Ten years ago, the Arab uprisings brought down four “presidents for life” in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. However, the eight kings in the Middle East and North Africa did not face the same fate, despite the fact that many of their countries witnessed moderate or large unrest, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Jordan and Morocco. As for the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, there were the lowest levels of popular protest among the monarchies.
Since that time, experts have questioned the meaning implied by the non-fall of any of the kings and whether the Arab monarchies are important to the final outcome of the survival of the regimes. Several experts have linked this second idea to the monarchs’ legitimacy, the external support they receive, and the wealth of resources they possess. Although you disagree with the topic, it is clear that the monarchs have repeatedly and successfully contained various kinds of opposition threats for decades before the Arab Spring and are still containing them ten years later.
Today, the issue of the survival of the Arab monarchies remains extremely important. Since the revolutions of 2011, protests have erupted in Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait. And they usually erupted, at least in part, due to economic difficulties, which indicates that protests will continue, especially given the economic repercussions of the emerging Corona virus pandemic. What is worrisome is that all Arab monarchies have increasingly cracked down on critics and dissident actors. In extreme cases, these regimes resorted to assassinations and torture, while in other cases they resorted to judicial procedures and long prison terms to restrict opponents.
As popular dissatisfaction with the increasing repression increases and worsening economic conditions persist, more popular objections will likely arise in many of these cases. However, the Arab monarchs may discover that their usual containment strategies will be less effective as peoples and opposition movements transform and that the time has come to adapt their behavior.
Spring of Kings
Protests related to the Arab Spring erupted in the monarchies generally due to economic, social and political factors. For example, in Saudi Arabia, where unrest sparked after an old woman set himself on fire due to poor living conditions, people protested against economic hardship, discrimination against Shiites, and a restricted political scene. The most notable unrest has occurred in the eastern oil-producing region, which is inhabited by Shiites and whose residents have taken to the streets due to marginalization, inequality and oppression.
In the oil-rich state of Kuwait, people demanded a more representative political system and reforms that would limit the authority of the Emir, particularly through political party legislation. In economically weak monarchies, such as Jordan, Morocco, and Oman, unrest arose due to high unemployment rates and reforms planned to be applied to subsidies and rising food and fuel prices. Protesters also demanded constitutional reforms, better electoral laws, transparent elections, and stronger legislative powers. On the other hand, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar witnessed very limited unrest. About 150 Emiratis organized a petition calling for greater political openness through general elections and a stronger Federal National Council. In Qatar, there were no petitions or protests. However, shortly after the Kuwaiti regime announced that it would grant citizens a total of $ 4 billion in aid, Qataris demanded similar assistance, according to local sources.
On the other hand, Bahrain witnessed the highest levels of unrest, as protests that mainly demanded political openness and equality for the Shiite majority intensified after the regime resorted to excessive force. In fact, Bahrain was the only monarchy in which the protest movement called for the ruling family to step down. The extreme violence led to more protests, which in turn led to more violence. This episode intensified, and the Bahraini monarchy requested and received military assistance from neighboring countries to contain the situation.
How did the Arab monarchies contain the Arab Spring?
Most of the Arab monarchs tried to contain the 2011 uprisings in a generally similar way, that is, by granting monetary incentives and limited political concessions, and they accompanied them with repressive tactics that restricted the continuing protesters and deterred any additional protests. Of course, depending on the regime’s wealth and type, some regimes made more concessions than others or cracked down on protesters with greater brutality than others.
Indeed, Arab monarchies can be classified according to their political systems and economic conditions. Generally, it is divided between the poorer kingdoms – Morocco and Jordan – and the relatively wealthy Gulf kingdoms. This second group, in turn, can be divided into three classes: super rentier states with small populations and high reserves of natural resources (Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates), an oil-rich kingdom with a much larger population (Saudi Arabia), and economically fragile Gulf monarchies (Oman, Bahrain). ).
Its political systems range from comprehensive monarchies to light dictatorships. Jordan and Morocco fall into the second category, as they both contain minimum levels of democracy and mechanisms to ensure that the ruler remains the strongest actor. Although Kuwait and Bahrain have slight openings and developing civil society groups, the Gulf monarchies are generally characterized by more restrictive political systems compared to Morocco and Jordan.
These classifications help explain the way in which regimes interact with peoples and opposition currents. Rich monarchies are able to provide their citizens with material benefits in a way that the poorer monarchies cannot. During the uprisings, while poorer monarchies such as Morocco and Jordan made modest monetary concessions such as delaying austerity measures and increasing subsidies, super-rentier states such as the United Arab Emirates were able to launch billions of dollars in development projects. Moreover, monarchies that comprise civil society and powerful political groups face greater or more frequent opposition than do comprehensive monarchies, and are more likely to refrain from suppressing them with the same level of violence. This partly explains why security forces in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have killed a large number of protesters compared to Morocco and Jordan.
However, most Arab monarchs contained the uprisings of 2011 by granting monetary and political concessions and also by resorting to repression. Significantly, the Saudi regime promised to spend $ 130 billion to increase salaries, build housing, and engage in other projects. The United Arab Emirates pledged $ 1.6 billion for infrastructure projects in the poorer northern emirates. Proactively, the Bahraini regime granted each Bahraini family $ 2,600 in cash, while the Kuwaiti regime offered all its citizens $ 3,500. Qatar increased public sector salaries for citizens by 60 percent, and austerity measures were delayed in Jordan, Morocco and Oman. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and Jordan promised to create tens of thousands of jobs in the public sector. Subsidies were increased or new ones introduced in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait.
In terms of political concessions, the Arab monarchs introduced limited reforms that did not have a significant restrictive effect on them while addressing some of the opposition’s demands. In Qatar, the regime proactively announced the holding of elections for the legislature (yet to be postponed) and laws for the separation of powers. Deeper constitutional reforms were undertaken in Jordan, Morocco, and Oman. New elections were announced in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Jordan. Rulers reconstituted governments, dissolved parliaments, or expelled government officials who were targeted by protesters in Kuwait, Jordan, and Oman. New electoral laws were established in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Morocco. The reforms sought to calm the protesters and contain the threat posed by revolutions, not to democratize or rightly open the political space. In most cases, the lack of frankness about these reforms subsequently led to further protests, which were immediately suppressed.
In general, repression has not been used excessively as in Bahrain, but rather as an additional tool aimed at ensuring that the protesters accept concessions and deter further protests. Protesters were arrested in various monarchies, and freedoms were restricted after that. In Kuwait, stateless protesters were either ignored or threatened with deportation. In Saudi Arabia, where the regime increased the deployment of security forces with the start of the protests, Shiite protesters were targeted in the Eastern Province more than Sunni protesters. In many of these monarchies, activists who criticized the regime after the revolutions were imprisoned.
After the Arab Spring
Despite hopes that the revolutions would lead to greater political openness in those kingdoms, Arab monarchs did not fulfill most of the promises made to liberation. The resulting disillusionment with these regimes, combined with economic hardship, inequality, and corruption, has led to repeated rounds of popular protests since 2011.
In Bahrain, protests erupted again, and they ranged from large demonstrations, as happened in March 2012 when about a hundred thousand people participated, to small gatherings such as the one that took place on February 14 of this year. Protesters and security forces clashed repeatedly between 2011 and 2020. Most of these protests were peaceful, but all were met with violent repression, including torture, beatings, arrests, tear gas, live ammunition, and intimidation. The authorities also blocked access to the Internet, raided schools, and arrested and charged doctors who treated protesters.
In other, less extreme cases, freedoms and space for objections were greatly restricted after 2011. Monarchies such as Kuwait and Oman adopted new, more restrictive laws. Activists and protest organizers were imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Morocco. There were reports of torture in Saudi Arabia. Police used beatings, tear gas, or water cannons against protesters in Jordan. The Saudi regime suppressed the recurring opposition in the Qatif region between 2017 and 2020, and it also implemented a two-year purge of prominent political and business figures and resorted to the suppression of feminists between 2018 and 2019, and it is believed that he planned to assassinate Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Jordan witnessed large protests between 2016 and 2020. Most of them erupted for economic reasons, notably unemployment, austerity measures and spending cuts, although protesters sometimes called for political reforms, as happened in the 2018 rallies. In the same year, a new tax law and austerity measures imposed by the International Monetary Fund sparked several general strikes that escalated into intensity. A series of protests that covered the entire country. Other, smaller protests followed in 2019 and 2020. Most of the protests were peaceful, but faced a violent security response, including pre-trial detentions, home raids, dissolution of unions, arrests, and stricter internet laws.
In Amman, groups of young people took to the streets in 2018 and 2019 to demand jobs and were arrested, beaten and dispersed. The authorities cracked down on stateless protesters demanding Kuwaiti nationality rights in 2019. Morocco witnessed an unprecedented boycott in 2019, as well as a series of protests in Jerada, Rashidiya and the countryside, and the unrest in the latter escalated into nationwide demonstrations against economic marginalization, corruption and repression. In addition to some concessions, the protests faced a strong security response. In general, freedom of expression faced further restrictions in recent years.
Aspirations: Time for a change
Lessons on the survival of monarchies during the Arab revolutions and since their inception show that kings, like all rulers, are opportunists. To avoid dislocation and to maintain power, they resort to strategies of containment and deterrence that include a combination of repression, public spending, and conciliatory steps. Importantly, they have adapted strategically over the years. Today, most kings know that they are constrained by historical context. And they face pressure to resort to brutal force at a slower pace than their predecessors to avoid domestic and international backlash. Instead, they resort to political maneuvering, smear campaigns, and judicial repression.
Dissenting actors and peoples also learn from the regime’s behavior and adjust their actions to advance their interests and adapt to changing contexts. In Jordan, this meant the threat of a possible escalation to reach a popular revolution in order to obtain concessions from the regime. In Morocco, new forms of protests were adopted, such as boycotting the whole country, which avoided traditional repressive tactics. In Oman, silent protests were held to express discontent in a country where the opposition space was traditionally small. The important thing is that the more repression of the regimes and breach of their promises of liberation, the greater the disappointment of the people and the less likely they will accept such promises in the future.
In other words, although proven threat containment strategies have worked well in the past, they will likely be gradually ineffective as opposition movements develop and peoples transform. Moreover, the regimes’ increased resort to repression is not sustainable and can lead to reactions. Over time, the unfulfilled promises of reform and development made by these regimes will rebound against them and they will have to adapt the ways in which they deal with opposition actors and their people, especially since more and larger popular objections are imminent.