The Arab Spring Revisited: How Arab Monarchies Can Survive – Analysis


By Prof. Dr. Ludger Kuehnhardt

Revolutions are not processes of social engineering. They unfold as an intrinsically unpredictable flow of events. Structurally, revolutions will go through phases, often through contradictory periods. Hardly any revolution will evolve without turbulences and phases of consolidation. And: Revolutions do not happen without moments of stagnation, surprising advancement and unexpected transformation.


The beginning of the Arab Spring in 2011 has not been of a different nature. It started as a fundamental surprise to most, took different turns in different countries and was far from being over by the end of 2011. Transatlantic partners are fully aware of the stark differences among Arab countries. They realize the genuine nature of each nation’s struggle for democracy. Yet, they are inclined to take the Western experience with democracy as key bench mark for judging current progress in the Arab world. The constitutional promise of the US or the success of the peaceful revolutions in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989/90 is inspiring, yet also calls for caution in judging and projecting the Arab Spring. Preconditions have to be taken into account. Beside, the history of Europe’s 19th and 20th century also suggest room for failure in the process of moving toward rule of law and participatory democracy. Some cynics have already suggested that the Arab Spring could be followed by an Arab Autumn or even Winter. Even if one discards such previsions as inappropriate self-fulfilling prophecy, certain European experiences should probably not be forgotten:

  • In the 1830s, Germany experienced its own Spring toward pluralism and democracy, then called “Vormärz”. That German spring movement (“Sturm und Drang”) was essentially a cultural uprising without the follow-up of transformational political change.
  • In 1848, across Europe revolutionary upheavals promoted the hope for an early parliamentary constitutionalism across the continent. In most places, this hope was soon to be replaced by variants of a restrictive consolidation of the ancient regimes.
  • In 1989, the experience of Romania deviated strongly from most of the peaceful revolutions across Europe. Ousting and even killing the former dictator was a camouflage for the old regime to prevail for almost another decade. While the rest of Central and South Eastern Europe struggled with regime change and renewal, Romania prolonged regime atrophy and resistance to renewal.

No matter what direction the Arab Spring may take in the months and years ahead, two trends are startling for now:

1. The Arab Spring has initiated a wide range of different reactions and trends in each of the Arab countries. The assumption of a homogenous Arab world has become a myth. Likewise, the assumption of permanently stagnant and immobile Arab societies has become a myth. The quest for dignity, voice and inclusion under rule of law and a true structure of social pluralism has been the signature of peaceful protest all over the Arab world. The reactions of incumbent regimes have demonstrated a variety of strategies, but also different levels of strength, legitimacy and criminal energy.

2. Most surprising has been the relative resilience of the Arab monarchies to the Arab Spring: Morocco and Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Oman, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain have been reasonably unaffected and stable (in spite of the temporary clashes in Bahrain and their oppression with the help of Saudi-Arabia’s army).While the quest for dignity, voice and inclusion has posed a challenge to all regimes in the Arab world, Arab monarchies emerged relatively undisturbed from the first wave of popular unrest and protest. This contrasts with the protest against personal rule in most Arab republics: The flight of a corrupt President whose security apparatus was no longer predictable (Tunisia), the arrest of a deposed President who seemed to be in fullest command of its security apparatus, but could not maintain support of his army (Egypt), the semi-deposition of a ruler who was torn between security factions and split traditional loyalties (Yemen), the criminal attack on its own people by the security forces loyal to a beleaguered President (Syria), the oppression of all potential unrest by an old regime still in its last sight of absolute power (Algeria), and the launching of a war by a delegitimized ruler against his own people (Libya) were variations of a complex theme across Arab republics. Lebanon has been a special case for years, with its own transformational revolution (“Cedar Revolution”) going on since 2005. Iraq and Sudan have also been of a unique character due to their specific domestic and geopolitical constellation.

How can one explain the almost paradoxical phenomenon that hereditary monarchies – at least for the time being – seem to be less affected by the protest against personal rule and patrimonial authoritarianism that has resonated across the Arab world? One initial observation is undeniable: Saudi-Arabia is particularly interested in supporting Arab monarchies and it is doing so with an enormous amount of money. In fact, Saudi Arabia may even be interested in preventing too far-reaching democratization in Arab republics. But the vested interests of the Saudi family alone do not explain why Arab monarchies tend to be more resilient to the current wave of protest to be heard all over the Arab world. One has to go beyond the obvious and look for structural explanations. Most evident – and well beyond the Arab world – is the fact that power based on traditional legitimacy continues to play a stabilizing role in the transformation of societies and their political systems. Usually, republican authoritarian personal rule built on a political ideology (i.e. independence, socialism, nationalism, development) can only be maintained through a security apparatus and the pressure it can exert on a rising popular demand for change. In contrast, traditional hereditary rule seems to be able to maintain power with more respect, possibly even with acquired legitimacy, and with lesser need for the exercise of violence against its own citizens. The most interesting question stemming from this observation is as follows: do we know what it may take for monarchies to be successful over time? It is not enough to simply recall the religious rooting of Arab monarchical legitimacy as it is especially the case in Saudi-Arabia and in Morocco. No matter their religious or similar moral-based authority: The historic record of monarchies confronted with the pressure for change is mixed. Reference to traditional religious sources of legitimacy has not been enough for several monarchies to survive the winds of change their societies where confronted with. While going beyond this perspective, several insights into the nature of hereditary rule that has stood the test of societal change are pertinent and may serve as a useful mirror to be kept in mind as the future path of hereditary rule in the Arab world is unfolding.


The historic record of hereditary rule when confronted with the challenges of social, political or economic transformation or even revolution has not been all too impressive. From the 17th century (Great Britain) to the 19th century (France, Spain, Portugal, Brazil, Mexico) and to 20th century (Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary, Yugoslavia, Ethiopia, China, Greece, Cambodia, Persia, Nepal, Egypt, Libya, Iraq) more monarchies were toppled than rebuild whenever their societies were fundamentally transformed. The current European hereditary monarchies (United Kingdom, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Luxemburg, Monaco, Liechtenstein) as well as non-European monarchies (Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Brunei, Bhutan, Cambodia, Tonga, Lesotho, Swaziland plus the Arab monarchies) are rather the exception to the rule – the global trend seems to favor republican political order as the answer to socio-economic and political modernization. However, restorations in Great Britain (17th century) and in Spain (20th century) as well as the transformation of Imperial rule in Japan after 1945 indicate the potential for the revival of hereditary rule in times of great upheaval. The panorama of an ongoing survival of almost two dozen monarchies and systems of hereditary rules should not forget the more than two thousand year old electoral monarchy of the Catholic Church. After all, the Pope is also head of state of the Vatican.

What are the main lessons to be drawn from the survival or revival of hereditary rule elsewhere that could be of inspirational insight for the future of contemporary Arab hereditary rulers?

1. No warfare with or threat of violence toward any neighbor. Consolidated monarchies across the world have recognized the legitimacy of borders and the sovereign rights of their neighbors. This, in turn, has helped consolidated monarchies to stay out of international conflicts over territory or power.

For Arab monarchies, this global experience would imply that for the sake of their own interest they would be well advised to search for peace with Israel; to recognize Israel and to facilitate a two-state solution which would allow Israel to live in security and an independent Palestinian State to live in decency without any border dispute between either of the two states and between them and the Arab monarchies.

2. Turn from a rule of fear into a symbol of respect and national unity. Consolidated monarchies have been able to disconnect the court from the national security apparatus and to project themselves as benevolent symbol of national unity, sometimes coupled with a certain religious authority.

For Arab monarchies, this global experience would imply to transfer security forces and the military to full parliamentary control; to initiate lustration processes aimed at bringing to justice past crimes of the security apparatus without deconstructing the security apparatus as such; to introduce strict rule of law also over all security forces and military authorities without sidelining them from the future processes of society and politics.

3. Separate authority from power. Consolidated monarchies have decoupled their traditional authority from the daily business of politics and the structure of national power. They have accepted an independent government and parliamentary rule as the main source of national political power. Consolidated monarchies have surrendered their power to constitutional rule and thus maintained their symbolic and traditional authority.

For Arab monarchies, this global experience would imply to empower parliamentary governance through a prime ministerial system with full accountability to the respective parliamentary majority; to terminate the appointment of prime ministers or members of parliaments, including the Upper House; to initiate a process of rewriting the national constitution aimed at properly organizing a new national consensus framed by a constitution-based parliamentary monarchy.

4. Disassociate personal wealth from the wealth of the country. In consolidated monarchies, the personal budget of the monarch and the court has been disconnected from the sources of wealth of the country. The budget of today’s monarchs may still be less accountable than other elements of public spending, but the allocation of the court’s budget in consolidated monarchies is no longer based on the ruler’s arbitrary access to public goods.

For Arab monarchies, this global experience would imply to separate state funds from the funds available for the monarch and his entourage; to install parliamentary control over the allocation of resources for the hereditary sovereign and a solid system of accountability for auditing these resources.


The path to constitutional and parliamentary monarchy among those countries that have been able to successfully transform from personal rule to parliamentary monarchy has always been long and often arduous. In most cases, it went through similar stages, worth being recalled as the Arab Spring unfolds.

1. Originally, personal rule was based on control of territory and people. Gradually, intermediary elites were installed by the ruler or emerged against the initial will of the ruler. In a long process, they advanced the notion of legal rule over personal rule (i.e. Magna Carta). Arab hereditary monarchs would be well advised to respond to the quest for freedom and justice from within their citizenry with a sustained support of independent legal structures.

2. The growing diversification of economic activities – especially the emergence of capital-based production and division of labor – generated functional elites (bankers, owners of trading houses and production) with growing demand for political inclusion and participation. Arab hereditary monarchs would be well advised to support the establishment of independent representation of functional elites (including business associations and trade unions) recognized as a genuine sphere of open and legitimate political discourse with the objective to fully participate in the public policy dialogue.

3. The claims of a new bourgeoisie for political inclusion led to an advanced rule of law and opened the way for democratic participation which in turn stabilized the socio-political system (middle class). Arab hereditary monarchs would be well advised to do their utmost to help their societies moving beyond the prevailing oligarchic structures, often of a rent-seeking mindset. It is here that the experience of Turkey’s economic development may be a source of inspiration for the transformation necessary in the Arab world, beyond the Arab monarchies.

4. Time and again, parliamentary rule came under pressure by the aspiration of personal rule in the name of contingent social, cultural and intellectual ideas and ideologies. However, no republican dictator was ever able to exercise the “natural” features of traditional rule over such a long time that he could translate his rule into legitimate hereditary succession. Today, North Korea’s ruling family and the ruling family of Assad in Syria – and in a limited way the regimes of Kabila in Congo and of Ali Bongo in Gabon – are the exception to this rule. Yet, these contemporary hereditary dictatorships have been unable to generate legitimacy for their specific version of authoritarian or pseudo-democratic hereditary succession. A democratic exception to this phenomenon is provided by the current situation in Singapore: the first prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s son is the countries respected and legitimate third Prime Minister, Lee Hysien Loong. Arab hereditary monarchs would be well advised to disconnect any family member from public offices that ought to be mandated by the authorized government which, in turn, should be held accountable by the respective parliament.

5. Most personal and patrimonial rulers in post-colonial societies did resort to similar mechanisms of maintaining their position: patronage, clientelism, theft, corruption, crime and violence usually were the most prominent features. As republican dictators are lacking the features of traditional authority, they try to resort to charismatic rule, violence and coercion, none of which can generate the necessary features required for transition toward legitimate hereditary succession. Arab hereditary monarchs would be well advised to match political openness and transparency with personal modesty and decency in spending behavior.

For now, the strongest source of authority of contemporary monarchies in the Arab world (and elsewhere) is the traditional legitimacy attributed to their rule. Besides a reflection on the insights drawn from other consolidated monarchies in today’s world, the current Arab hereditary rulers would be well advised to address key structural challenges that are vital for a peaceful and sustainable transformation in their respective society:

1. Consolidate open spaces in which a pluralistic civil society can thrive. Relate these open spaces to the political arena and include open political spaces into the national dialogue on constitutional reform.

2. Rehabilitate the authority of the public sphere by promoting multi-party systems. Election thresholds of 3 to 5 percent ought to guarantee that these multi-party systems help consolidating the new constitutional consensus.

3. Promote strong legal sector reforms including all levels of the judiciary and the penitentiary system. Initiate public education programs that raise the awareness of the primacy of rule of law over any system of personal patronage, coercion or arbitrariness.

4. Most importantly: Promote private investment – both domestic and international – with the prime aim of providing sustainable employment opportunities for the young generation. In the end, only a stable middle class based on qualified and appropriate means of education and vocational training can guarantee long-term stability in any Arab society.


The Arab Spring has opened a new chapter in the political history of the Arab world. The outcome is far from predictable. It may vary from country to country and it may drag on with different speed and intensity for years, if not for decades. But a beginning has been made thanks to the courage of non-violent people, who want to revitalize their societies on the basis of dignity, freedom and justice. In a geopolitical context, the historic opportunity which the Arab Spring represents will, at least, lead to two fundamental reconfigurations:

1. The traditional prejudice according to which Africa is divided between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa will fall. The issue of overcoming personal rule and introducing constitutional change aimed at enabling rule of law-based pluralistic democracy is as pertinent in most of Sub-Saharan Africa as it is in the Arab World. In both regions the issue reflects the deficits of post-colonial politics. Hence, the uprising of the Arab Spring has been watched with great intensity in Sub-Saharan Africa, with enthusiasm among young people and with worry among some of the petrified post-colonial elites. The Arab Spring will repeat itself in several sub-Saharan societies. There, it will most likely bring about the same mixed picture of success, stagnation and failure as we see in the Arab world. Thus, it will support the trend (and the need) for a differentiated perception of Africa. Instead of continuously and erroneously imagining Africa as one, the long-term constitutional effect of the Arab Spring will help to distinguish between an emerging Africa of successful political transformation beyond the post-colonial era, and a stagnating Africa that remains trapped in post-colonial structures of personal rule and patrimonialism.

2. Transatlantic partners will have to re-define their strategies toward the Arab world. Neither policies of fear and stereotypes based on distorted notions of identity nor attitudes of benevolent paternalism will help to redefine American and European relations with the Arab societies and their emerging new political structures. Transatlantic partners need to engage the Arab world – and eventually Africa, too – into a comprehensive agenda of transformation.

As for the transatlantic partners, it will be necessary to move beyond the traditional security paradigm. For a long time, Arab monarchies were considered Western security partners based on geopolitical considerations with little consideration for domestic issues. In the future, the Arab monarchies can be stable security partners of the West if their legitimate domestic stability provides the ground for predictable international behavior. The necessary transformation processes will accompany Arab hereditary rulers for many years to come. Transatlantic partners ought to engage Arab monarchies in multifold processes of transformation aimed at advancing the reality of consolidated, legitimate and modernized monarchies that eventually accept the frame of parliamentary constitutionalism. The notion of parliamentary monarchy may be new to Arab hereditary systems. It is, however, not impossible to achieve such a stage as other monarchies around the world have proven. In fact, it may well be the only realistic option for Arab monarchies to prevail over time.

Currently, the transatlantic partners pursue independent strategies of cooperation with the Arab world. In spite of a strong normative overlap, their strategies also represent different interests and genuine approaches. The enormous challenge of the current opening of the Arab political space should be seen as a golden opportunity for both the United States and the European Union to define a joint strategy of their future engagement with the Arab world. Its formative ideas should be transformation and legitimacy, its long term objectives stability and partnership, and its driving instruments geared at promoting civil society and the private sector.

Some monarchies went through stages of transformation that stretched over centuries. The hereditary rulers in the Arab world may not have so much time. What is truly new of the events of 2011 is the spirit of the Arab Spring: self-empowerment of Arab societies, bringing back dignity and hope to frustrated and marginalized societies, enabling millions of citizens to act as proud, self-confident and open partners of their neighbors. This might only be the first step in a long, complex and often vexed journey. Currently, the main focus among transatlantic partners is on the future of Arab republics which are torn between the most extreme possible scenarios. Some may think that Arab monarchies will be the last to reform and hence can be neglected right now. There are good reasons to argue for the opposite. Unreformed Arab monarchies could undermine any progress currently made in Arab republics. But reformed, transformed and consolidated Arab monarchies could become reliable agents for change and legitimacy in a renewed Arab world.

Prof. Dr. Ludger Kühnhardt
was born 1958 in Muenster. Since 1997 he has been Director at the Center for European Integration Studies (ZEI) in Bonn, which he helped to set up. Between 1991 and 1997 he was Professor of Political Science at Freiburg University, where he also served as Dean of his Faculty. After studies of history, philosophy and political science at Bonn, Geneva, Tokyo and Harvard, Kühnhardt wrote a dissertation on the world refugee problem and a second thesis (Habilitation) on the universality of human rights. He was speechwriter for Germany’s Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker and a visiting professor at various universities around the world. He has lectured in all continents and is adviser to various governments and institutions in Europe. In 2002, he was a Public-Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C.

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One thought on “The Arab Spring Revisited: How Arab Monarchies Can Survive – Analysis

  • January 25, 2012 at 10:31 pm

    you forgot one thing
    usually I think monarchies are stable because since independence the monarchy system has been in place so there is a history between the two.
    Tunisia libya syria yemen egypt all had a monarchy system before they were republics.
    in a monarchy the monarch is supposed to be rich and powerfull. but a president is not suppossed to have that richness and power so the people do get angry when he takes a big part of the economic pie


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