Commentary Magazine


Legitimacy and Stability in the Arab World

To the Editor:

Elliott Abrams has provided a trenchant analysis of what the future may hold for the countries that changed regimes during the Arab Spring and has offered important policy suggestions [“Dictators Go, Monarchs Stay,” October]. But his model for assessing regime stability, depending on whether the regime is a monarch or a dictatorship, seems incomplete. First, all the data is not yet in; more regimes may yet fall. Second, the distinction between monarch and strongman seems to be more of a continuum than an either/or. Finally, while the degree of legitimacy bestowed by the form of the regime is an important variable, it’s not the only one. Iranian influence, for example, and the regime’s importance as a stable, long-term oil supplier are important variables as well.

As for the stability of monarchies, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan teeters, and Syria, though a dictatorship, shares important characteristics with some of the Arab monarchies: It had a successful transfer of power based on hereditary principles, and it has historically given careful attention to tribal interests.

Algeria, which qualifies as a strongman regime, didn’t experience serious unrest. Bahrain, a monarchy, did. And Saudi Arabia experiences some very troubling unrest itself in Qatif, the heart of its oil-producing area. Both nations took severe measures to repress the unrest, far more severe than in Egypt, and with little objection from the government of the United States or those of our allies. Perhaps the extra legitimacy bestowed by a monarchical form of government compared with a strongman regime explains why these repressive measures seem to have succeeded, but surely it is their direct and indirect roles in providing a stable supply of oil and gas to the United States and our allies that allowed them the free hand to pursue those repressive measures—a free hand Mubarak, Qaddafi, and Ben Ali were not given.

Whether giving them this free hand was a wise long-term policy is open to debate, but it seems clear that absent those measures, the Bahraini monarchy would have fallen and the situation in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia would have become very dire indeed.

Jim Windle
Martinsville, Virginia

_____________ 

Elliott Abrams writes:

I very much appreciate Jim Windle’s thoughtful letter. He is certainly right that the returns are not yet in and that one or more monarchies may collapse. He is also right that the form of government—monarchy or fake republic—is not the only determinant of stability, something I did not imply. But I do not agree that the distinction between a dictator like Ben Ali and rule by a legitimate hereditary monarch is a small thing or even “a continuum.”

Even when a monarchical regime uses force to sustain itself, it is widely (though of course not universally) understood by citizens to be defending a form of government, legitimacy, and tradition, rather than simply crushing all opposition to the man who somehow got himself into power. And monarchies have a path open to reform, constitutional monarchy, and genuine democracy that dictatorships do not.

Mr. Windle notes two specific cases, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and the troubles to which he alludes certainly do exist—but they are linked to Shia–Sunni rivalries and hostilities that go back much further than the ruling families or indeed the very existence of those states. But only in Bahrain do they threaten the system, simply because only in Bahrain (of all the Arab monarchies) are the Shia a majority. As British history reminds us, when the king (or queen) and the populace follow different religions, there is trouble ahead.




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