Sean Yom is an associate professor of political science at Temple University, who specializes in Middle East politics and U.S. foreign policy.
The security crackdown in Jordan last month that ensnared Prince Hamzah bin Hussein, the former crown prince, and which briefly raised the specter of instability in the Hashemite Kingdom, struck a hidden nerve for U.S. foreign policy. Ruling monarchies like Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait rank among Washington's most entrusted authoritarian client states in the Middle East. They have steadfastly backed U.S. strategic interests, including its costly wars, in return for a bounty of diplomatic rewards, economic aid and military sales. Yet when they commit authoritarian abuses, the U.S. is left to defend unsavory practices that run counter to its own human rights obligations.
Why is Washington so enchanted with these regimes? One reason is the specious assumption that ruling monarchies represent the most moderate form of government in the Middle East. Whereas "fake republics" like Egypt, Syria and Sudan have all suffered revolutionary uprisings since the Arab Spring, Arab monarchies seem to burnish cultural legitimacy. Their kings claim benevolence and justice as they guide their people toward democratic reforms, as all insist they are doing. Moreover, these regimes need not deal with the ugly politics of polarizing elections, for hereditary succession rather than the ballot box dictates who will wield power next.
Yet this romantic image faces an inconvenient truth: By their nature, these regimes concentrate extraordinary power within a narrow apex of royal elites. When some royals disagree about how to govern the country, hard-line factions inevitably win out over the reformist voices. Then they do a victory lap by lashing out at popular opposition. Palace intrigues and worsening repression mutually reinforce one another. Moreover, the principle of lifelong power means there is little recourse for society if a dynastic leader runs roughshod over human rights. Citizens are stuck with the foibles of the singular man—and it is always a man—who has won the genetic lottery.
These dilemmas of royal infighting and capricious personalism are not hypothetical scenarios. They have befallen most of the Arab monarchies over the past decade. They also go hand-in-hand with a deteriorating climate of intolerance that has encaged activists and dissidents from Morocco to Jordan to the Gulf, whose only crime is to point out problems of corruption, mismanagement and discrimination.
First, consider the downstream effects of royal feuding. In Jordan, official allegations of coup-mongering justified the detention of Prince Hamzah and 17 others in April, including another member of the royal family. In pursuing Hamzah, however, the security operation also intended to muzzle domestic opposition, particularly given the popularity of Hamzah's outspoken criticism among Jordanians frustrated with the bottoming-out economy and long-delayed reform promises of King Abdullah. Indeed, this was not an isolated act. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, Jordanian authorities have detained a bevy of other political critics, such as young protesters, independent journalists and the leaders of the 100,000-strong teachers' union, which was shut down last August.
An even starker example is Kuwait, whose reputation as the Arab world's most liberal kingdom should be in tatters. A decade ago, its ruling family, the House of Sabah, was rocked by a bitter rivalry between two royal contenders for the throne, Sheikh Nasser Muhammad and Sheikh Ahmad Fahad. Sheikh Nasser's victory not only sidelined Sheikh Ahmad, an esteemed figure among Kuwait's liberal opposition, but also catalyzed a ferocious new effort to criminalize all political dissent. The regime's "iron fist" policies have since imprisoned many Kuwaitis who once took expressive freedoms for granted, including members of its elected parliament, anti-corruption advocates, civic protesters and even Twitter users.
Similar patterns hold elsewhere. Within Bahrain's Khalifa dynasty, the conservative Khawalid faction has repeatedly marginalized more reformist princes, including Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa. Their austere vision, which treats the kingdom's Shia majority as an existential security threat, hence remains the cornerstone of state policy. The result has been a grotesque campaign of detention and torture against peaceful activists since the Arab Spring. A less extreme version of this trend has unfolded in Morocco, where royal hard-liners relentlessly harassed Prince Moulay Hicham Ben Abdallah after he broke from the palace in 2002 and urged it to adopt democratic reforms. That crusade against the "rebel prince" bled into a broader effort to suffocate civil society, with journalists and protesters especially suffering the coercive wrath of the judiciary.
Second, the arbitrariness of kingship has also left the protection of human rights in dire straits—most of all in Saudi Arabia under Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the kingdom's de facto ruler. Underneath his lavish promises to overhaul the kingdom's rentier economy and expand social rights seethes a grisly record of violence against a frightening spectrum of Saudi voices. The crown prince's defenders portray MBS, as he is widely known, as a misunderstood figure whose reformist ideas require creative destruction of the old ways. But such fantasies hinge on the perilous gamble that MBS is who they hope he is. If they are wrong—and by all accounts, they are—then there is no escape hatch for two more generations of Saudi citizens. No institutional safeguards exist to prevent MBS from unleashing even more brutality on critics in future decades.
Political scientists have a term for this: "sultanism." Sultanism results when autocrats drunk on absolutist power see their regimes as personal instruments, and make all major policies, including repression, hinge on their impulsive whims. Ruling monarchies are especially susceptible to this pathology, because hereditary succession grants its leaders lifelong supremacy as a matter of law. In addition to Saudi Arabia, such a process has also played out in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed has similarly commandeered public institutions to throttle internal dissent, while presenting the UAE to the world as a model of tolerance.
These dynamics of dynastic infighting and royal arbitrariness leave human rights in a lurch. Because American foreign policy retains the illusion that ruling monarchism remains a safe strategic bet in the Middle East, democratic activists find little help in Washington. The Biden administration didn't publicly call out the recent political clampdown in Jordan, just like past administrations hadn't said anything about similar suppression in Kuwait, Bahrain and Morocco. And despite Biden's avowed promise to promote democracy, review arms sales to the Gulf and even "reassess" the U.S.-Saudi relationship, that hasn't happened either, apart from halting support for the ghastly Saudi-led intervention in Yemen. Geopolitical posturing against Iran turned the recalibration of U.S.-Saudi ties into minor tongue-lashing, while arms sales to the UAE are now proceeding as planned.
It is high time to reconsider this business-as-usual mentality. Ruling monarchism is not an exceptional or "softer" type of autocracy, and like all forms of government, it suffers from internal problems of its own making. Lifelong power and hereditary succession have not immunized Arab monarchies from opposition and dissent, even as these regimes leave behind a harrowing trail of repression. Yet by investing so heavily in its dynastic allies in the Middle East, the U.S. also bears moral responsibility for their domestic abuses. Acting in support of human rights is seldom the most convenient option, but it is always the right one.
Photo credit: Jordan's King Abdullah II reviews the honor guard during the opening session of parliament in Amman, Nov. 10, 2019. (Photo by Mohammad Abu Ghosh/Xinhua via Getty Images)