As civil unrest in the Arab world moves toward violent conflict, the fate of the region's monarchies remains a pressing question. The Arab monarchies have thus far remained immune to unrest and the fallout of the Arab spring, whose consequences are still playing out in Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Answering the open question requires looking at each monarchy individually as opposed to treating them as a monolith. The most significant example is that of the largest monarchy, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudis likely had their eye Tuesday on the smooth and scripted succession in neighboring Qatar, where Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani handed over power to his son, Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim. Riyadh will be citing Doha's orderly transfer of power as the latest example of the great divide between the Arab spring and the monarchies. The Saudis and the other royals of the region can’t help but envy the Qatari succession, because it remains an exceptional case. This is partly because Qatar has a small population and because of the country's massive wealth, a result of being the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas.
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Saudi Arabia — the world's largest crude exporter — also has tremendous wealth. Qatar has a small, homogenous population and greater freedoms. By comparison, Saudi Arabia has a population of 30 million people, a growing youth demographic hungry for such freedoms — and specifically, for a move away from the restrictions imposed by the Salafist religious establishment — and considerable internal schisms. Furthermore, the ruling family of Saudi Arabia is in the midst of a historic generational change of guard; the country is down to the last few able-bodied sons of the founder of the modern kingdom.
The Saudi dynasty has been extremely resilient and won't likely founder anytime soon. But managing the home front while dealing simultaneously with the Arab spring and with Iran and its Shiite allies — who pose a major threat to the Saudi Kingdom — will be extremely challenging. Aside from Saudi Arabia, the only other country within the energy-rich six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council bloc that is home to more nationals than foreigners is Oman, which is strategically close to the Strait of Hormuz and is also due for a major historic succession. Oman's Sultan, Qaboos bin Said, has ruled the country since he took over in a palace coup against his father 43 years ago. He is in his 70s, the condition of his health is uncertain, and he has no children to take over for him.
The lack of a clear line of succession, coupled with the fact that the country has witnessed demonstrations in the wake of the Arab spring, adds to the uncertainty of post-Qaboos Oman. The United Arab Emirates, Oman's western neighbor, is a federation of seven different emirates and seems to be in the same category as Qatar — only 20 percent of the population are nationals. The power-sharing agreement between the two largest emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and the former’s oil wealth further consolidate the country’s dynastical political system. However, the regime's efforts to crack down on elements of the Muslim Brotherhood movement that reside in the country suggests that authorities feel less comfortable than Qatar, which has openly aligned itself with the Brotherhood.
Toward the northern end of the Persian Gulf is the emirate of Kuwait, which, in sharp contrast to the other Gulf Cooperation Council states, has allowed parliamentary politics. However, the al-Sabah ruling family has used tribal alliances and constitutional engineering to maintain its hold on power. Just south of Kuwait is Bahrain, which represents a unique case of the Arab Sunni bloc. This Persian Gulf island kingdom lacks the energy resources of the other Gulf Cooperation Council states and is the only one with a Shiite majority.
For this reason, the minority Sunni monarchy is heavily dependent on Saudi assistance to contain the Shiite majority that has been trying to use the limited democratic avenues allowed by Bahrain to weaken the monarchy. Bahrain’s proximity to Iran is a further incentive for the Saudis to ensure the throne of the al-Khalifas. In other words, as long as Saudi Arabia is politically and economically healthy, the political continuity of Bahrain is more or less ensured.
Beyond the Gulf Cooperation Council states are Jordan and Morocco. They have very little in common with the rest of the Arab monarchies for a number of reasons. Apart from the obvious lack of energy wealth, both Amman and Rabat have allowed a considerable degree of democratization in their monarchies. Morocco's Alaouite monarch, King Mohammed VI, introduced a new constitution that allowed for the party that wins the most parliamentary seats to form the government. This allowed the Islamist Justice and Development Party to head a coalition government. Given its weak economic conditions, the Moroccan regime is quite dependent upon the Gulf Cooperation Council — and especially on Saudi Arabia's backing.
Jordan has resisted going that far. The Hashemites have been tweaking electoral laws to prevent the country’s largest political force, the Muslim Brotherhood, from gaining a majority in parliament, and the monarchy is hoping to keep parliament from appointing the Cabinet. The Jordanian monarchy also sits at the crossroads of the region’s key conflicts, which include Arab versus Israeli, Shia versus Sunni, and the brewing conflict in the Levant. These add to the domestic pressures felt by Jordan, which is financially dependent on the Gulf Cooperation Council states and the West.
In essence, most of the Arab monarchies may have survived the Arab spring, but they have no shortage of unique geopolitical issues that render them vulnerable in the long term.