The Arab Spring for want of a better term continues to dominate the discourse surrounding events in the Arab world. It also influences policies of the monarchies in how they weather this particular storm. Nasserism came and went, albeit taking with it some major casualties (1952 Egypt, 1958 Iraq and1969, Libya). The masses flirted with socialism, communism and militant Islam. Al Qaida even took a poke at traditional Arab rulership. The common theme is that they all came... and then they passed away.
With the ascension of Sunni Islamist governments in Gaza, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Morocco it is clear that another political trend is rattling at the palace gates. Wily Islamic parties, veterans of state clampdowns have given up their weapons and succeeded at the ballot box. In this climate, the simple political reality is that they are here to stay for the foreseeable future.
The Arab monarchies, many whose very conservatism legitimises their rule, have problems on all fronts. In an effort to harness this legitimising factor they must not be undermined by the Islamist movements, but rather should come to some sort of working arrangement with them. What underscores such a policy is ideology. The conservatism of the Islamists is not without parallel amongst the values of the Arab monarchies. If left disenfranchised, stifled and underground the Islamist parties could eventually bring to bear a much greater force on traditional governments.
Essentially, Arab monarchies must harness this energy, not subscribe to blanket western demands to pursue Disneyland democracy. In the interests of survival, these monarchies, who are all Muslim rulers, have an opportunity to pacify Islamist political forces. By getting the Islamists to renounce extremist ideals and terrorism they can act as political partners at this time of change. The fact is, if Islamists have triumphed in elections, it is because that is what the vox populi want at this point in time. There may be voting inconsistencies in some instances: however the fact that Islamism has come to the fore in so many countries illustrates that their popularity is on the rise. The difference with other political trends that have impacted on the Arab world is that Arab monarchies could ride this wave to empower themselves, as opposed to going on the offensive.
In their condemnation of material gain, corruption and the other unchecked ills of the post-colonial Arab world, the Islamists bring something new to the table. The traditional monarchies can work this to their advantage, harnessing this reformist zeal whilst acting as steady arbiters and symbols of unity at such a tumultuous time for their countries.
Ideologically, Islamist parties have questioned the role of hereditary rule in Islam. However, the rules of the game have changed and with the increased external threat from Iran and internal challenges to authority from liberals, monarchs and Islamists can ill-afford to exacerbate this tension. As opposed to arguing the role and power of the ‘church versus the state’, a better approach is to reinforce the religious nature of the political leadership in monarchies and assess the positive impact of this on stability. This is not only a nuanced approach to stabilising the political make-up of Arab Kingdoms but also a unique attempt to link religion and tradition with stable authority.
The liberal experiment in the Arab monarchies hasn’t gone very well. Rather than undermining their traditional political positions through flirtation with overly liberal policies, they must reconsider their strategy. In doing so, they will be able to guide their nations along the road to development.
Sharing the spoils of hydrocarbon revenue or international aid amongst a select few is not a viable strategy for rule. Rather, monarchies need to position themselves as arbiters, carefully negotiating the path to reform through strengthening state institutions and using other political conservatives as a buffer to calls for complete overhaul. This process will assist in removing the situation whereby any political dispute becomes a direct wrangling between the people and the ruling family. This will let monarchies occupy the benevolent position their power has traditionally focused on rather than being the first port of call for any political friction.
Crucially the Islamists and the monarchs share a common goal in refusing to allow their societies to subscribe to the default plan of westernisation and in defending tradition and culture. The Arab monarchies should consider reaching a compromise with these groups, maintaining a degree of tradition whilst coping with the very real pressures exerted on them by modernisation and development. That way, they won’t have the (prayer) rug pulled from under them.