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Definition: dynasty from Merriam-Webster's Collegiate(R) Dictionary

(14c) 1 : a succession of rulers of the same line of descent 2 : a powerful group or family that maintains its position for a considerable time

dy•nas•tic \dī-॑nas-tik\ adj

dy•nas•ti•cal•ly \-ti-k(ə-)lē\ adv


Summary Article: Dynasties
from Encyclopedia of Global Studies

The term dynasty refers to a succession of leaders from the same family who exert extraordinary political and/or economic influence across generations. Dynasties that are most relevant to global politics are the political elites of states whose political systems are monarchies (as opposed to republics).

The Role of Dynasties in Global Politics and Economics

Almost all contemporary monarchies are based on what can be called the dynastic principle: The rule is handed over from one member of the ruling family to another, mostly from the father to the son. Yet, two qualifications have to be taken into account. First, nonaristocratic dynasties, such as the Rockefellers or Kennedys, have played a role in global politics and economics. Second, not all dynasties that nominally head a state exert real political power. For instance, the British royal family no longer holds much influence or authority.

Nonaristocratic dynasties play only a limited role in global politics, although in the United States, some dynasties such as the Kennedys have indeed exerted political influence over the course of generations. The Bush family managed to send two descendants to the White House. Yet, in general, nonaristocratic dynasties play a much bigger role in economics than in politics because capitalism encourages the intergenerational transfer of material values, whereas in politics the republican principle promotes nonfamilial patterns of elite recruitment. Thus, while running a state like a family enterprise has become the exception in modern politics, despite the trend to stock corporations, dynasties are still common in economic systems dominated by private actors.

Nonaristocratic dynasties often owe their eminence not only to their wealth but also to their donations and sometimes their lifestyle. Many of the most prominent, globally renowned dynasties are among the richest in the present day; at the same time, many of them, such as the Rothschilds (and, to a lesser degree, the Rockefellers), have undergone a process of rapid rise and relative fall whose pronounced historical model appears to have also been the fate of the Fuggers, who rose from a small tanner family in 14th-century Swabia to one of the first global merchant dynasties in the 15th and 16th centuries. Although to date the Fuggers play an economic role in their headquarters in the German city of Augsburg and surrounding regions, their impact on the global economy has been insignificant for centuries.

In politics, aristocratic dynasties exist on most continents: in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Oceania. However, it is striking that the Arab world hosts comparatively more dynastic rules than other regions. Indeed, 8 of the 21 members of the Arab League—the membership of Libya was suspended in February 2011—are ruled on the basis of the dynastic principle. Moreover, Arab dynasties are also set apart by the facts that all of them, in essence, control internal politics, and some of them, such as Saudi Arabia, exert much higher influence on global politics than most monarchies in other parts of the world, such as Tonga.

Most dynastic rules became extinguished in the 20th century; others survived as toothless tigers in the form of constitutional monarchies. Dynastical rules could not keep up with the expectations of enlightened citizens in terms of participation rights and services to be provided by the state. Thus, they were replaced by republics whose recruitment pattern of political elites is much more inclusive. One of the interesting questions for global politics is why some dynastic regimes survived and others did not.

It is striking that many of the surviving dynasties that exert real political power—such as the Gulf monarchies—have a comparatively small population. In fact, it is plausible that smallness makes governing less complex and thereby easier for a dynasty to internally meet the challenges of modernization. Still, many other small dynasties disappeared. Why did those remaining survive? Moreover, why were these small monarchies—weak as they are vis-à-vis external enemies—not swallowed by a bigger neighboring country as was the case with many mini-dynasties in 19th-century Germany?

Oil Monarchies

The first reason why so many Arab dynasties remained in power is that—the exceptional cases of Morocco and Jordan notwithstanding—high income was at their disposal. When Gamal Abdel Nasser seized power in Egypt in 1952 and abolished the Egyptian monarchy, he also claimed hegemonic power over the Arab world, thereby threatening the dynastic rules in the Gulf countries. In the critical period of the 1950s and 1960s, however, major Gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, ranked among the least developed and poorest countries worldwide at the end of World War II, transformed into oil economies.

The making of strong monarchies buttressed by high oil exports was mainly a result of U.S. determination rather than of local actors. When the defeat of Nazi Germany became conceivable, the United States decided to base its future hegemony over the capitalist system on oil as its dominant source of energy, thereby taking advantage of the discovery of incommensurably cheap oil fields in the Gulf area. Thus, on the one hand, the U.S. administration challenged the supremacy of British Petroleum in the Gulf and invested great efforts to pave the way for the U.S. oil industry into this area, particularly in Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, U.S. oil majors became involved in a consortia system: To stabilize the then weak Saudi dynasty, the government in Washington impelled “their” companies to pay royalties to the Saudi kingdom; in free negotiations, the weak Saudi government would not have been able to produce such a favorable outcome. Although the oil companies were compensated through exemptions from the U.S. Treasury, the design of the system was political rather than economic, thereby enabling the emergence of real statehood in the Gulf area.

Exporting oil empowered the Gulf monarchies to establish a strong state-centered rule vis-à-vis a weakened society. An essential prerequisite for that development was the rent character of oil income. A rent is an earning that is not balanced by investment or labor. As a result of geological particularities on the Arab peninsula, the production costs of Gulf oil are much lower than elsewhere in the world. Therefore, Gulf oil achieves a price that exceeds its production costs several times over. At the same time, due to complex conveying conditions, the appropriation of the oil rent requires a minimum of centrality, which is why it goes into the pockets of the state bureaucracy rather than to private actors. Contrary to entrepreneurs, rentiers such as state bureaucracies in the Gulf are not forced to reinvest the bulk of their income in order to accrue one in the future. Rather, the rent is to the free disposal of the rentier. Therefore, since the 1950s, state bureaucracies of the Gulf have been in the position to depoliticize their societies.

In comparison to many other monarchies, dynasties of the Gulf enjoyed two major advantages when they became exposed to republican challengers. First, they had at their disposal a fairly high rent income generated from abroad; second, the societies were very poor. Therefore, rather than taxing their societies and thereby provoking participation ambitions according to the principle of the American War of Independence “No Taxation Without Representation,” the regimes legitimized their rules by distributing financial means in various forms, such as providing subsidies, offering career opportunities, and donating social services. Thus, the regular relationship between the state and the society was reversed: Rather than receiving taxes, the state alimented the society. Thereby, threats to overthrow the dynastic rule from within were significantly reduced.

A second reason to help explain why the Gulf monarchies survived is military protection from Western states (i.e., Great Britain and the United States). In the period commencing after the takeover of Egypt by Nasser and concluding with the devastating Arab defeat in the Six-Day War in 1967, which Malcolm H. Kerr has labeled the “Arab Cold War,” the conflict between republics and monarchies was indeed systemic. The republics, which came into being as the results of what Ellen K. Trimberger has called “revolutions from above,” launched a decided modernization program; they had two incentives to threaten the monarchies to which purpose the ideology of Pan-Arabism was perfectly suited. From a political point of view, they were interested in “harmonizing” their political environment, that is, in exporting their then revolutionary principle of Arab republicanism to the whole of the Arab world (and to finally “reunite” it to one strong entity). Furthermore, from an economic standpoint, the monarchies appeared as an attractive prey because of their oil richness.

Despite their control of significant resources, the small and low-population states of the Gulf were vulnerable as a result of their weak military capabilities. During the Arab Cold War, military dependence of the Gulf States on Western actors was obvious, in some cases still executed in imperialist raiment. Thus, Kuwait gained its independence only in 1961. The only strong foothold the Mashriq republics could get hold of in the Gulf was in oil-poor Yemen, where Egypt and Saudi Arabia fought a proxy war from 1962 to 1967. Moreover, following the end of the Arab Cold War and the 1981 establishment of the Gulf Cooperation Council, designed as a security alliance, the Gulf monarchies continued to remain dependent on Western protection. Thus, Kuwait proved to be incapable of countering Iraq's invasion in 1990 without U.S. interference in 1991, which was crucial to maintaining the city-state's independence.

The monarchies had been on the defensive vis-à-vis the republics in the 1950s and 1960s, but around 1970 the tide turned. As a result of Egypt's and Syria's defeat in the 1967 June War and the oil revolution of the early 1970s, the Gulf monarchies gained power in relation to the republics of the Mashriq. The Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, used their gains in financial strength to establish the regional system of “Petrolism,” as Bahgat Korany has called it, which, apart from labor flows from the capital-poor to the oil-rich countries, mainly consisted of budget support and other financial transactions in favor of the Mashriq.

Yet, the conflict between republics and monarchies left its mark on the dynastic rules. To survive the Arab Cold War, the dynasties had to adapt to their new political environment by copying major measures promoted by their republic enemies such as establishing modern bureaucracies. However, as a result of possessing high financial capabilities, they managed to avoid falling victim to the “king's dilemma.” According to Samuel Huntington, a king perishes either because he fails to modernize or, if he does, because he is unable to meet the expectations of actors created by modernization. In contemporary Arab politics in general, the degree of modernization does not appear to be higher among republics than monarchies. The crisis the Arab world has been experiencing for the past few decades is in fact mainly a crisis of the Arab republics. Some of them even diluted the republican principle of elite recruitment: For instance, in Syria, the presidential chair was passed from father to son in 2000.

The development of the Arab uprising of 2011 (which is an ongoing process during the production of this entry) so far confirms major findings presented earlier. With the exception of Bahrain, all other monarchies of the Gulf have managed to maintain stable rules, whereas the regimes of most republics have been shattered. Oil wealth and size indeed appear to be a major explanatory factor since—with the significant exception of Libya—the comparatively stable monarchies tend to be both oil-wealthier and smaller in size than the relatively destabilized Arab republics.

Conclusion: Causes for the Survival of Arab Monarchies

It must be emphasized that oil abundance is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for the survival of monarchies. In Iraq (1958), Libya (1969), and Iran (1979), monarchies were toppled that were major recipients of oil revenues. These examples show that some(times) monarchies (as also sometimes republics) are overstrained with using financial resources in a functional way to strengthen their (authoritarian) rule. Yet, oil richness is also not a necessary condition for the survival of (Arab) dynastic rules. For example, Morocco and Jordan survived without oil, and some regimes, such as the Omani, benefited from oil rents only fairly late. In these cases, other factors offer plausible explanations. For instance, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan owes its survival to the interest of both Israel and the West in having an island of conservatism and stability in the middle of one of the most turbulent world areas. As a result of this strategic setting, the Jordanian regime enjoys political rents, that is, external budget support, whose political feature is similar to oil rent in that it goes to the free disposal of the recipient. To conclude, ceteris paribus, oil abundance and, often related to that, Western interest in stability appear to be strong factors in explaining that the Arab world stands out for the survival of comparatively many regimes based on the dynastic principle.

See also:

Imperialism, Legitimacy, Oil, Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Petroleum Economy, Petroleum Geopolitics, State-Civil Society Relations, Taxation

Further Readings
  • Beblawi, H., &Luciani, G. (Eds.).(1987). The rentier state. London: Croom Helm.
  • Fähndrich, H. (Ed.). (2005). Vererbte Macht: Monarchien und Dynastien in der arabischen Welt [Inherited power: Monarchies and dynasties in the Arab World]. Frankfurt, Germany: Campus.
  • Nahas, M. State-systems and revolutionary challenge: Nasser, Khomeini, and the Middle East. International Journal of Middle East Studies, 17, : 507-527., .
  • Beck, Martin
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

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