Why Did Some Persist, and Others Fall?

I got into a discussion this morning with an Indian and Egyptian friend over the dynamics of the Middle East, and one of the more interesting questions of the events over the past few years – why is it that the Middle East’s monarchies (the Gulf states, Jordan, Morocco) managed to survive more or less intact, with some internal reforms, while the region’s military-led “republics” collapsed (Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia)? Is there something intrinsic about the monarchies that kept them alive?

The discussion came about because the simplistic reasons for survival, which fall into two broad categories, do not feel satisfying. The first, and more common refrain, is that petrodollars (especially in the Gulf States) managed to bribe populations. Domestic moves, like Saudi Arabia’s massive $100 billion plus spending boom or handouts in Kuwait and the UAE, certainly add credence to that case. The second, less common but still discussed, reason is that the monarchies were more respectful of their populations by doing away with the illusion of choice. Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt and Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria both had elections, no matter how useless they were. The theory is that, by holding even fake elections, the authoritarian regimes were insulting and making a mockery of their people. The monarchies, by contrast, have always been clear about power in the state and how it operates. Again, there is likely some truth to this theory, but it still feels unsatisfying.

Both theories hinge on a selective reading of dynamics in the region. Namely, they first depend on the idea that the monarchies have been stable. Bahrain is a clear example of this not being the case – the government very likely would have collapsed within a week had Saudi Arabia not intervened to support it in March 2011. Meanwhile, Kuwait and Oman have both faced serious protests. Second, not all of the military-backed republics have fallen. Algeria, despite some minor protests, still seems to be holding firm. And Jordan, a country which could be considered both a military-backed republic and a monarchy, has survived. Jordan has elections for a Parliament, yet said Parliament is rigged in favor of “East Bank Jordanians” who are one-third of the country and also dominate the security services.

Rather, the more satisfying answer for why some governments have survived and others have fallen is that some have been far better at managing and working the intense internal divisions that exist within each country to their advantage.

Hosni Mubarak’s regime had managed to anger every interest group in the country – the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafists, the liberals, and large segments of the business elite. Bashar Al-Assad’s Syria has hinged on the support provided by segments of the Alawite population (roughly 10% of the country), and a sliver of the Sunni business elite out of touch with the rest of the country. Wide swaths of each country loathed their leaders.

On the other hand, the governments that survived have managed to build a shared interest on the part of various groups that is large enough to prevent serious instability. Jordan has relied on the fact that the 1/3rd of the country composed of the East Bank Jordanians remains clearly in charge, and fearful of what could happen should the country become a full republic with the 2/3rds of the country that is Palestinian gaining control.

Saudi Arabia meanwhile has always been able to depend on the fact that, and this is very rough, the three segments of the country that are not the royal family (the civil service, business elite, and religious conservatives), fundamentally do not trust each other. There is massive overlap between the three groups (i.e. many civil service members in the Ministry of Education are extremely religiously conservative), but broadly defined, the three groups do have differing interests. All three groups thus see the royal family as the best option – especially since in lieu of the royal family, they all have no idea who would be in charge.

And across the regimes that have collapsed versus those that have remained in power, it is possible to point to those managed tensions within society. Qaddafi’s regime had alienated everyone except his tribe, and convinced residents in Benghazi and Tripoli, despite their historical divergences, that they had a shared interest in a new government. The Kuwaiti Emir and family have convinced the country that their Parliament is so dysfunctional that it could never be trusted to run the country.

It is then within this rubric that money and a perceived respect come into play. The financial resources of the states are not the reason that they stayed in power, but rather, they provided the resources to convince wary segments of the population that their interests aligned with the present government. Saudi Arabia gave a significant sum of money to the religious establishment, and also spent a lot of money hiring more civil servants. And the monarchies, by not appearing to blatantly disregard the needs and wishes of their populations, were also able to leverage a reservoir of goodwill that had built up. For better or worse, all these governments – even the ones that fell – had led their countries for decades, and been responsible for building large portions of their modern states.

I do not mean to say that some element of divide and conquer is the only reason governments survived or fell, nor that one single idea is applicable across the entire region. The region is far too complicated and the forces at stake are far too massive. But within this complexity, there are some commonalities that do help understand what is going on, and I find this to be one of them.