A chill Wind in Arabia

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How does monarchy respond in a revolutionary age? That is the question facing the royal rulers of the Middle East as the shock waves from the political revolutions which began in Tunisia and Egypt continue to reverberate across the Arab world. From Morocco in the west to Saudi Arabia in the east, the future is in the balance in a way not seen for generations. So far the Arab monarchies are showing few signs of being able to meet the demands for change, although some are trying. There are some indications that King Abdullah of Jordan and King Mohammed of Morocco are trying to carry through real reforms. Both would like to be considered progressive rulers and would sign up to the liberal values of their western supporters. But neither monarch is as powerful as he might seem. A great deal depends on the interests that support and hold sway over the monarch, above all the armed forces, and not all of the criticisms can be laid at the rulers’ feet. For King Abdullah a complicating factor is that his good relations with neighbouring Israel are inevitably in the balance. Around two and a half million Palestinians live in Jordan, many refugees from the sixty decades long conflict. In the age of ‘Wikileaks’ King Abdullah’s privately held views on the Israeli-Palestinian issue have inevitably surfaced and they show that he is grappling with how any possible territorial settlement, and more immediately the Palestinian authority’s bid for statehood at the United Nations, will impact on Jordan. The King seems to be engaged in a rather awkward diplomatic dance: on the one hand rebutting any suggestion that part of Jordan could be given as part of a Palestinian state and advising the Palestinian authority against its UN bid; on the other annoying Israel by saying it has never been more isolated politically than it is currently. It is not a stance that will garner him much support amongst the Jordanian public. However, King Abdullah is not alone in facing the dilemma of how to balance change with delicate relations with Israel. In the aftermath of the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s military rulers faced calls for the 1979 peace treaty to be torn up and the contract for the supply of gas to Israel to be renegotiated. The pressure to reevaluate bilateral relations is ongoing and the outcome is uncertain. The anger from the Arab street generally is demanding radical changes and a unifying issue, a talisman and a focal point, is the Palestinian issue. A resolution of this most sensitive of disputes would greatly diffuse tensions in the region, but if there is to be one it will not come quickly. Nonetheless, the main thrust of the revolutionary movements is the overthrow of undemocratic governments and fine words and cosmetic reforms are unlikely to stem the rising tide of discontent. (Extract from Royalty Vol. 22/04)