Saudi Arabia and Others Must Embrace Responsive Governance, Not Oppression, to Avoid Revolution
Revolutions occur when a critical mass of a population can no longer tolerate the rule of their government. For democracies, the periodic changing of leadership helps suppress revolutionary tendencies. For non-democracies, however, irreconcilable issues with government can only be addressed by the ouster of the government or the suppression of dissenters. In many respects, revolution is the most extreme form of democratic action, but revolution often means simply transitioning from one authoritarian government to another, which plants the seeds for future revolutions and does nothing to resolve the issues that feed civil discontent. It can also mean perpetual civil war, e.g. Syria. Another way is possible.
Since the 2011 Arab Spring Revolutions began, the authoritarian governments of the Middle East have correctly grown fearful of revolutions that will end their rule. Saudi Arabia, for example, has embraced a domineering foreign policy, which includes airstrikes in Yemen and Syria as well as the Qatar Blockade. In trying to crush dissent, however, governments of the region will generate resentment and foster revolutionary movements. For those governments that have survived democratic reforms or successfully suppressed dissent, it is easy to conclude that the only means of survival is the suppression of democratic forces, yet it is the willingness to embrace the will of their Peoples that is needed.
For the monarchs of the Middle East, revolution is a top national security issue. Dissent is a crime. For ill-democratic nations, which have democratic governance in name and appearance only, dissent is also a crime against the State. In suppressing dissent, however, monarchies and ill-democratic governments, including those of Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, and Syria, fail to address the very issues fueling dissent and revolutionary impulses. Democracy is about one thing: helping people better express their interests to government, so government can better address them. The key to stunting revolutionary impulses is more responsive, representative governance.
At the heart of all power is legitimacy. For democracy, it is the decision of a population to embrace a leader that gives that leader his, or her, legitimacy. Where it is far easier to say a group like the Islamic State lacks legitimacy, because they use force and fear to obtain power, it is not so easy when it comes to traditional leaders who enjoy power due to their family legacy. As the world democratizes, traditional powers must recognize their legitimacy and claim to power will be increasingly dependent on their performance. Under democratic thinking, those who hold power do so only because they play a, more or less, constructive role in society.
While stagnant and self-serving leadership is an issue for all forms of government, including democracy, the cyclic nature of democracy provides a built-in mechanism to shift away from ineffective leadership, so the interests of the People can be better balanced and addressed. As such, a real democratic government is more likely to remain more stable in the long-term. That said, unelected leadership can get things done without much trouble or delay. If they are good leaders, this is a benefit to their People. Over time, the tendency for self-serving and incompetent leaders to inherit power, however, leads to a failure to properly balance the interests of the population. All governments will, therefore, be judged based on how well they are serving their countries and the interests of Peoples.
The British, Spanish, and the Japanese have found ways of preserving their autocratic inheritance while embracing democracy. Countries like Saudi Arabia, however, struggle, because their monarchies do not want to surrender the bulk of their power, which the British monarchy did. What makes this problematic is that the forced transition of power, i.e. revolution, results in a great deal of conflict. It is, of course, also important to recognize monarchs and emperors are not the only traditional form of governance struggling with the transition to democracy. “Tribal” leadership, for example, is extremely important in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, parts of the Americas, and elsewhere.
If those who inherit their power wish to remain in power, they must embrace their responsive governance legacy in order to serve their Peoples to the best of their ability, not themselves. The role of autocratic and tribal leadership in the modern world is changing, but the Peoples of the world have the right to choose their leaders and they will choose their traditional leaders, if that leadership serves their interests. The Middle East is democratizing and globalizing, which means popular opinion throughout the region matters more than ever. Saudi Arabia under the rule of King Salman may not become a full-fledged democratic state, but it must become more sensitive to the interests and voices of its Peoples.
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