Juan Carlos I in Mallorca in 2011. Photo: Getty
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Can Spain's monarchy survive the abdication of Juan Carlos I?

The smooth succession from father to son was put in doubt after thousands of people took to the streets to call for a referendum on the future of the monarchy.

The Spanish monarchy has been thrown into crisis after the king, Juan Carlos I, announced his attention to abdicate the throne after 39 years in favour of his son Felipe. The news was conveyed via the royal household’s Twitter account and confirmed by a letter signed by Juan Carlos and posted shortly afterwards. He then made a televised address to the nation thanking the Spanish people for their support.

But the smooth succession from father to son was put in doubt after thousands of people took to the streets to call for a referendum on the future of the monarchy and more than 70,000 people signed an online petition urging Spain’s politicians to use this “historical opportunity to promote a public debate that will help regenerate democracy and determine the future of the monarchy”.

Whatever else may be written about Juan Carlos, his four-decade rule has enabled Spain to transition from the right-wing dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco to a modern pluralistic social democracy. In the course of his reign the king has been one of Europe’s most popular monarchs, although scandals in recent years have tarnished his record somewhat and are probably partly behind the popular demand for a constitutional debate.

Born in Rome on 5 January, 1938, Juan Carlos moved to Spain aged ten where he was groomed by Franco as a successor. In 1969 Franco named him as his heir, giving him the title of Prince of Spain. At this stage Juan Carlos publicly supported Franco, even acting as proxy head of state for Franco during the dictator’s final days – but all the while he was holding secret meeetings with reformist politicians.

He became king on November 22, 1975, two days after Franco’s death. It was a time of uncertainty and flux in Spanish politics. Many questioned the role Juan Carlos would play in Spain’s fledgling democracy and he immediately found himself at odds with right-wing politicians for not continuing Franco’s authoritarian policies, instead looking to left-wing, republican parties for support.

An early defining moment came during the abortive military coup of February 1981 when, as captain-general of the armed forces, in full uniform, he addressed the nation in a television broadcast to support the democratically-elected government during a TV broadcast. He used this to contradict claims by the coup leaders that he supported their actions. The coup failed and his popularity soared – even Santiago Carrillo, the leader of the just-legalised Communist Party who had dubbed the king “Juan Carlos the brief” in reference to what he presumed would be a short reign – expressed his admiration for the king’s decisive action.

Despite some remaining republicanism and independence movements in Catalonia and the Basque region, public support for Juan Carlos remained strong for the next three decades. Juan Carlos travelled the world as an effective ambassador for Spain and Spanish interests and the weddings of his three children were celebrated as major international events. In 2007 he became a YouTube sensation in the Spanish-Speaking world when, at an Ibero-American Summit in Chile, he interrupted the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez by asking him “why don’t you shut up?” (¿Por qué no te callas?). This phrase was picked up by the Spanish public and soon featured in the press, in jokes, on t-shirts and on social media.

 

Scandal and crisis

But the economic crisis in 2008 brought a change in public perception of the monarchy, particularly their use of public money to fund an extravagant lifestyle. A biography of Queen Sofía reported her views against gay marriage, and the king’s eldest daughter, Infanta Elena, divorced in 2009 – the first child of Spanish royalty to do so.

Meanwhile Juan Carlos' personal popularity took a dive in April 2012 when a photograph was published showing him posing with a dead elephant during a hunting trip to Botswana. The expensive trip was perceived as a slap in the face of crisis-hit Spaniards, even though the royal household insisted it had not been paid for with taxpayers' money. In addition, as honorary president of the Spanish branch of the World Wide Fund for Nature, the king’s behaviour was criticised as irresponsible. The WWF responded by removing him from his post as honorary president and the king issued a rare apology. What made it worse was that it emerged that he had not been travelling with Queen Sofía, but with German aristocrat Princess Corinna zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. It later transpired that she had accompanied him on several trips. The press, who had always respected the privacy of the royal family, began to print stories about alleged infidelities.

The royal family was further rocked by the revelation that Infanta Cristina’s husband, Iñaki Urdangarín, was under investigation for an alleged embezzlement of millions of euro of public money. He was later charged. Cristina was formally named as a suspect in 2013 and charged early in January this year.

The growing sense of scandal and waste has taken its toll on his popularity – his approval rating fell to 41% and there were further calls for his abdication, even from people who had previously supported him. His health has also been poor: he has undergone a series of hip operations after several falls. In January this year Juan Carlos made his first public appearance in two months for the “Pascua Militar”, the opening of the military year. Looking frail, his speech was hesitant and he stumbled over his words, which prompted renewed talk of abdication.

Can the monarchy survive?

In his abdication statement, Juan Carlos referred to Prince Felipe, 46, as “the incarnation of stability” – and he is well prepared for the job, having studied in Canada and the US as well as completing his military training in Spain. He has stood in for his father on several occasions and his personal popularity has remained strong with an approval rating of about 66%.

Felipe VI will bring a new style to the Spanish monarchy, with his wife, former news anchor Letizia Ortiz, styled as “the first middle-class queen”. The couple is generally well-liked, but the institution of monarchy has suffered in the last few years – and Felipe won’t have the opportunity, like his father did, to appear as the saviour of democracy.

The revisionists are already at work. Despite all the recent criticism, the Spanish media are falling over themselves to praise Juan Carlos and his many achievements. And when the dust settles, Felipe will have to face some difficult challenges: Spain is still deeply in economic crisis with high unemployment and a political class dogged by accusations of corruption. As for Felipe, all eyes will be on his investment ceremony (there will be no coronation as the king of Spain doesn’t wear a crown) and how much public money is spent on it.

Meanwhile he will have to weather the storm of his own sister’s trial. Regardless of her guilt or innocence, if she is cleared, the public will assume preferential treatment. If Cristina is found guilty and sentenced, all eyes will be on how she is punished. The outcome of the trial, and Felipe’s reaction to it, will be a key point of reference for how he is perceived by Spaniards and perhaps the future of the Spanish monarchy.

The ConversationFernando Rosell-Aguilar does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.