Democracy Promotion and the Monarchies
from Middle East Program

Democracy Promotion and the Monarchies

Should the United States be promoting democracy and human rights in friendly monarchies? Yes — human rights improvements, not regime change, should be the goal, working especially in areas where progress is pragmatically possible.

November 15, 2021 4:03 pm (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Promotion of democracy and human rights are often linked or even viewed as identical aims. In the U.S. State Department, the office dealing with this subject area is called the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL). That office, plus several others, is overseen by the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. Similarly, the National Security Council officer handling these matters is Senior Director for Democracy and Human Rights.

More From Our Experts

Yet democracy and human rights are two different concepts: “democracy” describes how decisions are made through popular voting, while “human rights” describes certain inviolable rights adhering to the individual regardless of the form of government or the wishes of the majority. Promotion of democracy is often defended as the best way to assure respect for human rights, though in some countries majority rule can endanger the rights of minorities.

More on:

Human Rights

Middle East

Future of Democracy

For the United States and other countries that wish to promote both human rights and democracy, monarchies can present a problem. Constitutional monarchies in Europe and Japan present no contradiction, but in monarchies where the head of state retains governing powers the problem is evident. The largest group of such countries lies in the Arab world, where Bahrain, Qatar, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, and the UAE remain “genuine” monarchies where the sovereign holds considerable (or even all) political power. How should the United States, a nation that rebelled against a king in the name of popular sovereignty, deal with the promotion of democracy and human rights in those cases?

The United States has long maintained good diplomatic relations with these Arab monarchies and has not sought to undermine their system of government. Today, American diplomats do not urge the end of these Arab monarchies, though other Arab states have overthrown theirs: in the twentieth century there were kings in Libya, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq. American calls for respect for human rights in Arab monarchies do not include a demand for democratic voting or a change to a constitutional system with the king or sultan as a mere figurehead. A typical example is the message then-Secretary of State Clinton   issued in 2009 on Saudi Arabia’s “National Day.”[1] She congratulated the king for “extend[ing] the hand of friendship to people of other faiths…strengthening the Kingdom’s institutions, working to diversify the economy, support knowledge-based education, and expand opportunity for women” and for “promoting the principles of moderation, tolerance, and mutual respect – core values that we all share.” Not a word about democracy.

Why Not Promote Democracy?

Why not? First and most obviously, this would amount to a call for regime change and be understood by the rulers of these states as a deeply hostile act. It would destroy or undermine important relationships between these monarchies and the United States. As Prof. Gregory Gause has written, “in each of these countries, Washington has an agenda that goes beyond domestic political reform; real interests related to oil, Arab- Israeli peace, military cooperation, and intelligence-sharing are all at stake.”[2]

More From Our Experts

Second, change does not always mean improvement. As Gause wrote, “A real American push for democratization in dynastic monarchies could undermine the stability that extended family rule has given those countries.” In the Middle Eastern countries where monarchy was replaced by a republican form of government, such as Nasser’s or Saddam Hussein’s, those “republics” were in fact dictatorships.

Third, there is no evident demand in those countries that the monarchies be eliminated. Because such demands are criminal acts and would be punished, the desire for democracy is impossible to measure—but as they watch instability in Lebanon and Tunisia, or repression in Egypt and Syria, it’s reasonable to assume that the relative stability of the Arab monarchies holds some appeal to their citizens. While it is debatable, it can also be argued that the monarchies, some of them with centuries-old roots, have acquired considerable legitimacy. Finally, in Jordan, Morocco, and Kuwait, there are elected parliaments with limited powers. While these can be used as pressure valves to eliminate demands for more democracy, they have some role in governance and may be seen by citizens in those countries as holding the promise of a future constitutional monarchy.

More on:

Human Rights

Middle East

Future of Democracy

U.S. Democracy and Human Rights Policy in Monarchies

With this background, what should be U.S. democracy promotion and human rights policy toward the Arab monarchies?

First, the United States should not promote regime change from monarchy to republican forms of government. Such a policy would offend friendly governments, likely neither advance the cause of human rights or of democracy, nor represent the desires of the citizenry in the affected states. Moreover, otherwise acceptable pressure for improvements in respect for human rights may be seen as subversive and hostile when linked to a demand for democracy.

Second, the United States should promote respect for human rights using the commitments the monarchies have themselves made. Sometimes this will be through a country’s adherence to international instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or Arab Charter on Human Rights. This would help avoid the accusation that foreign principles and values are being imposed. It is always wise to use the historic and cultural assets at hand: to take one example, the concept of electoral democracy may not have deep roots in traditional Islam but the concept of justice certainly does. Thus, pressure for an independent and non-corrupt system of justice that treats all citizens equally will have wide support, and religious roots, in Arab lands.

Third, the United States should push on doors that are at least partly open rather than banging on stone walls. The George W. Bush administration, for example, did not urge democracy on Saudi Arabia’s government but it did urge greater respect for all religions and greater room for non-Muslims to practice their religion in the kingdom. Those pressures met with at least modest success. Where there are elected parliaments, pressing for fully free elections and press freedom to cover them is an obvious choice. Where advisory bodies such as “Shura Councils” have both elected and appointed members, discussing an increase in the percentage elected should not be unduly disruptive. Where there is no parliament, demands for one may be rejected out of hand but pressing for some form of elected or representative bodies at the local or provincial level may work.

U.S. foreign policy should neither abandon the goal of respect for human rights in monarchies, nor risk human rights progress by linking it to pressure for popular sovereignty. Such pressure will be seen as subversive and unfriendly. But the religious traditions, and their promises to their own populations, provide wide opportunities for the promotion of human rights by friendly and supportive allies.

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy. 



[2] Gregory Gause, Kings for All Seasons:
How The Middle East’s Monarchies Survived the Arab Spring


Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail

Top Stories on CFR


 Iran is seeing its biggest protests since 2019 over the death of Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini. Pro-women, anti-morality police demonstrations evolving into broader anti-government protests. Drawing international support and a crackdown by the regime.


Brazil has long sought a greater role on the world stage, but political upheaval and other enduring challenges have complicated its efforts.


Russia’s moves to mobilize thousands more troops and to annex more of Ukraine’s territory signal a new, potentially more dangerous phase of the war.