Collaboration and Community amongst the Arab Monarchies

By Sean Yom, Temple University

*This memo was prepared for the workshop, “International Diffusion and Cooperation of Authoritarian Regimes,” held on June 8–9, 2016 in Hamburg, Germany                

The Arab uprisings resulted in regime change in several Middle East republics but none of the monarchies (Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates). Since 2011-12, scholars have expressed renewed interest in the so-called durability of the Arab kingships, attempting to explain their cultural heritage, institutional endowments, and rentier wealth.[1] Yet we should study not only what these royal autocracies are in terms of structure, but also what they do, in terms of agency. We must understand how they made certain choices and implemented new policies in an effort to survive.

In doing so, we can observe authoritarian diffusion since 2011, in particular how the spread of common norms and ideas has helped catalyze unprecedented policy convergence among these eight regimes sharing a revitalized pan-royal identity. Many of the Arab monarchies have implemented shared policies in areas such as societal policing, sectarian inflammation, media suppression, and Gulf Cooperation Council expansion. This brief essay suggests that we cannot explain such convergence, the kind of inter-regime cooperation that Thomas Richter and André Bank invoke in their introductory essay, without first locating its ideational origins. Put another way, diffusion matters in this context as a causal variable, as the mechanism engendering a new pan-royal identity that, in turn, has facilitated policy collaboration and convergence among eight authoritarian monarchies.

There is some precedent for theorizing this. For one, comparative scholars know that much like liberal democracies share “best practices” and norms, authoritarian regimes can diffuse “worst practices” regarding their repression, financing, and governance. Essays in this volume by Steve Heydemann, Maria Josua, and May Darwich show how Arab regimes have picked up specific practices of coercion and financing from one another during both war and peace. The other theoretical foundation comes from international relations. IR theorists know well how not just material interests but ideas enable disparate political groups to behave in concerted ways across borders. Work on epistemic communities as well as security communities uses that contested term, “community,” to show how shared truths (i.e., consensual ways of viewing the world and processing information), allow actors to perceive one another as equal parts of a bigger collectivity that share a common identity and thus fate.[2] The metaphor of community provides a striking way to interpret how Arab monarchies (i.e., not just kings but also senior princes, cabinet ministers, and advisers tied to the palace) are coming to see and treat one another – as not simply strategic allies in a materialist sense, but also members of an embattled community of royalism whose way of political life is under attack.

What makes the Mideast monarchies distinctive, however, is that these regimes have tended to emulate and learn from one another far more than their republican allies since the Arab uprisings. Simply being a non-democracy is not enough: one must be a member of that endangered species called absolute monarchism to reap the fruits of this brand of diffusion. The closest historical equivalent to such selectivity within a broader landscape of regional authoritarianism is perhaps Operation Condor, the decade-long effort by the military intelligence services of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay to eliminate leftist dissent. From 1975 through the mid-1980s, these leaderships exterminated numerous dissidents whose very existence threatened their shared model of right-wing bureaucratic-authoritarianism. The collaboration among Arab monarchies since 2011 may well inaugurate a more modernized, stealthier version of such selective international cooperation. Little reported in the Western media, the interior ministers of the Arab League have met annually under the auspices of the Arab Interior Ministers Council, based in Tunis since the early 1980s. Like Operation Condor, these summits have allowed regime watchdogs to innovate and share new technologies of repression.[3] Further, outside the region, autocratic “great powers” Russia and China counter liberal democratic norms by diffusing their own models of security and stability, in particular utilizing mechanisms like coercion and competition to promote authoritarianism in their respective spheres of influence.[4]

A Royal “We”

The Arab uprisings threatened all autocracies in the Mideast, but they made royal voices especially doubtful about their viability in the modern world. By viability, I mean the prospects for survival not simply as dictatorships (as there are plenty everywhere), but rather as biological enterprises built upon the twin pillars of familial succession and near-absolute control over the state apparatus. During 2011, calls for malakiyyah destouriyyah (constitutional monarchy) from newly mobilized voices in these societies – not just suppressed minorities, but also students, workers, clerics, professionals, and others – resonated. For palace hardliners, the notion of constitutional monarchism was a “virus” contagiously spreading across their societies.[5] It cut as deeply as protest buzzwords like isqaat (downfall) due to its normative implications: it reminded absolutists that they were among the last royals left in the world clinging onto the coercive reigns of state ownership. One Gulf prince admitted that even the oil-rich kingdoms were not “100 percent immune” to the uprisings, for at stake were principles of political representation rather than questions of economic well-being.”[6] Indeed, some royals felt that this crisis posed a greater threat than the heyday of Arab Nationalism, which swept away royalism in Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, for two reasons. First, unlike the turbulence of the 1950s and 1960s, absolutist royalism by 2011 had become virtually extinct everywhere else; outside the Middle East, only Swaziland and Brunei still abided by its tenets. Second, whereas Arab Nationalism was conveyed as a regional threat emanating from republican capitals like Cairo and Damascus, demands for constitutionalism came from the monarchies’ own societies.

Such existential fear compelled many leaders to fall back on the common norms that bound their familial regimes together. Between private dialogues and public media articulations, these consensual truths were many. One prominent example was the internalized principle of dynastic superiority, or “blood over ballots.” Blood over ballots establishes not only the distinction between monarchism and republicanism but also enshrines eternal political inequality: all else being equal, the worst member of a royal family still has more legitimacy to rule than the best commoner from society. Whereas father-son succession in dynastic republics like Syria or Azerbaijan was justified ex post facto on pragmatic grounds of national cohesion or effective leadership, monarchical power-holding rests upon a genetic argument implying that blood alone renders the ruling family’s claim to power immune to popular contestation.

These and other consensual truths rendered visible a new pan-royal identity that coalesced by spring 2011. This identity manifested through increased communication among the monarchies, which included not only direct lines between kings but also the lower-level exchanges between cabinet ministers, senior princes, and private emissaries. While much of this interaction was hidden from the Arab media (and even when uttered, was glossed over with opaque euphemisms), one indicator of this shift was the increased level of talks involving only the monarchies. Frequent summits of foreign ministers representing just these eight countries exemplified this.[7] These meetings brought together not just official emissaries but also various senior princes who could build upon previous interfamilial links crafted by decades of intermarriage, cross-investments, and social networks. Other cases of direct cross-royal exchanges were more obvious, such as the Jordanian regime emulating its Moroccan counterpart in promulgating constitutional “reforms” by summer 2011 in order to appease peaceful yet stubborn protests.[8]

The diffusion and coalescence of this pan-royal identity – an Arab royal “we” – should not imply that the Arab monarchies intended to form some grand confederation. Neither does it herald the sublimation of underlying identities (e.g., tribal, national, geographic, familial), or even the elimination of past rivalries. Social scientists know well that identities are not only malleable but also compete with one another; the existence of one does not preclude the subsistence of another. The brief ideological spat between the Qatari and Saudi monarchies over which political faction to back in transiting states like Egypt and Tunisia, for instance, occurred at the same time that they both participated in more frequent monarchical meetings and communications. Pluralism is part of any communal social order, and only by considering the full range of patterned behaviors and ideas can we gain a textured appreciation of how complex this realm of ideas and beliefs is.

Monarchical Cooperation

Starting in 2011, then, pan-royalism was a new source of collaborative policymaking among these monarchies. It was notably stronger than the old fear felt by the Gulf kingdoms in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. There, the threat generated by the new Islamic Republic was conveyed in sectarian terms, and localized to the Arabian Peninsula – dictated more by place and religion rather than reactionary critiques of monarchism itself, and not exactly the catalyst for any new Gulf-oriented (khaliji) identity amongst Saudi Arabia and its five neighboring kingdoms.[9]

Still, how can we ascertain whether pan-royalism palpably spurred new forms of monarchical collaboration? One way is to examine specific cases of policy convergence and consider rival materialist explanations. Take, for instance, the effort to expand the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) by bringing in Morocco and Jordan alongside the six Gulf kingdoms. Completely bypassing the Arab League, this idea was first advocated in February 2011 and, despite some stumbles, is still discussed in foreign ministerial meetings. Some observers saw the initiative as an effort to convert the GCC, an otherwise ineffectual security alliance, into a broader “monarchies’ club” that could create a symbolic firewall protecting the royal autocracies from everyone else.[10]

Establishing close ties to the oil-rich Gulf made strategic sense to resource-poor Jordan and Morocco, since they would receive far greater economic and invest aid. Yet what realistic benefit would it bring to the Gulf kingdoms? Neither the fly arc of Moroccan fighter jets nor the defensive prowess of Jordanian infantry would be much use in potential war against Iran. Likewise, the GCC intervention in Bahrain in March 2011 demonstrated that Saudi Arabia alone could help its smaller allies squash domestic threats. Geography likewise cannot explain this impetus from the Gulf to better protect its monarchical brethren. The Saleh regime in neighboring Yemen had long lobbied to gain entrance into this alliance, but to little avail; even at the height of its unrest, no official suggested inserting Yemen into the GCC in order to preserve this allied dictatorship.

Rather, the GCC expansionist policy reflected novel framework of pan-royalism kindled in the fires of the Arab uprisings. The heightened perception among monarchical voices that they were more alike than different ironically also explains why some of the smaller Gulf kingdoms slowed down the expansion process by 2012, preferring instead a longer timeline of negotiated admission. Reportedly, some in smaller Gulf kingdoms like Kuwait, Qatar, and Oman feared the contagious spread of popular protests from Morocco and Jordan to the Gulf, given the similarities these countries apparently shared.[11]

Another example of greater monarchical collaboration occurs in the realm of domestic policy, with the practice of “cross-policing,” in which royal governments smother domestic critics of other Arab monarchies, even if those critics never opposed their own dynasty. Since 2012, there have been dozens of cases of cross-policing across the monarchies. Only a few have broached the Western media, such as the incarceration of Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood official Zaki Bani Irsheid for criticizing the United Arab Emirates, or the startling detention of Kuwaiti parliamentarians due to their censure of Saudi policies and Bahraini treatment of Shi‘a. These cases are but the tip of the iceberg.

Cross-policing is hardly a new practice and has occurred between republics and monarchies in the past as well as the present – for instance, the Sissi regime in Egypt cracking down on anti-Saudi dissent. Yet two aspects of specifically royal cross-policing suggest that something deeper and ideational is operating: timing and domain. In terms of timing, virtually all cross-policing cases among the monarchies began after the November 2012 Joint Security Agreement issued by the Gulf kingdoms and to which Morocco and Jordan assented. The JSA, first proposed in late 2011, called for signatories to “suppress interference in the domestic affairs” of other kingdoms, among other new requirements that blurred the boundaries between these kingdoms.[12]

Second, the act of cross-policing has required syncretic legal framing and transnational coordination between the monarchies to a far greater degree than necessary given past practices of ad hoc crackdowns. Since 2012, the majority of the Arab kingdoms have promulgated revised “anti-terror” statutes that have not only extended the criminalization of speech to include all the monarchies but also expanded the purview of state monitoring itself to new areas, such as online social networks. Further, there have been almost no cases of cross-policing occurring from monarchy to republic; for instance, Jordanian censors are keen on preserving the image of the Gulf kingdoms, but seldom make trouble for critics of Egypt. In short, many of the Arab monarchies have systematized their legal strategies of suppressing reformist sentiments.

Other examples of greater monarchical collaboration since the Arab uprisings that demand further research include the deliberate amplification of Sunni chauvinism during 2011-12 that went hand-in-hand with retrenching monarchist power, as well as democratic diffusion-proofing, or common strategies of sanitizing media discourse and manipulate the public sphere in order to better insulate the domestic citizenry from external democratic norms.

At the same time, this exploratory probe comes with a disclaimer. As constructivists have long understood, empirically proving that an idea, truth, or identity fundamentally caused a certain policy shift is difficult. Perceptions are notoriously intersubjective, and even the best evidence may reflect hindsight bias. Still, there is abundant reason to consider how the diffusion of pan-royalism and the creation of a new communal order can help explain the origins and trajectory of monarchical collaboration since 2011, either as a substitute or else a complement to more traditional rationalist explanations. At the most, this proposition begs for further study; at the least, it dispels any lingering assumption that monarchism does not matter in the modern Middle East.



[1] See, for instance, Victor Menaldo, “The Middle East and North Africa’s Resilient Monarchs,” Journal of Politics 74, 3 (2012): 707-722; Sean Yom and F. Gregory Gause, “Resilient Royals: How Arab Monarchies Hang On,” Journal of Democracy 23, 3 (2012): 74-88; and André Bank, Thomas Richter, and Anna Sunik, “Long-Term Monarchical Survival in the Middle East: A Configurational Comparison, 1945-2012,” Democratization 22, 1 (2015): 179-200.

[2] Emanuel Adler and Peter Haas, “Epistemic Communities, World Order, and the Creation of a Reflective Research Program,” International Organization, 46,1 (1992): 367-390; Amitav Acharya, Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia: ASEAN and the Problem of Regional Order (London: Routledge, 2001);

[3] “Qam‘ ‘arabi ‘abir lil-qaarat,” Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 18 March 2010.

[4] See, for instance, Thomas Ambrosio, “The Rise of the ‘China Model’ and ‘Beijing Consensus’: Evidence of Authoritarian Diffusion?” Contemporary Politics 18, 4 (2012): 381-399; Alexander Cooley, “Countering Democratic Norms,” Journal of Democracy 26, 2 (2015): 49-63; and Christian von Soest, “Democracy Prevention: The International Collaboration of Authoritarian Regimes,” European Journal of Political Science 54 (2015): 623-638.

[5] “Malakiyyah destouriyyah maghribiyyah… masdar qaliq khaliji,” Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 2 July 2011.

[6] “Duwwal al-khalij laysat muhsana dhidd al-thawrat [Qatari PM: Gulf Countries Not Impervious to the Revolutions],” Al-Akhbar Al-Yawm, 10 November 2011.

[7] “Ijtimaa‘ wuzaraa’ khaarijiyyah duwwal majlis al-ta‘aawun al-khaliji wal-magrib wal-urdun al-ahad,” Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 9 September 2011.

[8] André Bank and Mirjam Edel, “Authoritarian Regime Learning: Comparative Insights from the Arab Uprisings,” GIGA Working Paper No. 274 (2015), Hamburg, Germany.

[9] Michael Barnett and F. Gregory Gause, “Caravans in Opposite Directions: State, Society, and the Development of Community in the Gulf Cooperation Council,” in Security Communities, 186-189.

[10] “Tabaayin bi-sha’n tawsi‘ majlis al-ta‘aawun,”, 17 May 2011.

[11] “Jalsa sirri: sultanat oman taqud al-mu‘aaradha li-dhim al-urdun wal-maghrib lil-khaliji…” Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 14 December 2011.

[12] For one rare example of English reportage, see Madawi Al-Rasheed, “Kuwaiti Activists Targeted Under GCC Security Pact,” Al-Monitor, 20 March 2015.