Reader Comment on Arab Spring
Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson

One of our readers, Ravin Thambapillai, sent the following comment on our post on Syria (here).

Whilst all the “leaders” you mention are dictators, it is interesting to note that these dictators come from different power structures.

The ones in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are Monarchs, whilst the others are despots in the purest sense of the word. The distinction becomes even more noteworthy when you expand the sample size - Oman, the UAE, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco - in all these places a similar story is visible, some reforms, some political back-pedalling, some economic reforms etc.

Now obviously, I’m not suggesting any of these governments are good, but there are the bad and the worse… why has no-one pointed out or emphasized this startling disparity in Arab Spring Outcomes between Monarchic and Despotic countries? As far as I can tell, the only major country to have bucked the trend is Algeria, which politically is much less despotic than most of the other countries experiencing Arab Spring uprisings.

Looking around at other monarchic regions, Bhutan, Brunei and even Swaziland, I find the evidence to be strong that monarchs are much more frequent appeasers than despots. It’s a disparity/issue I first noticed during my time (prior to the Arab Spring) writing my undergraduate thesis on monarchic liberalisation at Oxford in the U.K.. I was wondering if either of you thought there was anything to this insight, whether it’s a statistical fluke or perhaps even an apparition that collapses under scrutiny.

This comment raises several interesting issues. The distinction between monarchies and other non-democratic regimes does indeed exist, and several political scientists have written on it, e.g., Jennifer Gandhi in Political Institutions under Dictatorship (here). There’s something to this distinction. But there’s probably more to it: is also likely the case that Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain are different in other ways, and these differences also responsible for the survival of their monarchies. The most important candidate here is their huge natural resource wealth, which under the control of their monarchies, has enabled them to buy off their populations (not without some help from repression and religious indoctrination of course). This natural resource wealth is also what enabled them to ride the storm of Arab Spring largely unscathed— except in Bahrain.

Libya is also natural resources rich. But its monarchy was toppled long ago, and the Gaddafi regime has repeatedly chosen repression rather than co-opting its population. The combination of repression and natural resources probably made Libya particularly combustible: large stakes in politics combined with a vicious dictatorship unafraid of using overwhelming force. The genius of the regimes in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates has been to use their resources before there was much of a protest movement.

 

Article originally appeared on Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson (http://whynationsfail.com/).
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