First the dictators were toppled. Now Kings are looking over their shoulder

The Times – Nabila contributes to a report by James Hider - 30 July 2011

While the Arab Spring has unseated long-standing dictators and shaken some of the most authoritarian rulers in the world, the regional upheaval has yet to topple a single monarch.

However, that does not mean the region’s kingdoms have been exempt from unrest or will survive much longer than the non-royal dynasties that are crumbling, analysts warn.

The most significant threat to a monarch so far has come in Bahrain, where King Hamed bin Khalifa unleashed his armed forces on peaceful protesters, killing dozens in Pearl Square, while in Jordan, King Abdullah has been forced to sack cabinets and promise reforms.

Some oil-rich monarchies have tried to buy their way out of crisis, as Saudi Arabia’s did when it offered billions of dollars in pay rises and other benefits as the first flames of revolt spread through the region this year. It also stood by Bahrain, sending 1,000 troops into its tiny neighbour as a sign that the Gulf’s monarchies stood together.

Morocco’s more forward-thinking King Mohammed VI has tried to keep ahead of the curve by offering a range of reforms and even a referendum on the powers of monarchy itself, a gambit that allowed him to cede some powers while remaining in overall control.

But Bahrain has, so far, been the exception in the Gulf, where emirs and kings have long been a source of stability in a region fraught with tensions. Its revolt was fuelled by demands for more rights by the majority Shia, many of them poor, and by resentment of the ruling minority of Sunnis. The divide between the two factions allowed the kingdom’s rulers to use the bogeyman of Shia Iran to justify their crackdown.

The monarchies of the Arab world were already survivors of a wave of nationalist revolutions last century, when military officers toppled kings in Egypt, Libya and Iraq and replaced them with their own brand of nationalism. Now the monarchies are looking less certain.

Many of the hereditary leaders are still popular, having brought their countries great wealth through oil exploitation. There have been calls for reforms in recent months, but little desire for outright regime change.

However, with the Arab revolts still raging, the monarchs are likely to face more calls for change. “The social contract that has long defined the relationship between rulers and citizens, the unspoken trade-off of economic wealth for political power, is coming to an end,” Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Centre wrote recently.

“If the ruling families of the Gulf want to maintain their legitimacy, they need to adapt quickly to the changing times and enact political reform that reflects people’s aspirations. Time is no longer on their side. If they wait too long, their rule cannot be assured.”

Nabila Ramdani, a regional expert, said that monarchies “can absorb more dissent because they don’t have to pretend that their authority is drawn from democratic votes. Instead, they make out they have some kind of ‘divine’ right to rule and appeal to their people this way. As we are seeing in countries like Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain, this kind of fallacy just isn’t working.

“What monarchies have learnt from the Arab Spring is that they are just as likely to be deposed by popular uprisings as neighbouring authoritarian republics,” she said.

Morocco may be showing the way for a monarch struggling to deal with democratic demands, however. “As the King of Morocco is showing, reform in the monarchical context can work,” Ms Ramdani said.

“The country is relatively quiet, despite widespread dissent. The King has the power to respond to dissent, and that’s what he is doing. However, moves towards genuine democracy are now so appealing to many people, it’s very hard to see autocratic monarchs remaining in power in the long term.”

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