While violence rages in Syria and Yemen, two other key players in the broader Middle East are paving the way toward modest political reforms that the West can herald as a proper response to the aspirations of young Arabs emboldened by the Arab Spring.
Morocco and Saudi Arabia have been both able to stay ahead of the popular uprisings that have swept the Middle East since the start of this year with reforms that defuse internal tension even if the opposition remains unsatisfied.
King Mohammed VI of Morocco held a referendum this summer about several constitutional reforms which forced him, among other things, to appoint a prime minister from the largest parliamentary faction and cede the power to dissolute the legislature to the head of the government. His Saudi counterpart increased college, housing and social security benefits in February and announced a raise in government salaries before protests could erupt in his oil kingdom.
Last week, King Abdullah granted women the right to vote in local elections in 2015 and serve on his advisory council. The changes should help to at least somewhat lessen discontent among the Saudi youth without jeopardizing the monarchy’s support of conservative Islamists.
Western powers have struggled to respond to the Arab Spring as their interests and values are often at odds in the region. According to the strategic consultancy firm Wikistrat, the solid middle ground that was found in Morocco and Saudi Arabia could be embraced as a model that the West can push other allies, including Bahrain and Jordan, toward implementing.
“Their strategy can also incrementally empower the liberal elements of society instead of Islamists,” according to Wikistrat’s Middle East Monitor for September, “by allowing increased openness without rushing into elections that non-Islamists would be unprepared for.” That is especially true for Egypt where the secular opposition, after decades of oppression, is disorganized and altogether ill prepared for parliamentary and presidential elections whereas the Muslim Brotherhood, a political as well as a religious organization, is expected to perform when the country strill struggles with democracy.
There is, on the other hand, the chance for more brutal dictatorship like Iran’s and Syria’s that concessions could hasten their demise. If the regime is perceived as conciliatory and weak, it will strengthen demonstrators in countries where the government has little legitimacy to begin with. In the region’s monarchies, by contrast, the king usually enjoys great authority and popularity, enabling him to reform without undermining the ruling family’s position.