In the mid 20th century a majority of Arabs lived in monarchical states, some dating as far back as several centuries. However, by the 1960s, the monarchies of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Iraq and Yemen had transformed into republics. Today, eight Arab monarchies remain, namely, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar and the Sultanate of Oman.
The reason some Arab monarchies ceased to exist varies from popular revolutions to military coups. However one feature they shared is their lack of ability to adapt to the changing geopolitical environment of surrounding countries from South Asia to Africa, gaining their independence and empowering their people as well as their own citizens.
The need to adapt to a changing environment is now more necessary than ever. The 2011 popular Arab uprisings that are spreading throughout the region will affect every single country in the region, if not in the short term then several years down the line. For instance, citizens of nominal republics such as Sudan will not continue to tolerate their dictators while they witness history being made by their Egyptian neighbors preparing to vote in the next few months. The eight Arab monarchies, even those whom, as I have argued earlier, have scored highly on human development reports will similarly have to face new realities that are taking shape both within their borders and in the region.
Due to the varied nature of these monarchies such an evolution into constitutional monarchies will likely occur in three cycles. The first cycle will include Kuwait, Jordan and Morocco, the second Bahrain and Oman, and the third Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
Setting up constitutional monarchies has been attempted in the past. Half a century ago, as Arabs were rising up against their governments and mere months after it gained its independence from Britain, Kuwait’s Emir, Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem unveiled a constitution that even today, is decades ahead of both Arab monarchies and republics alike. The constitution guaranteed Kuwaitis freedom of religion, speech and the press. Additionally, while enshrining a role for the Emir, it specifically stated that Kuwait’s system of rule is democratic with an elected assembly.
The managing editor of a Gulf based English newspaper told me he believes that the current controversial Prime Minister of Kuwait, Sheikh Nasser Al Sabah (71), will be the last premier to be appointed directly by an emir and the last to be chosen from the royal family. Sheikh Nasser was forced to resign by opposition MPs six times since his appointment in February 2006. Rhetoric that is not often heard used against members of Gulf ruling families is casually employed against Sheikh Nasser, with news wires quoting an MP at a recent 10,000 strong rally demanding his sacking describing him as “incompetent,” and saying that he “cannot be trusted”. These are some of the reasons that indicate Kuwait will likely be the first Arab monarchy to officially transform into a constitutional monarchy.
Meanwhile, the reforms promised by the Moroccan and Jordanian Kings have not satisfied their citizens. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI’s promised reforms – that included allowing prime ministers to dissolve the House of Representatives and choose their own cabinet – are giant steps when compared to the modest political reforms of his peers in the Gulf who failed to put an end to protests. Jordan’s King Abdullah has had to replace the Prime Minister yet again in response to continuous protests calling for faster reforms. At a recent interview, Abdullah estimated that it would take two to three years until voters can elect their prime minister. If so, it would be a first for an Arab monarchy.
Due to Bahrain’s long history of active civil society, the Arab world’s only island kingdom will probably precede Oman in the second cycle of Arab constitutional monarchies. Many intellectuals I have spoken to in the Gulf have told me of their disappointment with the opposition who did not respond positively to the seven principles of reform offered by the island’s Crown Prince in March, calling it “a wasted opportunity” that will not likely be available for another few years.
But, senior leaders at the Wefaq and Waad opposition movements told me that no guarantees were given to them that the government would carry out these promises. Among the seven principles were promises of “an elected parliament with full vested powers and prerogatives” and, in a nod to replacing the long serving Prime Minister, a “government reflecting the will of [the] people”. Sadly, Bahrain may never recover from its deep wounds until such an offer is made once again, perhaps this time with regional guarantees.
In the case of Oman, because the Sultan Qaboos is not passing on power to an immediate family member, it may be easier for him to enact significant constitutional reforms without much opposition. Qaboos reacted faster than any Arab leader to the demands of his citizens when he sacked some of his closest advisors and a majority of the cabinet back in March.
Reforms that were subsequently introduced included the widening of powers of the Oman Council, which can now propose changes to laws. Three activists who took part in the spring protests were elected to the consultative Shura Council and will probably continue their calls for reforms. More substantially, Qaboos became the first Arab monarch to include elected civilians in the decision making process to choose the country’s next Sultan.
The final cycle of Arab monarchies, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar is the most contentious. These three states have the weakest civil society infrastructure, as well as a complex ruling family structure. This is why I have placed them in the final cycle, which is probably an open-ended process.
The UAE is perhaps the most complex. It includes not one, but six ruling families governing seven individual emirates with varying degrees of economic and social development. In the latest carefully managed elections exercise last September, just over a quarter of eligible voters turned out for the country’s parliament, known as the Federal National Council (FNC).
This may reflect society’s general feeling of apathy towards politics as well as popular satisfaction with government policies. The UAE government has suggested that only by 2019 will universal suffrage be introduced, although nothing has been said about granting legislative authority to the FNC. A recent petition calling for greater political empowerment was generally either met with apathy or a negative reaction.
Qatar, the country that championed the principles of people empowerment behind the Arab Uprisings more than any other Arab state ironically does not have an elected parliament. The Qatari Emir promised reforms in a constitutional vote as early as 2003 to form a 45-member parliament with two-thirds of the members elected and the rest appointed.
However this promise has not materialized and is continuously pushed forward in time, although at a major recent speech the Emir once again promised to hold parliamentary elections in 2013. This announcement did not elaborate on political parties and the degree of legislative powers the parliament would include.
The transformation of Qatar's neighbor Saudi Arabia into a constitutional monarchy can potentially mean the survival of all the other Arab monarchies due to its regional and international clout. However, despite mounting calls within Saudi for political reform in Op Eds and petitions by intellectuals and activists, Saudi constitutional reforms will not take place until a constitution that can be questioned is introduced. Saudi Arabia to this day maintains that the Quran is its constitution.
It is unclear what exact shape Arab constitutional monarchies will adopt but what is clear is that more political power will be shifted to parliaments rather than individuals. Accountability, corporate governance and rotation of political power will also be a feature.
The Arab monarchs may retain some measure of power such as the case with the British monarch today, who is also the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Max Rodenbeck, the Middle East correspondent of the Economist suggested that the process of transformation of these monarchies into constitutional systems might benefit from setting up a “house of lords,” or a senate that is made up of members of the ruling family. This upper house may be given powers such as electing the next monarch from among the royal family members. Saudi Arabia does officially have such a family council consisting of senior princes to elect a future king. However reports emerged that the current King Abdullah had in fact “instructed the princes to pledge allegiance to Prince Nayef as crown prince.”
Ironically, the Arab monarchies can extend the status quo if they eliminate corruption, graft and the increasingly worrying phenomenon of ruling family members who have both a public position and private business interests that often not only encroach on the merchant class but increasingly pose a threat to small- and medium-sized business owners in these monarchies. Another necessary measure to enact is the guarantee of equal treatment in the courts between ruling family and non-ruling family individuals alike.
The transformation of Arab monarchies into constitutional systems is a matter of when rather than if. The alternative may be less appealing to those in power today. On a recent visit to Boston in which I met a number of Arab Gulf states students, the debate veered, as it tends to do nowadays, towards Arab constitutional monarchies. To my surprise it was a Qatari, a citizen of by far the richest county on earth often accused of political apathy who remarked to a friend and I, “I don’t agree with constitutional monarchies,” he paused, “I want nothing less than a republic.”
Without urgent non-cosmetic reform the Arab monarchies will simply be kicking the reform ball forward. Modern Arab history has taught us of the ramifications of perpetual reform delays on monarchies. Fifty years after Sheikh Abdullah Al Salem’s historic constitution the Arab monarchies are in urgent need of such visionary leadership.
This article first appeared in in Al Akhbar English on November 3rd 2011