Brian Whitaker, the British Guardian’s former Middle East editor and author of a book I highly recommend, is making an interesting parallel between British and Arab monarchies (including Arab monarchical republics) and their degree of openness in matters of family life, as Prince William is announcing his engagement this week:
One obvious factor behind [the] low-key approach to the family lives of Arab royals is the seclusion of women, along with the idea in Arab-Islamic culture that it’s bad form (at least for males) to show an interest in other men’s wives.
This is true to a certain extent. I’m not sure this one argument still is decisive anymore, especially with the relative openness shown by Moroccan and Jordanian royals for example. I’d be more inclined to think that Arab rulers are terrified by the idea that looking more human would reveal them as they really are: ordinary, fallible. They would rather keep the secrecy and the mystic aura that goes with it, as the author goes on explaining:
I think it’s also connected with maintaining a distance between rulers and ruled. Arab rulers would not dare claim to be deities like the Roman emperors but they do try to give the impression of being more than ordinary mortals – remote figures who always know what’s best for their people and whose wisdom is not to be questioned.
In Britain, we know plenty about our royal family, and certainly more than is good for them. But in terms of the way our country is governed, it doesn’t really matter. These days, we keep them in their palaces mainly for their entertainment value. They may still own large tracts of the country but they don’t run it: that is the job of elected politicians.
In Arab countries, though, kings and hereditary presidents actually govern – which is a major difference. Arabs have a right to know more about them, and what sort of people they really are.