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Can the kingdoms survive?

Arab_kings_in_2003_with_Mubarak_and_Bush
The Arab world is asserting itself in a manner never before witnessed. It is only a matter of time before Muammar Gaddafi joins Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el-Abedine Ben Ali as a deposed dictators.  Is it possible we could soon wittness the fall of the region’s monarchs too?

Unrest is afoot in kingdoms across the region. In Morocco, citizens are formulating action plans; in Saudi Arabia average people are fomenting change; Bahrain’s monarchy has employed widespread violence in an effort to stem the anger directed at its government.  These kings are all facing a major challenge to their supposed “divine right” to rule their people. It is a momentous moment in Middle Eastern history, one that could dramatically change the outlook of the region for the better.

Earlier this month, Saudi citizens took to the streets in a “day of rage.” The Saudi government pre-empted their protests by banning any street demonstration. When the protesters took their cause public, the monarchy responded with violence and tactics that can only be described as resulting from the fear that they were losing grip.

The question now is whether these nascent movements are the beginning of widespread revolt or simply one-off attempts by citizens to voice their concerns. In Bahrain, the movement has been ebbing and flowing over the past month with little certainty on the future. Moroccans have been met with violence and death by their government. Fear is in the air, but unlike in years past, the palace is feeling the pinch.

One Saudi blogger, who asked not to be named, told me recently that they believe revolution is coming to the country long seen as a bastion of “stability” by the West despite its horrific treatment of women and dissent.

“We are all ready to take on the next step, but first we must organize in order to take down our kings,” said the blogger, who participated in the first “day of rage” in Saudi Arabia.

Strange are the moves being taken by the monarchies in the region. Bahrain’s King Hamed bin al-Khalifa attempted to quell dissent after the protesters took control of major squares and continued to demand change. He tried to show a willingness to negotiate and deal with the demands of his citizens. This tactic may yet work, but it is unlikely.  One must be wary of the kingdoms’ attempts to dispel revolution through negotiations, however. These leaders have done little to buttress their citizens political power in recent years, if ever. They have ruled with an iron fist akin to the Medieval rulers of Europe who claimed divine right and a duty to rule in the name of God.

According to Waleed Ahmed, a young Bahraini university student, the time for change has arrived. He believes that Middle Eastern states are “behind the times” by holding onto their monarchies and allowing them to rule in the name of a people who are “fed up with the status quo.”

For him, “the dictator and the king are one and the same. How can we move forward and truly modernize when we have rulers that would make the kings of old smile? This is not the future of our country or the future of a people who want freedom and justice.”

Despite the attempt to speak to his people, King Hamed has done little to stem the anger and desire for change. Ahmed and others say that the revolution must come and it means the removal of real political power from the king.

The same sentiments are being heard in Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Times are changing for the kingdoms, but an important question we must ask is how far the changes will, and can, proceed in the near future.

The Jordanian government has been struggling with reform for some time, recently saying it would implement a series of massive political changes to assist real and viable change in the country. King Abdallah appears to be the only monarch in the region that truly understands the dire situation facing his rule and the real grievances that his people are now articulating.

I spoke with a high-ranking Jordanian official this week on the future of the Jordanian monarchy and the kingdoms across the region. Tellingly, he said the King was certain the future would be void of monarchs. From within the inner circle of King Abdallah it was surprising to hear of the end of the oil-rich monarchies in the Gulf and the opening up of countries in the name of change.

“The Middle East is changing. The king spoke about this in his book recently published, so it was not surprising to us that revolution has come, but what was surprising was the pace that it has been made,” the official said. “It caught us off-guard, but it means we will move toward the reforms that we had been looking at sooner and implement them quicker.”

Among those reforms is arguably the only future for the kingdoms across the region: constitutional monarchy. No longer do people accept and abide by authoritarian kings, so it makes sense that Jordan’s proposed model could be a litmus test for Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Morocco – where the people want change and they want it now.

The Jordanian official said that King Abdallah is looking into a massive constitutional change that would establish something similar to a United Kingdom government. He did not give specific details, but it is a step in the right direction.

“This is a time to be a leader and the king understands this. He understands his people are unhappy and frustrated over the current political situation and wants to be a part of the leadership that helps bring change to Jordan.”

If Jordan is able to implement a reduced role for the king in official political matters it could spell doom for the other kingdoms across the region, who appear stalwart in their desire to maintain the status quo in the face of popular revolts. Violence and crackdowns will do little to push people off the streets. We saw this in Tunisia and Egypt. Violence seems to galvanize protesters to maintain pressure.

In the end, reform can only go so far. Mubarak attempted reforms to appease his people, but they would have none of it. They wanted complete change and removal of the regime, which had for decades been corrupt, violent and hadn’t listened to Egyptians’ demands. Now, over one month removed from Mubarak’s departure, Egyptians have begun to put their country back together according to their own vision.

While Jordan’s King Abdallah’s efforts should be cautiously praised, there must be a marked change in how the monarchies function. The calls on the streets are for their removal. Reform cannot change this fact. No longer does the fear of the government exist, not even in Saudi where for decades the kingdom has ruled with a ruthless arm. Change is coming to the region, and despite American government officials’ attempts to paint the reform efforts by Jordan and its allies as “steps in the right direction,” Arabs in the region are fed up and are looking for a future where they do not have to abide by kings. The time for change is now and the monarchies must take heed before they are forced to join Ben Ali and Mubarak among the deposed.


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