Arab monarchies have thus far survived the unrest of the Arab Spring without major challenges to their authority, but their countries are not immune to the discontent that has brought down many regimes in the region. Like presidents, Arab monarchs face the imperative of political reform; however they have not fully faced the challenges ahead. Carnegie's Marwan Muasher and Marina Ottaway discussed the difficulties facing the monarchies alongside Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Paul Salem of the Carnegie Middle East Center moderated.
Monarchies and Reform
- Easy to Implement: There is a popular belief that monarchies, unlike republics, can more easily initiate reform without giving up their power, Muasher said. He argued that most of the Arab monarchies, with the possible exception of Bahrain, still have the opportunity to reform from above in an orderly and smooth manner. Despite this, sustained and comprehensive reform has not been pursued among the monarchies.
- Top-down Reform: For monarchies, top-down reform is more desirable, Ottaway said. She warned, however, that reform from the top will come only when there is a push from the bottom. Muasher agreed, adding that although reform efforts from above can potentially quiet domestic protests, the monarchies must be aware that the people no longer have patience for empty rhetoric.
- Monarchs and the Arab Spring: The Arab monarchies are clearly worried about the Arab Spring, Ottaway added. In Saudi Arabia, although the king praised his people for their absence from the protest movement, he also distributed significant economic handouts. Alterman added that although oil-exporting countries are in good shape, they will still be affected by the Arab Spring in spite of their wealth and ability to give economic handouts. Ottaway added that governments which have paid handouts rather than pushed for reform are likely to see trouble, especially on the issue of unemployment.
Jordan: The Need for Top-Down Reform
- Secure Monarchy: The monarchy in Jordan is not under attack, Muasher said. Although demands for reform exist, there have been no demands for a constitutional monarchy.
- Maintaining Monarchal Power: Although Jordan has taken a number of steps to strengthen its constitution, including setting up a Constitutional Amendment Committee and preparing to establish a new Constitutional Court and an Electoral Commission, the powers of the king have generally been left untouched, Muasher said.
- Challenges: The country still faces a number of significant economic and political problems that must be overcome, Muasher said. Jordan struggles with unemployment and public debt and cannot sustain the economic handouts which it has granted. Politically, any reform will have to confront the ongoing debate on who is a Jordanian.
- Royal Initiative: Since a political party-based culture will not emerge in the near future, the onus remains on the king to bridge the credibility gap between the people and the regime, Muasher concluded.
Morocco’s Constitution and Prospects for Reform
- A New Draft: Very shortly after protests began in Morocco, the country’s king appointed a committee to write a new draft of the constitution, Ottaway said. This document had overwhelming support among the population. However, the new draft constitution provides a number of loopholes that allow the king to maintain power regarding matters of religion, security, and “decisions of strategic importance.” Ottaway noted that the final phrase was particularly ambiguous.
- Upcoming Elections: Although elections are set to happen on November 25, real reform depends on the willingness of political parties to challenge the king, Ottaway added. Such a scenario is relatively unlikely. She explained that, according to the new constitution, the prime minister must be selected from the winning party. If the palace-friendly Party for Authenticity and Modernity and its coalition win the majority of the vote, the prime minister will almost certainly be a friend of the king. If the Islamist Party of Justice and Development wins, it is unlikely to challenge the king because its primary goal is to fully integrate itself into the political system.
- Voter Turnout: Ottaway added that the real test of the elections and the king’s legitimacy will be voter turnout. Historically, the Moroccan people have boycotted elections or cast spoiled votes as a form of protest.
Bahrain: A Cautionary Tale
- Lost Legitimacy: By most accounts, and certainly from a Shia perspective, the Bahraini government lost its legitimacy when it responded with force to domestic protests, Ottaway said. Radicals are calling for a republic and liberals are calling for a constitutional monarchy. The violent reaction of the Bahraini monarchy toward its own citizens has lost the government any ability to introduce reform from the top.
- Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry: The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry is set to issue a report shortly, which will shed more light on the government’s harsh response to domestic protests. Ottaway suggested that, given the recent efforts of the regime to regain legitimacy, the report is likely to be very critical.
A Commentary on the Monarchies
- Unique Qualities: Alterman argued that there are three unique qualities that characterize the Arab monarchies:
- Legitimacy: The legitimacy of these monarchies is deeply ingrained in the citizens of the respective countries.
- Diffusion of power: Arab monarchs tend spread power out among their relatives in order to maintain patronage and to coopt important people and tribes.
- Money: Arab monarchies generally have access to funding which they can spend internally and on neighboring countries.
- Splitting the Opposition: Alterman added that some monarchies have successfully split the Islamist opposition vote, citing how the government has allowed Morocco’s Party of Justice and Development to participate in the political process, but kept a ban on Al-Adl wa Al-Ihsan.