Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 01/2012

Arab Monarchies: Chance for Reform, Yet Unmet

Marina Ottaway, Marwan Muasher

December 2011

Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Contrary to what ongoing protests across the Middle East and North Africa might imply, monarchs and ruling families in the Arab world still enjoy an extraordinary degree of legitimacy in the eyes of their people. Most citizens of Arab monarchies want to see changes within their ruling governments, not complete regime change. This in turn affords those rulers an opportunity to embark on a path of far-reaching political reform without losing their thrones—all the while gaining acclaim at home and abroad. Yet, so far, no monarch has made the effort. Sovereigns are not seeking to truly take advantage of their legitimacy to engineer a process of controlled reform from the top that would prevent an escalation of demands from the bottom. These rulers have not accepted that the change sweeping the region is profound, and that the unique opportunity they still have to lead their countries into a decisive program of reform will not last forever. All monarchs have taken steps to appease their citizens, but they have either provided material benefits to try to placate demands or introduced narrow reforms that give their people a limited voice in governance. Political measures have ranged from ostensibly bold but in reality limited in Morocco, to hesitant and uncertain in Jordan, to practically nonexistent in the Gulf countries. With a few partial exceptions, Arab monarchs are not moving their countries toward the representative governments that protesters are demanding.