What is it about monarchical and family rule that makes it all the rage these days? Single-party regimes seem as common as democracies but their development into family businesses is a new development – or is it? What has kept these families in power?
The simple answer is geography, massive Western subsidies but mostly – OIL.
Since the discovery of huge volumes of oil in the last 80 years-or-so, formerly impoverished states had the cash to develop huge bureaucracies which were essentially on the ruling family’s payroll. Add to that their armed forces and you have an apparently immovable edifice.
Political parties and unions were superfluous because brand new welfare systems and employment created a hitherto unexperienced sense of national pride and well-being. Tribal rivalries were forgotten and in general terms, citizens rubbed along quite nicely.
Initially, the monarchs took on the mantle of modernisers but they also purposely slowed the process down because in reality, they did not particularly want to spend the money. It was all done on a promise which, for a very long time kept the masses under control. That meant that the rulers did not even have to consider involving the people in governance. Whenever dissent reared its ugly head, promises of political modernisation would be made – but eventually, both the monarchs and their imitators – the commoner dictator-rulers, overplayed their hand. The people began to call their bluffs.
The Monarchs did not claim their kingships by divine right – as is the custom in Western monarchies. Very few gave themselves the title “King” – Jordan, Morocco and Saudi being the exceptions. The rest used titles which resonated with the locals. They were Sheikhs, Amirs and Imams. Their behaviour, however was strictly that of Kings.
The Kings of Jordan and Morocco claimed direct descendancy of the prophet Muhammad but the others would create their own mystique by a combining claims of noble lineage and (sometimes) mythical, often miltary deeds.
Succession was by primogeniture. This is a model which has since been adopted by what you might call non-Royal ruler-kings such as Muammar Gaddafi.
In spite of his military posturing, in his mind, Gaddafi sees himself as King of Libya with his firstborn as natural successor.
Having said that, other Middle Eastern rulers , for example Saudi Arabia have evolved their laws of succession so that it is not always the first-born who will rule but the ruler’s first “capable” male relative. On that basis, perhaps Gaddafi sees his high-profile son Said as the Crown Prince.
Most Middle Eastern and African “Crown Princes” are British-trained or educated.
Traditionally, sons and cousins whose destiny is to rule are given high-ranking military posts or very senior posts in the country’s bureaucracy. They are also funded in order to create their own fortunes.
Wealth-distribution is carefully controlled. Traditionally, the ever-expanding oil income is primarily distributed within the royal family. The powerful and potentially troublesome merchant classes are given more-or-less a free rein to create as much wealth for themselves as they can. In return, they do not become involved in national politics. They are kept sweet.
The only constant cloud on the ruler’s horizon is the relationship with the military. There are two models which have been adopted to prevent military dissent.
The first is to have a small army which is populated by a large number of foreign mercenaries , in other words, those who do not have the faintest interest in the country’s internal politics. This type of army is always commanded by a relative of the King.
The other method relies wholly on the King’s image and personality – whether he be Royal or aspirational commoner. Quite simply, the ruler is Commander-in-Chief of the military. He is constantly visible and more often than not, dressed as a soldier. Gaddafi was a prime example.
Psychologically, a soldier finds it easier to pledge himself to an individual rather than to an abstract concept such as a republic. It has to be personal. Even in the United Kingdom, soldiers pledge allegiance to the Monarch. The Monarch always holds a military rank and the various high-visibility parades, processions and pageants etc always enjoy the Monarch’s patronage and participation – purely to maintain that bond between soldier and ruler. Soldiers fight – not for their country but for their King.
In preparation for his reign, the Crown Prince will always become an army officer.
Another aspect of a ruler’s legitimacy is delivered by a close tie with the State’s main religion. This bond is reinforced by the royal family’s control of religion through funding and the appointment of clerics and church leaders. This aspect is particularly important in the Arab states.
So , the ruler and his family control the military, the religion, all of the important Departments of State as well as the legal system. Often, they are the legal system.
That means that when this type of government collapses, the work needed to rebuild has to be from the bottom-up. If the ruler is deposed, so is the bureaucracy , together with the legal and religious structures. It is a total collapse. The delivery of a few truck-loads of ballot boxes coupled with vague promises of the Nirvana of democracy are never enough.
The gap between an Arab-style Kingdom and a Democracy is vast. Here in the UK, we have a Kindom married to a democracy but this quite unnatural mutation has taken hundreds of years to achieve “Steady State”.
Libya used to be a legitimate Kingdom but troubles began for King Idris soon after the discovery of oil in the 1950s. One of the King’s dissident relatives killed a senior adviser so in retribution, the King “downsized”. He limited the succession and deprived many of his relatives of Royal titles. He also became “lazy” and very quickly became less and less apparent to his subjects by not participating in parades and other public performances which are needed to reinforce a king’s legitimacy.
A Monarch has to show himself to his subjects at appropriate times.
The gradual disassociation from the masses was a great error – an error which would be repeated in the 21st century by the man who deposed him in 1969 – Captain Muammar Gaddafi.
Libyan King Idris failed to exercise control over his relatives who were engaging in the absolute rulers’ offspring favourite dual sports of corruption and unacceptable behaviour. Another error which was to be repeated by Gaddafi.
In the 1960s, both Americans and British had military bases in Libya. Consequently, King Idris was perceived as the West’s puppet. His ties to the West were not approved-of by either his subjects or the military.
Idris paid the price for his lack of control over the military , his relatives’ excesses and his closeness to the Americans and British. In 1969, he was deposed in a Gaddafi-led coup.
Over the last ten years, Colonel Gaddafi has made almost exactly the same mistakes. He has become more and remote from his subjects but as a soldier, has largely managed to retain the trust and allegiance of the military – apart from a few over-ambitious senior officers.
Gaddafi’s sons have been trained to continue the Gaddafi dynasty and that , in essence, is what Muammar Gaddafi is fighting for. His kids’ inheritance.
While Gaddafi was practicing Machtpolitik, blowing up planes, selling explosives to the IRA and all the other terrorist atrocities which have been laid at his door, he was perceived by his people as an independent strong leader. His threats to the West allowed him to maintain the myth of the warrior-leader. It was his perceived fearlessness and independence which carried the most currency and kept him in power.
Today he faces a sad but inevitable closing of the family business.
Like any out-of-touch ruler, he is genuinely surprised and disbelieving of the fact that his subjects are revolting. He is probably offended as well.
His dalliances with Western leaders and apparent mellowing into a Kafkaesque effigy of a world statesman have weakened his grip on the Libyan people.
As NATO-sponsored jets strafe his kingdom, Gaddafi will have one big regret – that he did not pay enough attention to his own country’s recent history.