Royal solidarity tour starts in Jordan

Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, were in Jordan yesterday on the first full day of their Royal Solidarity Tour of Arab monarchies – and already it's embarrassing. 

Officially, the nine-day trip which will also take in Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia is billed as a "goodwill" visit and yesterday, according to a tweet posted by Peter Millett, Britain's tennis-playing ambassador in Amman, Prince Charles spoke of "a deep bond between the British and Jordanian people".

It it were really about that, there wouldn't be a problem. But that's not how it's going to be viewed in the region.

British royals have been stripped of their power over the centuries and today they are generally harmless. We retain them mainly for decorative purposes. Not so with the Arab royals. They are autocratic (to put it mildy) and unaccountable. And despite some limited moves towards parliamentary government they still hold most of the executive power.

British royal visits to these rulers have always been tainted by questions about human rights abuses but now there is a new dimension (as I discussed in an earlier blog post). As a result of the Arab Spring, Arab monarchies are under growing pressure from their own citizens to radically change their ways. Most, if not all, of them are incapable of doing so – which means their days are likely to be numbered.

In the meantime, visits from Britain's fully house-trained royalty help these autocrats to burnish their image and give them succour. They also place Britain on the wrong side of what is shaping up to become an historic struggle for accountable government.

Yesterday in Jordan, the Prince and the Duchess fell squarely into the trap.

On the face of it, their programme looked pretty innocuous. Aside from the ceremonial stuff, there was a meeting with deaf children, plus visits to a school, an award-winning company and a couple of museums.

In Britain, this kind of thing is the bread-and-butter of royal visits. It's a way of giving recognition to people who show various kinds of initiative, encouraging active citizenship and projects serving "the public good" where those involved get little or no financial reward.

The important thing about giving a royal blessing to such activities is that they are generally viewed as apolitical – though it has become a bit more contentious recently since prime minister David Cameron espoused his idea of "The Big Society". In theory, The Big Society is about empowering local people and communities, and encouraging participation. In the context of government spending cuts, however, critics see it as a way of shifting services that were once paid for out of taxes into the hands of volunteers who will do the same job for nothing.

What Prince Charles is probably unaware of (though officials should have warned him) is that the approach in Arab countries is very different. It doesn't have a name but it might be called "The Small Society" since the basic idea is to discourage public-spirited initiatives unless they can be controlled by the authorities.

This is an issue that I explored in my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East. The point is that a flourishing civil society undermines the power of ruling elites – and the result, according to Ziad Abdel Samad of the Arab NGO Network for Development is that they become "defensive and jealous" at the prospect. It's the last thing Arab that autocrats want. 

Even charitable work, unthreatening and apolitical as it might seem, can be a sensitive matter if it highlights the state’s own failure to provide basic services. 

One way to neutralise that is for the ruling elite to claim the credit for themselves, often by establishing the ruler’s wife as prime mover behind the nation’s charitable efforts. Suzanne Mubarak in Egypt and Asma al-Assad in Syria were both notable examples, as are Shaikha Mozah of Qatar (shortly to be visited by Prince Charles) and of course Queen Rania of Jordan.

In all these countries, independent community initiatives have been commandeered or stifled, either by taking them over or setting up a government-controlled organisation with a similar name and purpose – a practice known in Yemen as cloning. 

"This is very, very common throughout the region," Kareem Elbayar, a legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law told me. "There will be an environmental group in Jordan and then the king will set up a royal environmental group with ten times more money. It’s very common for gathering international attention and support, especially in a country like Jordan which is taken to be a liberal regime."

Another purpose of this among the Arab monarchies is to reinforce social control by developing royal patronage networks. The ruler dispenses his largesse (often using the people's own money) and his subjects are expected to doff their caps, be thankful and not cause trouble.

In Jordan, one vehicle for royal patronage is the King Abdullah II Fund for Development (KAFD). Yesterday, King Abdullah and Prince Charles signed a cooperation agreement between the KAFD and the Prince of Wales Charitable Foundation under which they will "exchange expertise and support youth entrepreneurship".

The BBC website has pictures of some other royal activities yesterday, and the captions make interesting reading:

  • The Duchess of Cornwall visited a school which had been renovated in a project organised by Queen Rania.

  • The Duchess practised sign language with deaf children at a children's museum founded by ... Yes, Queen Rania. 

The Jordan Times adds that the royal couple attended a reception at the Royal Automobile Museum where the chairman of the trustees is Prince Hamzah, the king's half-brother.

The Telegraph also has a jolly tale about Prince Charles encountering a model of Postman Pat during a visit to a Jordanian animation studio. The company concerned, Rubicon, has won several awards for its work which might make it worthy of a princely visit in its own right. But I wondered if there might be some royal connection there too, and looked it up. Sure enough, its chief executive is also on the board of the King's Academy, a school founded by His Majesty King Abdullah II.

Posted by Brian Whitaker
Wednesday, 13 March 2013