Political developments may bring a game of musical chairs between Arab monarchies, Arab republics, and the West.
The Arab world has lately been experiencing monumental changes including the realignment of political alliances, but one possible long-term outcome of the Arab uprisings may be a game of musical chairs involving the Arab monarchies, republics and Western powers. By the end of the next decade it is not unreasonable to predict a stronger relationship between certain Arab republics and the West than that which existed between Arab monarchies and the West over the past few decades.
The politically stagnant Arab monarchies are also precipitating this possible realignment as they enact increasingly restrictive political and social laws. Kuwait’s parliament, for instance, has recently passed a law that imposes the death penalty on anyone who insults God, Prophet Mohammed or any of his wives on social media. This regression is taking place in a country whose half a century old constitution is probably the most advanced in the Arab world and guaranteed freedom of speech (Article 36) as early as the 1960s.
The UAE, Jordan, Saudi and Morocco have also seen a stringent clampdown on social media expression, with each imposing lengthy prison sentences on anyone seen breaking vague and loosely defined boundaries, including spreading rumours or insulting the monarch. Although the Islamist governments in the Arab republics may attempt to impose restrictions on freedom of speech under the guise of preventing religious blasphemy, such restrictions will be challenged by extremely active civil society movements. Contrary to the Arab monarchies, the republican regime restrictions on freedom of expression are unlikely to include criticising political figures.
The reliance of Arab monarchies on the West is vital for perpetuating the status quo, especially in the absence of popular participation in high levels of decision making. There have been many examples of Arab monarchies threatening to sever ties with the US, even in recent months, which ultimately have turned out to be mere exercises in sabre rattling.
Last September Prince Turki Al Faisal, a senior member of the Saudi royal family, indicated that if the US vetoes a United Nations attempt to recognise a Palestinian state the “special relationship” between Saudi and the US would come to an end and lead Saudi to pursue a more independent regional policy. Ten days later US President Barrack Obama once again stated clearly that a veto would be used, leading the Palestinian bid to die a slow death. In the end, relations ultimately weren’t affected.
Presently, the outwardly conservative Islamist parties that are coming to power in the region appear to be more politically liberal than the Arab monarchies. They are expected to allow some sort of a rotation of power, independent courts and freedom of assembly in their new constitutions, even though the Arab monarchies that perpetually delays serious reforms seem to have survived the Arab uprisings. As the Arab republics enter the post-uprisings era Western powers may slowly adjust their foreign policies and move closer towards some Arab republics that are more aligned with the Western political model. It would therefore be advisable for Gulf States to start the long delayed political, social and media reforms that they lack while they still enjoy varying degrees of popularity.
This geo-strategic realignment is not improbable. After all, not all Arab monarchies are wealthy, and not all Arab republics are poor. Libya, Algeria and Iraq have considerable mineral resources. Should they find their way beyond their current political impasse, they may challenge the Arab monarchies dominant role in the purchase of US and European weapons and military equipment. In ten years’ time Libyan oil production is expected to surpass that of the UAE and Kuwait while Iraq’s continued oil discoveries may lead it to challenge Saudi Arabia’s current role as the world’s “swing producer” of oil. In 2006 gas-rich Algeria announced a massive purchase worth $7.5bn of Russia arms that undoubtedly attracted the attention of Western arms producers and governments.
Couple that with what is expected to be significantly higher levels of freedom of expression in Arab republics, a functioning parliament, freedom of assembly, some sort of rotation of power and perhaps a strong desire to strengthen ties with the West and this scenario appears more likely. Relations with Arab republics will be, to borrow from Prince Turki’s lingo, less “toxic” to many Western powers than those with the Arab monarchies that do not tolerate many of the aforementioned freedoms. Case in point: last March a Swedish defence minister had to resign over mere allegations that his country is helping the Saudi government build a weapons factory.
To be sure, there are several assumptions for this policy shift theory to come into play. For one, there must be a realignment between the proclaimed values of future US and European governments and their convergence with foreign policies, which have so far diverged due to powerful lobbies in the US and complex bureaucratic structure in Europe.
If Arab republics follow similar foreign policies to those of their monarchical counterparts while maintaining at least a minimum level of political freedom within their nations, it will be tricky for Western powers to treat both sets of countries with the same level of “friendship”. Implementing urgent and serious political reform in the Arab monarchies to maintain strategic ties with the West is the right thing, even if it is being done for the wrong reasons.
This article was originally published in Al Jazeera on April 26, 2012.