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King of the Middle East

21/03/2013 15:19 GMT | Updated 20/05/2013 10:12 BST

I was recently interviewed by HuffPost Live on King Abdullah's coverage in The Atlantic Article, "Monarch in the Middle", by Jeffrey Goldberg. The segment is titled 'King of the Middle East', where I am in conversation with Ahmed Shihab-Eldin.

In the interview I argue that King Adbullah's words should not be taken out of context, and we must adopt an appropriate lens with which we view his statements. I also state that Jordan cannot have revolution without evolution.

What do I mean by 'revolution without evolution'? Given my PhD focuses on situating Jordan in the Arab Spring, I thought I would bring in some content to properly structure and analyze what we are observing.

The pace of change

One of the key aspects that stood out in Goldberg's article was this underlying desire for reform to happen, and to happen quickly. Interestingly, Abdullah is on board with this, stating quite clearly that "Jordanians need to build political parties that do not simply function as patronage mills - but advance ideas across a broad ideological spectrum". Revolution with inappropriate infrastructure has lead to the second-best solutions we have observed in Egypt and Tunisia. A chief example of reform in Jordan is change in electoral law - compared to previous rounds, elections are a marked improvement. Indeed one could argue that the electoral process has improved, but the system is contested. Yet everyone is on board for a Western style democracy with a constitutional monarch, including Abdullah. So we will see change, but the change will be organic.

The juicy revolution

Jeffrey Goldberg relates how King Abdullah handled the demonstrations with 'gentle diplomacy', incentivizing the police to hand out juice and water to all the protestors. I spent the last two and a half years living in Amman, and this supports my preliminary hypothesis: Jordan's monarchy simply operates differently. It is viewed differently across society, and has a different set of sustaining mechanisms (i.e. 'mechanisms of control') compared to ruling families in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or Kuwait. In 2011 my colleagues at work laughed over the coverage of these 'orange juice demonstrations' in the papers and praised their police force. "In Bahrain the police are using force to control the protests", they said, "In Jordan we hand the protestors amenities so they can express themselves".

Monarchical exceptionalism

At the moment academic literature on the Arab Spring fixates on the monarchical exceptionalism argument - that is, the tendency for Arab monarchies to largely avoid the conflict of the Arab Spring (while Arab authoritarian regimes have been overthrown).

It is obvious that diverse regime types create a variety of incentives, institutions, and possibilities for political contention, however, this applies differently in the Jordanian case. One such example is mentioned by Goldberg himself, by which 'geography has cursed Jordan', or as King Abdullah likes to say, "Jordan is situated between "Iraq and a hard place"". This aspect, coupled with Jordan's lack of resources and fiscal deficit, puts the country in a unique position. Unlike other monarchies, Jordan cannot be a rentier state and simply 'buy off' its people's protestations by subsidies or price decreases.

As such we need to move beyond simple binaries i.e. 'monarchy does or does not matter' to explore specific mechanisms by which it might matter.

A contextual lens

My interaction with HRH's royal office after my interview yielded the following statement:

HRM's statements have been taken out of context and thus given an entirely different meaning than intended.

I tend to agree. It is important to read the entirety of Goldberg's article to understand the meaning of what is being said, rather than jump to passionate conclusions. I argue in the interview that we must understand the context by which we view Jeffrey Goldberg's piece, especially given Obama's visit to Jordan this upcoming Friday. Goldberg is the same man who, in 2000, held Abdullah as an example in his New York Times piece, 'How to be King'. Here he stated HRH has reached a 'level of popularity in Jordan no one expected'.

Abdullah is positioning himself as a moderate and a proponent of change. Jordan is a monarchy unlike its regional neighbors, and change may be slower than we hope. But change will come, through a paradigm shift, not a revolt.

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