As we enter the twenty-first century, the continued existence of monarchical rule in eight Middle Eastern states seems increasingly anachronistic. Yet these regimes persist and even flourish despite the rapid economic and social transformation of their societies, the rise of an educated middle class, and the growth of modern bureaucratic and military institutions that are widely believed to challenge traditional institutions of government. Why, then, has rule by kings or shaikhs survived in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Jordan and Morocco when monarchies in Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and Iran fell to military coups or popular revolutions? What is it about these surviving regimes that they have not also been replaced either by some form of republican absolutism or by liberal democracies? What are the prospects for political change that could lead these remaining traditional rulers to share power with popularly elected bodies?
In this provocative and insightful book, Michael Herb, an assistant professor of political science at Georgia State University, ventures to answer these questions by analyzing the institutions of monarchy in the Middle East and offering a theory that he believes explains why some have successfully resisted revolution when others did not. Herb discerns two distinct forms of monarchism in the region. The first is typified by the six Arabian states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, "dynastic monarchies" in which the ruling family collectively chooses the ruler by consensus, monopolizes key offices of state, and successfully resolves intra-family disputes without intervention by other domestic or foreign actors. In the second form, which includes Jordan and Morocco but also the failed monarchies, a monarch carries the burden of rule essentially alone with little or no participation by other family members.
Herb considers the succession mechanism in dynastic monarchies to be the key to their resilience. Drawing primarily on the experiences of the Al Sabah of Kuwait and the AI Saud of Saudi Arabia, he demonstrates how these and other Arabian dynasties came to consolidate political power over the state by limiting the power of any single family member or faction. Rulers and their would-be successors build family coalitions by distributing government posts to key relatives or by otherwise compensating family members to secure their cooperation. Determination of the succession by family consensus rather than by primogeniture strengthens the collective authority of the family. Family members are given a strong reason to preserve their monopoly of power by confining competition for offices and privileges within certain limits. When intra-family disputes arise, members "bandwagon" behind one faction over another and re-establish a consensus. Under this mechanism, the family usually entrusts supreme authority to the most senior member considered qualified to rule. But the ruler remains accountable to the family for his performance. As the November 1964 deposing of King Saud demonstrated, the family can also withdraw its allegiance (baya) from those rulers considered incompetent or who threaten to upset the balance of power within the family.
This monopoly of power creates a major barrier to revolution, and Herb emphasizes that no dynastic monarchy has yet been overthrown. Not only are these ruling families sizable (the Al Saud alone includes several thousand princes), but family members almost always occupy key cabinet posts including the prime ministry, the ministries of interior and defense and usually foreign affairs. Moreover, members of the ruling families are often found throughout the military and internal security establishments, the provincial administrations and in important parastatal organizations.
Because of their widespread contacts throughout society, these family members act as information gatherers for the regime and as intermediaries between the public and the ruling establishment. While it is possible that a small dissident family faction could ally itself with a domestic opposition group or a foreign power to bring pressure on or even displace a family majority, Herb sees no outside actors today with both the capacity and the desire to destroy family rule in the Arabian states.
In contrast, non-dynastic monarchs rule alone and may even, as happened in Libya and Afghanistan, deliberately exclude other family members from positions of power. Unlike the dynastic monarchies of Arabia, the kings of Jordan and Morocco have considerably more personal authority and can freely set policy and choose their heirs apparent unconstrained by their families (e.g., King Hussein's decision just before his death to dismiss his brother Hassan as heir apparent and name instead his own son Abdullah). However, they also lack the in-depth support provided by numerous relatives in key offices nor is there an effective means of removing an unsatisfactory ruler short of assassination or revolution (although the peaceful deposing of the insane King Talat of Jordan in favor of his son Hussein suggests that there can be exceptions to this rule of thumb). The result is the absence of broad-based institutional support for the monarch, who must rely on palace courtiers or favored politicians to staff the top posts of state. These elements, whatever their competency, are dependent on royal favor but may also lack commitment to the monarchy or to the ruling family as an institution.
With the barriers to revolution lower, non-dynastic kings face the task of winning broad popular approval or ruling by repression. However, belatedly offering political concessions, as the shah of Iran did 1977-78, can undermine the ruler's political control, especially if he tries to liberalize his rule just when the political opposition sees his position weakening. Adjusting their policies to appease their military also becomes critically important for such monarchs. A weak or unpopular ruler, such as Egypt's Farouk or Iraq's Faisal II, is easily toppled by the army, particularly when its officer corps is recruited from the urban middle class rather than the sons of large landowners, tribal leaders and others with a perceived stake in the monarchical system.
All things being equal, Herb asserts, dynastic monarchies provide a sounder base for incremental emergence of democratic institutions than do either non-dynastic monarchies or authoritarian regimes like those of Asad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Here Herb draws heavily on the Kuwaiti example to show how a traditional ruling institution can adapt itself to sharing some of its powers with a popularly elected legislative body. Noting that monarchs and dynasties will usually resist seeing their powers circumscribed unless there is a pressing need to do so, Herb explains that the creation of the Kuwait National Assembly in 1961 was due to the regime's need to rally popular support in the face of an Iraqi invasion threat. The appointment of the Saudi Consultative Council (Majlis al-Shura) in 1993, thirty years after it was first proposed by King Faisal, was a reaction to the crisis of the 1990-91 Gulf War. The same thing is true for establishment in the 1990s of similar consultative bodies in Bahrain, Qatar and Oman. If some form of genuine popular political participation is to evolve, Herb adds, the opposition must place a positive value on retaining a liberal monarchy, and the balance of power between the monarch and the opposition must be such that both sides see the advantages in a negotiated compromise.
Herb is dubious, however, that absolutist Gulf Arab rulers today see a compelling need to go beyond appointed advisory bodies with very limited powers. With the possible exception of Bahrain, no domestic opposition movements in these states currently pose a significant threat to dynastic rule. "In the dynastic monarchies of the Gulf, ruling-family hegemony over the state makes these regimes very resilient, so resilient, indeed, that they do not need to liberalize in response to popular pressure. The stability of dynastic monarchy has, thus far, inoculated these regimes to revolution and thus removed one of the main threats that impels democratization" (p. 262).
While pressure from within has not thus far induced most Gulf rulers to liberalize, Herb believes that the sort of arrangement seen in the 1962 Kuwaiti constitution could be effected without pushing the Gulf monarchies "down a slippery slope to revolution." Those Western democratic powers with a strong interest in the survival of friendly Gulf regimes can, and should, place far more pressure on these regimes to liberalize. Such a policy would, in Herb's estimation, make American rhetoric about encouraging the spread of democratic regimes in the Middle East more credible and thereby strengthen U.S. moral authority in the region. Furthermore, pressures for change are building in several of these states, especially Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, where the regimes continue to repress opposition with a fairly heavy hand. Herb warns that "there is more risk in such unvarnished absolutism than there is in the Kuwait model of constitutional monarchy" (p. 266).
In setting forth his theory of the resilience of dynastic monarchy, Herb challenges other currently fashionable academic theories of why these traditional regimes have survived. In particular, he takes issue with the theory of the "rentier state," which explains that Gulf Arab oil producing states do not need elected parliaments because they do not have to tax their citizens, i.e., "no representation without taxation." Oil revenues ("rent") release the state from accountability to its citizens for its income while lavish expenditure on public works and welfare systems co-opts their support and minimizes pressures for radical political change. Herb finds the "rentier state" theory unconvincing, since Iran and Libya, both "rentier" oil-producing states, saw the overthrow of non-dynastic monarchs. Moreover, citizens of such states have just as much interest as do taxpaying populations in rulers who govern wisely and eschew corruption. He also questions the theory that the tribal composition of key military units is a deciding factor, noting that in 1969 the existence of a supposedly loyal bedouin force did not prevent King Idris of Libya from being toppled by an army coup. Moreover, as Arabian bedouin have settled and become urbanized, they come into increasing contact with dissident political influences, especially from the Islamist opposition. Nor do the attitudes of friendly great powers necessarily account for the survival of these regimes. The United States did not intervene to prevent the fall of the shah or King Idris, both regarded as Western allies. In short, Herb asserts, Western support is useful to these surviving monarchies and sometimes, as in the case of Kuwait, essential against external threats, but their survival is due to internal factors and not simply to their having friends in the West.
Herb makes a very persuasive argument for his theory of the resilience of dynastic monarchy. Readers may wonder whether, like the theory of the "rentier state," too much emphasis is being put on just one of a number of factors that have contributed to the monarchical institution's survival in eight Middle Eastern states. Royal successions last year in Jordan and Morocco went smoothly despite the absence of the dynastic traditions prevalent in Arabia. Even among the Gulf monarchies, not all fully meet Herb's criteria for a stable dynastic regime. Primogeniture is constitutionally established as the basis for succession in Bahrain while in Oman no successor to Sultan Qabus has been publicly designated. In Bahrain, the head of government is not the heir apparent but the ruler's uncle. The UAE, with its federal authority shared among seven separate ruling families, is admittedly a special case. Exceptions aside, however, Herb has given us an important new perspective on the question of regime stability and the prospects for democratization in the Gulf Arabian states and the Middle East generally. This book originated as Herb's doctoral dissertation at UCLA and its academic roots are very evident. The introductory chapter summarizes the main thesis of the work. Ensuing chapters describe how growing oil revenues facilitated the emergence of dynastic monarchies and trace the historical development of the dynastic institution in each of the Gulf Arab states (in the UAE only Abu Dhabi and Dubai are discussed) as well as its failure to establish itself in Libya and Afghanistan. There follow briefer studies on the other non-dynastic monarchies. (The author acknowledges that his treatment of these five states, including Jordan and Morocco, is sketchy and included primarily to support his argument as a whole. Readers familiar with the histories of these monarchies and especially the fall of the shah will likely find some of his interpretations problematic.) The final two chapters, on the persistence of hereditary rule and constitutional monarchy, largely recapitulate the author's conclusions. One consequence of this organization is that there is considerable repetition, especially of the key points in his argument. However, Herb writes well and there is a minimum of jargon. Although the book will be of especial interest to academic political scientists, government officials, general readers with an interest in the Gulf region will find Herb's theory and supporting evidence both accessible and thought-provoking.
Herb conducted field research for this book in Kuwait 1993-94, and his very extensive bibliography includes many works in Arabic. This is a valuable resource for those who wish to pursue further reading and research into the issues addressed by this book. The notes and index are very good. Especially helpful for readers not fully familiar with the ruling families are the numerous genealogical charts that show descent from and relationships among the principal family members mentioned in the text, as well as a note on titles, names and transliteration.