Crowns and chaos in the Middle East

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?