Crowns and chaos in the Middle East

by Colby Cosh

Abstract: This paper helps explain the variation in political turmoil observed in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] during the Arab Spring. The region’s monarchies have been largely spared of violence while the “republics” have not. A theory about how a monarchy’s political culture solves a ruler’s credible commitment problem explains why this has been the case. Using a panel dataset of the MENA countries (1950-2006), I show that monarchs are less likely than non-monarchs to experience political instability, a result that holds across several measures. They are also more likely to respect the rule of law and property rights, and grow their economies. Through the use of an instrumental variable that proxies for a legacy of tribalism, the time that has elapsed since the Neolithic Revolution weighted by Land Quality, I show that this result runs from monarchy to political stability. The results are also robust to alternative political explanations and country fixed effects.

I wouldn’t suggest taking this classic bit of political science too seriously, with its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink regressions on a small data set and its inherently dubious use of an “instrumental variable” to ferret out causation. That said: Victor Menaldo’s basic observations would be hard to refute. Monarchies in the Middle East and North Africa have been stable relative to their republican neighbours; the replacement of a monarchy with a republic rarely if ever makes the people better off; and the monarchies in the region tend to be more liberal economically, even if they don’t have particularly liberal political structures.

In the ci-devant monarchies of the Arab and Persian world, nostalgia for overthrown Western-friendly regimes of the past seems fairly common. When the Libyans got rid of Gadhafi last year, for instance, they promptly restored the old flag of the Kingdom of Libya (1951-69), and some of the anti-Gadhafi protesters carried portraits of the deposed late king, Idris. From the vantage point of Canada, constitutional monarchy looks like a pretty good solution to the inherent problems of governing ethnically divided or clan-dominated places. And in most of the chaotic MENA countries, including Libya, there exist legitimist claimants who could be used to bring about constitutional restorations.

The most natural locale for such an experiment would have been Afghanistan, where republican governments have made repeated use of the old monarchical institution of the loya jirga or grand council. The U.S. met with overwhelming pressure from Afghans to include ex-king Zahir Shah in the first post-Taliban loya jirga in 2002, but twisted the old man’s arm to ensure that his participation would be no more than ceremonial. At least one South Asia analyst, Shireen Burki, thinks this was a regrettable missed opportunity that can only be attributed to reflexive suspicion of monarchism by U.S. officials.

“We don’t do kings,” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said when she was asked if restoration could help solve the problems of the south Slavs. “Pity you don’t,” the happy Commonwealth realms and the peaceable kingdoms of northern Europe might have added. The U.S. turned out to be more interested in easily-overwhelmed American clients like Ahmed Chalabi and Hamid Karzai; and how has that turned out?

Crowns and chaos in the Middle East

  1. I enjoy history and I would like to time travel into future and read books about lasting, long term affects of World War II. World defeated the Nazis in the war but left wing ideology has taken hold in most countries around the world. I think American presidential system stable because of first past post voting and strong private property rights while countries around the world have neither of these things and get into big trouble with El Presidentes.  

    Bagehot ~ English Constitution:
    The best reason why Monarchy is a strong government is, that it is an intelligible government. The mass of mankind understand it, and they hardly anywhere in the world understand any other. It is often said that men are ruled by their imaginations; but it would be truer to say they are governed by the weakness of their imaginations. The nature of a constitution, the action of an assembly, the play of parties, the unseen formation of a guiding opinion, are complex facts, difficult to know and easy to mistake. But the action of a single will, the fiat of a single mind, are easy ideas: anybody can make them out, and no one can ever forget them.

    AJP Taylor ~ Until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman. He could live where he liked and as he liked. He had no official number or identity card. He could travel abroad or leave his country for ever without a passport or any sort of official permission. He could exchange his money for any other currency without restriction or limit. He could buy goods from any country in the world on the same terms as he bought goods at home. For that matter, a foreigner could spend his life in this country without permit and without informing the police.

  2. Not all monarchy’s are currently nor historically rosy. Yet there is an air of predictability in some Monarch’s that allows the populace to live accordingly.
    The trouble that arises in democracy’s is that even when given many options among many points of view, you still must chose one that is to be acted on.
    Getting a consensuses among equals takes leadership.

  3. Great post, as usual, but I wonder:  do you get kicked out of The Neocons for writing stuff like this?  I keed, I keed.

  4. It is refreshing to see an insightful post in this sea of laïcard republican sophistry (both liberal and “conservative”).

    “Democracy…
    while it lasts is more bloody than either [aristocracy or monarchy].
    Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and
    murders itself. There is never a democracy that did not commit suicide.”

    - John Adams (American 2nd US President [1797-1801])

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