Long Live the King?POLITICAL SCIENTISTS AND ANALYSTS HAVE LONG BEEN TRYING TO UNDERSTAND WHICH CONDITIONS HAVE GUARANTEED THE SURVIVAL OF A HANDFUL OF ABSOLUTE MONARCHIES IN ASIA, AFRICA AND ABOVE ALL THE ARABIAN PENINSULA. THE LEAST IMPERFECT EXPLANATION IS LINKED TO THE SIZE OF THE COUNTRY THEY GOVERN
by Marlene Jugl, Assistant Professor of Politics and Policy Making, Bocconi University
And the King and Queen lived happily ever after. – This phrase comes from the world of fairy tales, obviously. Not least because there are hardly any “real” Kings or Queens left. The few monarchies that we find in the world today seem anachronistic, remnants of the past. While Kings, Sultans and Emirs used to govern large parts of the world, today we observe only a handful of truly monarchic regimes. Countries where hereditary monarchs are not limited to simple representative tasks but still rule and reign are spread across Asia (Brunei) and Africa (Morocco and Swaziland) but most are concentrated on the Arab peninsula (Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates).
For decades, scholars and foreign policy analysts have tried to explain why these monarchies have remained more or less stable until today, while others such as the monarchies in Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran or Nepal have fallen. None of the existing explanations for the survival or breakdown of monarchies can perfectly explain all cases. A popular explanation is the economic or military support by foreign powers. However, whereas US support to Oman fostered the stability of the Omani Sultanate, similar support did not prevent the overthrow of the Shah and his monarchy in Iran. Oil rents are often mentioned as another stabilizing factor and while they are a significant source of income and stability for the Gulf monarchies, the monarchies in Jordan and Swaziland have found ways to survive without them. One point has been overlooked in such debates, though. It seems that today’s monarchies are mostly located in small countries. Indeed, authoritarian monarchies that survived since World War Two have an average population size around 10 million, while those that have broken down since then count more than 30 million on average. Could small country size increase a monarchy’s survival chances?
A comparison between Jordan and Egypt in the years after World War Two offers some insights. At the time, they did not differ much, except for their size. Among other similarities, both had no significant oil reserves but did enjoy foreign support. Notably, Jordan’s tiny population made it easier for the Hashemite Kings to keep the country in check. The small country’s social fabric was simple and the monarchs knew exactly which elite groups to invite to court in exchange for their loyalty. This is not to say that there was no opposition in Jordan at the time, but the Kings had a clear overview of who to keep an eye on. The small size allowed especially King Hussein to travel to virtually all towns in the kingdom, which boosted his personal popularity and the regime’s legitimation. Large parts of the population perceived him as a rock who guaranteed the unity and survival of the country in a sea of regional wars and trouble. The external circumstances were largely the same for Egypt, but the large size of the country and the number and diversity of societal and political groups undermined the monarchies’ grip to power. In the end, Egypt’s King Farouk was overthrown in 1952 by the Free Officers, one out of many anti-regime groups. The Egyptian monarchy was simply overwhelmed by the task of monitoring and co-opting or repressing them all.
As other explanations before, the size argument is imperfect. It cannot explain why monarchies are still in power in Morocco and Saudi Arabia, both with populations above 30 million. But evidence suggests that small size has prevented the violent overthrow of monarchies. From this perspective, it looks easier for Kings (there are no truly powerful Queens) in small states to live as Kings ever after. Whether they live happily is a whole different question.