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Why the Middle East needs more kings

Constitutional monarchy is a cornerstone of many stable democracies – so why are we so keen to avoid it in places like Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan?

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

26 September 2015

8:00 AM

Watch the videos of 1950s Iraq on YouTube and you glimpse something close to an idyll. It’s true that Pathé News was not big on gritty realism, but history relates that here it was not using a heavily rose-tinted lens; Hugh Trevor-Roper even went so far as to describe Iraq at the time as a Levantine Switzerland. Or you can go to Google Images, tap in ‘1960s Afghan women’ and be offered photographs of a mixed university biology class, and others of young women with short skirts, long hair and smiling faces.

This was life under the kings, and knowing what followed is enough to make a grown man weep. But let’s be hard-headed and forward-looking: the creation of new constitutional monarchies is a sensible solution to such clear and present dangers as Isis. Life without them has been a disaster in the Middle East. Why can’t we bring back the monarchs?

In Iraq the blood started flowing in 1958 when a group of army officers gunned down the royal family. The violence only increased when Saddam Hussein took power in the 1970s, but he did at least bring back one benefit of the old kingdom: stability. So despite it all — the genocide of the Kurds, the invasion of a peaceful and fairly liberal neighbour (the constitutional monarchy of Kuwait) — wise heads cautioned against his removal. Not only did he act as a bulwark against Iran, but like the old monarchy, he protected his own Sunni minority within Iraq. Nevertheless, America and its allies did topple Saddam — and then were somehow surprised when the new democratic republic ill-served the Sunnis. The persecution carried out by the Shia majority wasn’t as great as that carried out by the dictator, but its consequences couldn’t have been more terrible, as it became a devastatingly successful recruiting sergeant for the Sunni terrorists of Isis. The present government is certainly less sectarian, but by now Isis atrocities mean that Sunnis won’t be forming any part of the government in the foreseeable future.

The West cannot clear up the mess that it has made by dropping more bombs from on high. The answer to defeating Islamic State in Iraq lies with ordinary Sunnis, who would cease to tolerate the group if they were re-integrated into their national society and politics. And it is hard to think of a simpler, more practical or faster route to that end than a democratic government, with a Sunni sovereign maintaining a solid and self-perpetuating check on the tyranny of the majority. Syria’s situation is ominously similar, except with the bloodstained boot on the other foot; why not consider, if the opportunity comes, a Shia monarch as a replacement for the Shia Assad?

In the aftermath of the 2003 invasion, opinion polls commissioned by the Pentagon showed no appetite among Iraqis for a republic. So why was one imposed on them? After the fall of Gaddafi in Libya, why was a blind eye turned to the royalist flags, a deaf ear to the royalist anthem? And in Afghanistan, why was pressure put on the old king, Zahir Shah, to rule himself out when just his quiet return to the country produced a level of support that looked likely to have him elected head of state?

A large part of the blame lies with America. The land of the free, which threw off the rule of King George, is fiercely democratic — even police chiefs and judges are elected. Let’s overlook the likely dynastic clash between a Clinton and a Bush in 2016, and agree that the US constitution looks great on paper. But is it really the best way to run a country? Well, it’s interesting that there are a dozen monarchies (including the UK and Barbados) judged to have less political and administrative corruption than America. In fact, there are only three republics in Transparency International’s top ten — and three kingdoms in the bottom 100. The great British Arabist Bernard Lewis, together with former head of the CIA James Woolsey, suggested creating a monarchy in Iraq in 2003. Noah Feldman, however, who was advising the US administration, dismissed the idea: ‘The United States is committed to democracy, and monarchy is not a good sign.’ Looking at the corruption league, however, one might be forgiven for thinking that monarchy is one very good sign of a properly functioning democracy.

The Scandinavian kingdoms that sit at the top of Transparency’s table are some of the most equal societies on earth. And in the Arab world, there’s scant evidence of the common people’s lot improving after the removal of crowned heads. Even the New Statesman has published an article on the happy successes of the British-sponsored monarchies in Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Libya.

True, Farouk of Egypt slightly lets the side down, because although he was good-natured and friendly towards the Jewish and Christian minorities, he was too busy having fun to improve the life of the peasants. But that had little to do with America and Britain’s choosing to abandon him in favour of the socialist dictators, which in any case they came to regret bitterly. As Egypt banned political parties, went to war and expelled the Jews, it was obvious that the constitutional king had been by far the least injurious choice. Even the most inflexible moral relativist would be forced to the same conclusion today — in Egypt and right across the Middle East and Arab world.


The West is fully supportive of Jordan, Morocco and the other constitutional monarchies which survive, providing as they do stable but lonely beacons of hope in the region. (It even supports some repressive absolute monarchs.) But it’s expecting a lot of the modern western politician to entertain the sort of grand vision needed to see beyond the dull, and at times dangerous, default option of a one-size-fits-all republic. So is it all just too radical? Is the best that we can hope for that the Prince of Jordan becomes the president of Fifa?

Well, Montenegro has given its royal house an official, funded role, and many believe its neighbour Serbia will go further and have a referendum on reverting to monarchy. So if Europeans and Australians can vote for kings and queens, how can we justify withholding that right from others who live where kingship has the greatest potential to do good? We can’t afford to think of monarchies as just a legacy for the lucky few, tolerated because they’re somehow terribly good at maintaining peaceful prosperity. The time has come for us to think about creating new sovereigns to act as tools for troubled parts of the world — certainly they could do no worse than any other form of government that’s been tried across the Arab world since the 1950s.

It’s not going to be easy for the West to admit it’s been fundamentally wrong for the past half-century and more. But ignoring the evidence is difficult too, whether one looks to the past and the old kingdoms, or the present and Isis. In trying to stamp our own narrow and rigid idea of progress on other parts of the world, we have catastrophically failed them.

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