core tenets of the council, which point to a strong ingroup identification among the members: first, membership only for Gulf Arab monarchies that subscribe to traditional Islamic law; second, the recognition of the moral equality of each monarch and therefore the unanimous decision-making process; and third, the recognition of the sovereignty of each monarch, with no pre-determined path of integration or any other agenda (Bellamy 2004. 130).

This group identification is inherent in the GCC's own self-definition at its foundation. The communique of the pre-meeting by the organization's foreign minister in Ta'if on February 4, 1981, describes the unifying forces of the organization:

out of consideration of their special relations and joint characteristics stemming from their joint creed, similarity of regimes, unity of heritage, similarity of their political, social and demographic structure, and their cultural and historical affiliation.

(cited in: Kechichian 2001, 281. emphasis added)

In Kuwait's Minister of Information Saud Nasir Al Sabah's description, “there is one culture, one religion, one set of customs ... it is a family”. Former GCC secretary-general Abdallah Bishara similarly described its members as “likeminded countries, similar domestically, internationally, in their politics and their history and their culture” (interviews of 1997, both cited in: Priess 1998,25). This similarity was based on the political system and political culture to a degree that allowed it to expand to more-distant fellow monarchies - at least temporarily.

While Jordan already expressed interest in membership, other states have sought membership for an even longer period, notably Yemen, since 1996 the only formal applicant, but also Iraq (Priess 1998). Priess considered Jordan the least likely to join the GCC in 1998 (Priess 1998, 24).12

Instead, 2011 witnessed a “fast tracking” of Jordan and Morocco, while Yemen and Iraq remained on the sidelines, apparently still excluded from membership because of their regime type, as it has been the case in the past (Bellamy 2004, 120; Holthaus 2010, 40). Although cooperation agreements have been signed with Yemen in 2002, they were never intended to lead to full membership, nor were they announced as such. The same applies to potential Iraqi affiliation (cf. Holthaus 2010, 52-53).

Apparently, out of the most important commonalities of the GCC states, political system trumped geography (Arabian Peninsula/Persian Gulf that could include Iran, Iraq, and Yemen), economic system (oil rentierism like in Iraq and Iran), and friendship in times of need (the friendly Yemeni regime was at least just as threatened by the turmoil of the period as the poorer monarchies were, forcing its ruler of 34 years, Ali Abdallah Salih, to resign).13

While actual access to membership has not been granted so far, in April 2014. the GCC invited Jordan and Morocco to form a monarchic military alliance. It was reported that Jordan and Morocco would provide up to 300,000 troops in return for the S5 billion aid package promised to the two countries in 2012. Jordan already trains some GCC members' militaries and sent gendarmerie (darak) forces to quell the uprising in Bahrain (ЕГО 2014).

Another form of monarchic solidarity just below the military level is what Sean Yom calls "cross-policing”, monarchies prosecuting and criminalizing criticism and actions against other monarchies within their own borders to stabilize each other’s regimes. The legal basis is a GCC agreement, the Joint Security Agreement in which Jordan and Morocco have been included, once more emphasizing the close alliance between all monarchies. Similar "anti-terrorism” laws have been passed in the eight countries. Jordan arrested Muslim Brotherhood official Zaki Bani Irsheid after he criticized the UAE on social media, and Kuwaiti parliamentarians have been detained and imprisoned for criticizing their Saudi, Emirati, or Bahraini neighbors (Yom 2016).

The intent to integrate more strongly spilled over from the political and security-related sphere into other fields, as indicated e.g. by the invitation of the two non-Gulf monarchies into the Gulf football cup (Dorsey 2014). Qatar and Jordan also signed a protocol of cooperation between their police sports federations in April 2016 (Ministry News 2016). On the fifth joint ministerial meeting between the GCC and Jordan and Morocco, the final communiqué lauded the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) for cultural cooperation between the GCC and Jordan (MOFA Qatar 2016). The cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Jordan is intensive in all policy fields and marked by a high level of trust, and Jordan even replaced Saudi Arabia on the UN Security Council after Saudi Arabia rejected the seat (Nichols 2013). GCC-Moroccan cooperation is also intensifying, with the second GCC-Morocco summit and a repeated meeting of an economic working group between the countries planned for 2017 (Alaoui 2016; Le Maroc et les pays du CCG veulent renforcer leur coopération 2017).

It is in this context that the sending of the Peninsula Shield Force of the GCC to Bahrain in March 2011 becomes comprehensible - as an extreme act of monarchic solidarity, the military support of a fellow monarchy against a looming threat. When Bahrain's royal family seemed to be in danger of suffering the same fate as Ben Ali and Mubarak before them, the GCC states agreed to send a strong signal of support and solidarity to the Al Khalifa dynasty and each other (Guzansky 2014). Although most troops were Saudi, the UAE sent 500 police officers, and token support was provided by Kuwait and Qatar as well, even though the troops were not actually involved in the crushing of the rebellion (Khatib 2013, 419).

Security cooperation was not restricted to the GCC and therefore not a limited khaleeji (Arab Gulf) affair - Jordanian police officers patrolled the streets in Bahrain even before 2011, and 700 Jordanian Darak officers were sent to support the GCC operation.14

The military operation in Yemen, initially termed Decisive Storm, is a further step toward bloc building - a security club employing military measures together, highly uncommon for the monarchic regimes that used to stay on the sidelines during wars or employing merely defensive tactics. The Decisive Storm coalition initially included ten states, five from the GCC (only Oman abstained); Pakistan, Egypt, and Sudan; and the two remaining monarchies, Jordan and Morocco. The monarchies and possibly Egypt are the most committed members of the coalition in commitment of personnel, fighter jets, and financial means (Mustafa and Mehta 2016; Shaheen and Kamali Dehghan 2015).

Saudi Arabia contributed the greatest number of resources to the coalition and reportedly deployed 100 fighter jets and 150,000 troops, while Qatar sent ten and Bahrain and Kuwait 15 jets in the first hours, in stark contrast to their nominal participation in the effort against the “Islamic State” (IS) (Shaheen and Kamali Dehghan 2015).15 Except for Pakistan, where parliament resisted military participation, all the other initiative countries sent fighter jets as well, the UAE 30, and Jordan up to six (AFP 2015). Saudi Arabia and the UAE deployed Special Forces in July (Binnie 2015). Small numbers of Egyptians and Jordanians were conducting trainings in Aden (TSG 2015). As in the anti-IS coalition, Oman declined to join, instead focusing on humanitarian assistance while continuing to provide a mediation platform for Iran and the Houthis (Wilkin and Alarimi 2015). After the outbreak of the Qatar Crisis, the emirate dropped out of the coalition, in 2017.

Although not limited to monarchies, they were the main contributors in terms of financial and military resources and workforce. In other projects, Egypt also took a leading role, although most of these were bogged down quickly. The Joint Arab Force, planned mainly by Saudi Arabia and Egypt within the framework of the Arab League supposed to number 40,000 troops (Mustafa 2015), has not progressed since 2015. In sharp contrast, cooperation and coordination on a narrower monarchic scale seem more active. The Yemen War intervention coalition has seen a major surge in increased interoperability, cooperation, and coordination, showing high levels of trust among the active coalition members. Jordan and Morocco are also part of the Saudi-initiated Islamic Anti-Terror Alliance and participated in the Northern Thunder drill with Oman and nearly 20 other countries, the largest exercise in the region (Fouad 2015; Riedel 2016).

Others were limited to the Gulf monarchies. In its 34th summit in December 2013, the GCC had agreed on the establishment of a joint military command that was to be instituted alongside the Peninsula Shield Force and to have a force of 100,000, half of which to be provided by Saudi Arabia (Saidy 2014). At the summit the following year, the institution of a joint police force (based in Abu Dhabi) and a joint navy (based in Bahrain) were decided. All these proposals tackle the problem of the lack of interoperability in the security sphere between the Gulf states (Vela 2014).

While a formal monarchic alliance or organization has not materialized so far, all of the numerous intense cooperation projects that were agreed on and implemented have a monarchic core membership. The only notable exception is Oman's abstention in the Yemen civil war intervention. This boosts the conclusion that in light of a common threat toward authoritarian political systems, those of a more equal composition - monarchies - cling together and support each other to strengthen and stabilize the ingroup as a whole.

Monarchic peace as an element of

monarchic resilience

Because the threat has shifted toward the transnational level compared to the Arab Cold War period, there are no clear-cut state sponsors of domestic opposition movements inside the monarchies, and comparable to the Arab Cold War period, outgroup hostility is less pronounced because the outgroup is not as clearly constituted, as in the previous period.

Nevertheless, the result were proxy wars and support for opposition movements in republics (Libya, Syria, and partly Egypt) to various degrees and at different times. On the other hand, attention focuses on the fight against opposition movements inside monarchies (financially in Jordan, Oman, and Bahrain and militarily in Bahrain) and inside monarchic allies (Yemen). Although the ingroup is more or less defined, the outgroup is not as clear.

The geopolitical situation is far different from the Arab Cold War but parallels it in regard to the asymmetry between monarchic and republican solidarity. Then as now, no similar solidarity blocks have emerged among the republics. Although many of them were involved one way or the other in the uprisings, the republics mostly did not differentiate between the regime types of the targeted state of their support or opposition.

As the threat to the regimes since the wave of 2011 subsides, other identities might become more salient than the monarchic one is, like the Sunna-Shia divide. However, although there might already be a cohesive Shia bloc led by Iran, there is a highly fragmented bloc of Sunni states, inside which the monarchies have yet to form a more cohesive unit.16

Although much has changed in the regional context since the 1950s and the level of cooperation among monarchies has waxed and waned, their common bond always precluded open military conflict and regime destabilization attempts that might have led to the breakdown of a monarchy. To the contrary, such destabilization was seen as a common task to avoid, leading to mutual support among monarchies - something that camiot be said of the group of republics as a whole.

These initial findings will be systematically assessed in the following case studies, which show monarchic dyads (and one triad) in intragroup conflict. The case studies will show the following:

  • 1 How ingroup identification among monarchies developed and how it helped keep disputes from escalating into war via an analysis of two cases of "near misses” that came close to war at some point in their relationship
  • 2 How the change in regime type in a dyad of two monarchies transformed their bilateral relationship up to the point of war via a study of two “quasi-experiments”.
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