Monarchy – the guarantor of stability in the Middle East?!

Ali Hajizade

Editor’s column


The modern Middle East is a fabric that consists of countries with different kinds of regimes and forms of government. Once, almost the entire Middle East, perhaps with the exception of Iran and some areas of the Arabian Peninsula, was part of the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman sultans trusted management of these territories to their governors, who not always performed their duty fair and square. After the Ottoman Empire left the political arena, it took another 20-40 years for the new Middle Eastern countries to appear on the political map of the world. It wasn’t an easy process. In fact, a large Arab state was to appear in the Middle East as early as in 1918-20, this was a promise that local tribal leaders and the Arab aristocracy received, when starting the uprising, sponsored by the British, against the agonizing Ottoman Empire. However, the British and French had their own plans for the division of the Ottoman inheritance (Sykes–Picot Agreement). The split of the Arab provinces between France and Britain introduced its own corrections in the process of formation of Arab States.

I want to examine how the political system or its violent change in the Middle Eastern countries affected the stability and development of the country. In this article, I’ll go a little beyond the region and also briefly discuss the fate of countries such as Afghanistan and Libya. It often happens that the countries, in which the monarchy is overthrown, become rogue states, while overthrowing the monarchy negatively impacts the stability of the economy and living standards of citizens.  To some it may seem that I am a supporter of restoration of the monarchy, it is not so, and I will explain why, in this article.


I would like to list the countries that have overthrown the monarchic regimes, and give a little analysis of the events that took place there after that.

Egypt – 1952

Perhaps this country is one of the largest and most influential countries in the Middle East. At the time, Egypt claimed the indisputable leadership in the Arab world. And at some point, Egyptian leaders have succeeded, but the exorbitant ambition and political short-sightedness negated their efforts to consolidate the Arab world around Egypt.

In the 1950s, the former Ottoman province, the kingdom of Egypt, was ruled by King Farouk from the dynasty founded by Muhammad Ali. When the king came to the throne after the death of his father King Fuad, he embodied high hopes of the elite and the common people. But the King managed to disappoint his subjects pretty quickly.

Farouk was more interested in worldly pleasures and his personal collections, rather than state affairs. There were legends about king’s debauchery, his love affairs and extravagance. But Farouk could not be called a dictator, because he never was.

Corruption and nepotism has flourished in the country, King was accused of being too pro-British orientated and that he lost the war with the newly formed Israel in 1948-49. Finally, July 23, 1952, the “free officers” headed by future president Gamal Abdel Nasser and Muhammad Naguib overthrew the king. Unlike Iraq or Afghanistan, here everything happened without bloodshed, the King even was allowed to go into exile on his yacht and they gave him a send-off. Muhammad Naguib took charge of the Revolutionary Command Council, with Nasser as his deputy. One of the first decrees of the new government concerned the closure of all parties and the confiscation of their assets. Soon Nasser removed Naguib from power and established a personal dictatorship. Naguib ended up under house arrest.

King Farouk held the title of the “King of Egypt and the Sudan”. Because of his pro-British orientation, the British didn’t mind transferring Sudan to Egypt. Then Egypt would have become the largest country in Africa and the largest country in the Muslim world.

After the revolution, Egypt has lost such an honor; the officers had to recognize Sudan as a separate state. The military confiscated the lands of the royal family and big landowners, although part of this land was distributed to landless peasants, a certain part remained in the hands of the military.

The military, who accused Farouk of losing in the war with Israel, themselves, lost in three wars with Israel in disgrace (1956, 1967, 1973)

As events have demonstrated, the republic hasn’t given as mush to Egypt. The overthrow of Mubarak, a short and very controversial reign of Morsi and the coup that put an end to the rule of the first democratically elected president of Egypt, showed that Egyptian society is not yet ready for Western-style democracy.

Iraq – 1958

After the independent Iraq appeared on the map, the British put the Hashemites on the Iraqi throne, in recognition of their contribution during the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Also, the British cut off a piece of the desert near Palestine and established there the Kingdom of Jordan, which was also given to the Hashemites. The Hashemites, descendants of the prophet, enjoyed a certain respect and authority in Arabia, and the British decided to take advantage of it. Some believe that it would be logical if the Hashemites have ruled all Arabia, including Mecca and Medina, ruled by the Saud. But then the Hashemites would become too powerful and too rich, and nobody wanted that. The British believed that it is better to have two small and poor Hashemite Kingdoms, than one big and rich empire.

From the very moment of creation of Iraq several ethnic and religious groups have been included in its boundaries. In particular, the Arabs, Kurds and Turkomans were united in a single state. Arabs inhabiting Iraq are also divided into Sunnis and Shiites. In such country it is almost impossible to avoid collisions and strife on religious and ethnic grounds. During the rule of the Hashemites, Iraqis lived relatively peacefully, albeit poor, and albeit under British supervision.

July 14, 1958, a military coup took place in Iraq (by tradition, it was later called a “revolution”). The king and almost all his family were brutally murdered. In subsequent years, Iraq had to endure a few more bloody military coups, during which one narrow-minded dictator succeeded another. This lasted until the seizure of power by Saddam Hussein. Hussein has learned from previous coups. Under his rule, all the security services and the army came under the control of his relatives. Saddam has unleashed a reactionary dictatorship in the country his predecessors never dreamed of, not to mention the overthrown and killed King Faisal. In fairness it should be noted that during Saddam’s rule the economic situation of the Iraqi people improved for a short time. However, this did not last long, several bloody wars, and finally the overthrow of Saddam in 2003, led the country to chaos and a wave of terror. And it all goes back to the year of 1958, when the rebel officers overthrew and killed the constitutional monarch.

Libya – 1969

No less interesting is the example of Libya. King Muhammad Idris Al-Senussi created Libya in its present borders, bringing together the three parts of the country – Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan. Due to his agility, the ability to maneuver and authority he managed to bargain with France, Britain, Italy and the United States for the right to existence of the Libyan government and Libyan throne for his dynasty. Yes, in return he had to let the British, the Americans and the French to have military bases in the country (for which, these countries actually paid good money for their time).

September 1, 1969, the organization “Free Officers” under the auspices of the Egyptian intelligence services staged a coup and seized power in Libya. King Idris at the time was in Turkey for medical treatment.

Having seized power, Gaddafi has promised the people a republic, equality and prosperity. As a result, Libya gained sole despotic rule of Gaddafi, which de facto ended in culvert near Sirte in October 2011. During the reign of Gaddafi, Libya managed to turn into one of the world’s rogue states, collaborator and sponsor of terrorists and fall under the UN sanctions. Gaddafi had a row with everyone. Although during Gaddafi there were schools, hospitals, infrastructure facilities built, which certainly improved the living standards of ordinary Libyans. Under such a reactionary regime, all these infrastructure investments could not give as much effect as they give in democratic countries. Of course, one can blame Western countries in the chaos that currently reigns in Libya. At the same time stressing that it was better under Gaddafi. But one should not forget that it was Gaddafi, who, by overthrowing the king and establishing a personal dictatorship, created the background for the present chaos.

Afghanistan – 1973

On the night of July 17, 1973, former prime minister and cousin of the King of Afghanistan Mohammed Daoud, using the fact that the king was in Italy, perpetrated the coup d’état. Later, this action was also named a “revolution”.  First thing, Daoud dissolved parliament and banned political parties. Then Daoud established a post of the president, declared himself the first president and introduced a one-party dictatorial regime in the country. It is as a result of Daoud’s repressions that radical Islamist groups actively begin to form and gain momentum in Afghanistan, groups that later will play a sinister role in the country’s fate.

There was another “revolution” in April and Mohammed Daoud was overthrown, during the coup, Daoud and about 30 members of his family (including children) were killed. President and his killed supporters were buried in an unmarked mass grave; his remains were discovered only in 2008.  Of course, during the reign of the last Afghan king Zahir Shah, the Afghans lived a poor, but relatively peaceful life. “Revolution” arranged by Mohammed Daoud has opened a Pandora’s box, which ultimately led to the capture of Afghanistan by the Taliban.

Iran – 1979

The Pahlavi dynasty that ruled in Iran, was not originating from an ancient dynasty of nobles. The father of the last Shah, Reza Pahlavi Mohammad, carried out a coup in 1920, overthrew the last Qajar Shah (the Qajars – Turkic Azerbaijani dynasty which ruled Iran for 130 years) and declared himself the new Shah of Persia (later he changed its name to Iran). His son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi ascended the throne after the Soviet Union and Britain overthrew his father. For a long time, Mohammad Reza was in the shadows, the meager income and internal political strife did not give him an opportunity not only to reign, but also to rule. But, over time, close alliances with the United States and huge oil revenues have given birth to a strong and ambitious leader. Shah began to hastily modernize the country. The modernization was accompanied by Westernization and limitation of power and influence of the Shiite clergy, which couldn’t be tolerated by the clergy.

Shah’s political police force SAVAK was dealing with disaffected.  There were terrible rumors about the power and cruelty of SAVAK. Finally, January 16, 1979 has come, and the Shah left the country. After a short time, the mullahs led by Ayatollah Khomeini seized power. Having seized power, the mullahs have created their own version of SAVAK, which in a short time arrested and executed so many people that SAVAK may seem like kids’ stuff compared to it. Iran, once the most dynamic country in the Middle East, in 1980, rolled into the middle Ages and became a pariah state, sponsoring terrorism and extremism.

Of course, in this course of events, there was the fault of the Shah’s regime as well. But I hope to review this topic in a separate article.

And so, on the example of these countries, I tried to look into the root of the problem. I am not a royalist at all, and do not claim that the monarchy is better, and the republic is worse. History does not tolerate the subjunctive mood, and I do not presume to guess what would happen if these countries had not overthrown the monarchy. Or what is better for the Middle East? Monarchy or Republic? I don’t dare, because there is no precedent for a full-fledged republic. The most democratic country in the Middle East is Israel, but Israel has no monarchical past. Following Israel, on the level of democracy and compliance of the state system with democratic norms and principles, we can mention Turkey, but the current state of Turkish democracy raises many questions.

No regime in these countries, which replaced the deposed monarchy, was more democratic or more progressive. In most cases, there was setback, usurpation of power, which has led those countries to the current deplorable state.

For the Middle Eastern countries, the monarchy, in a certain way, plays a stabilizing factor that can be seen on the example of the Arabian monarchies or Jordan. The population of these countries lives under the leadership of the ruling dynasties for a long time, and they, simply put, got used to this situation. Of course, in these countries there are examples of the usurpation of power by the ruling dynasty as, for example, in Saudi Arabia, and there are relatively democratic examples, such as Kuwait or Jordan.

Some might assume that if we now take and restore Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan, things will get better. I believe that is not the case. Restoration will not work and will only lead to a new round of power struggle and confrontation between local clans. Although some of the older population in these countries is nostalgic for the days of the monarchy. But that is not enough.

In the Middle East there are other examples where presidents have tried (and some succeeded) to pass their posts to their sons. Among them, Gaddafi – did not have time, Mubarak- did not have time, Ali Abdullah Saleh – did not have time, Hafez al-Assad – succeeded. If we look at the ruling of the al-Assad family in Syria, isn’t it a monarchy? There are all the attributes of the monarchy, together with the attributes of the republic. However, that is exactly what served as one of catalysts of the uprising in Syria, which has plunged the country into chaos, and de facto put an end to Syria in the form in which it was before 2011.

If you now analyze the hotbeds of instability in the Middle East and in countries adjacent to it, among them you can see all the same countries, which had overthrown the monarchy in the XX century.

So far, political issues in these countries are not solved in the parliament, which means, they are solved on the street. Given the demographic, economic and environmental forecasts, the improvement of the situation in these countries should not be expected in the foreseeable future.

Ali Hajizade, a political scientist, head of the project “The Great Middle East”

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