Cooperation Failure or Secret Collusion? Absolute Monarchs and Informal Cooperation


Despite sharing attributes that scholars argue promote international cooperation, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates have few formal international agreements with each other. Does this absence of formal agreements imply a cooperation failure? We argue that absolute monarchies frequently cooperate with each other but do so informally. At the domestic level, absolute monarchs pursue their personal interests by unilaterally and nontransparently developing and implementing policies. These norms of domestic policymaking engender an absolutist logic, which shapes how absolute monarchs selectively use informal and formal cooperation at the international level. When cooperating with each other, absolute monarchs maximize mutual private benefits through similarly unilateral and nontransparent policymaking, producing secret, cartel-like informal agreements. Using the 10 Million International Dyadic Events data, we develop a data set of informal and formal cooperation from 1990 to 2004. We find that joint absolute monarchy dyads have higher levels of informal cooperation and lower levels of formal cooperation than joint democratic dyads and dyads of mixed regime types. We also draw on the Continent of International Law dataset to demonstrate that, when absolute monarchs enter into agreements with leaders of other regime types, they strategically accept the formal design mechanisms necessary for optimal cooperation. We assess the causal mechanisms underlying the absolutist logic through an in-depth case study of the informal, secret 2014 Riyadh agreements that outlined security cooperation between the Gulf monarchies.

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  1. 1.

    Wealthy states (those ranked in the top 25% of GDP) on average participate in three times as many formal international agreements than do poor states (those ranked in the bottom 25% of GDP). This pattern is consistent across issue areas. See Koremenos (2017).

  2. 2.

    See Table 8 for a comprehensive comparison of the number of UNTS agreements each GCC state has with fellow members versus the number it has with all other states.

  3. 3.

    The other four public agreements are the Convention on the Implementation of Judicial Decisions, Awards, and Declarations; the Economic Agreement between Gulf Cooperation Council Countries; the Convention on the Conservation of Wildlife and Natural Habitats; and the Agreement Establishing the Monetary Union of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

  4. 4.

    For example, the delegated monitoring provisions that accompany formal treaties, like the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, are often key to their effectiveness.

  5. 5.

    The majority of agreements in the COIL dataset were signed between 1970 and 1999.

  6. 6.

    A notable exception is Kahler (2000), who traces variation in the legalization of regional institutions in the Asia-Pacific from their conception to the Asian economic crisis of 1997-1998. Specifically, Kahler (2000) examines changes in the precision of member states’ obligations, non-interference in member states’ domestic affairs, and the presence of third-party dispute resolution mechanisms.

  7. 7.

    Weeks (2008) makes a similar criticism. Both demonstrate that various types of autocracies, distinguished by the civilian or military nature of the leader and presence of veto players, influence conflict and cooperative behavior.

  8. 8.

    When the text of an agreement is public, that often implies the agreement is registered with an international or regional organization.

  9. 9.

    At least half of formal treaties do not incorporate dispute resolution mechanisms. These treaties most likely do not need such provisions, but that does not imply the cooperation embodied in these treaties is informal. See Koremenos (2007, 2016).

  10. 10.

    Formal agreements with informal elements foster a similar dynamic. The implicit, discretionary punishment mechanism in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty has been used to maximize the interests of the permanent members of the UN Security Council (Koremenos 2013a).

  11. 11.

    Extant scholarship indicates that domestic behavioral norms in particular regime types influence preferences for particular modes of international cooperation. For example, constitutive characteristics of democratic regimes, such as openness towards civil society, rule of law, accountability, and transparency, affect democracies’ preferences for openness towards transnational actors in international organizations (Tallberg et al. 2016).

  12. 12.

    Illustratively, extensive scholarship explores Arab monarchies’ relative resilience to the 2011 Arab uprisings compared to their personalist counterparts (Bellin 2012; Bank et al. 2015).

  13. 13.

    Specifically, we conduct a two–sample, unpaired student t–test. This test assesses whether two subgroup means are equal.

  14. 14.

    Williams’ (2015) accountability transparency score ranges from 0 to 100. Absolute monarchies have a mean accountability transparency score of 24.47 (SE = 0.72), whereas personalist regimes have a mean score of 26.22 (SE = 0.43).

  15. 15.

    Specifically, Uzonyi et al. (2012) measure of ACC takes on four values, ranging from 0 (no audience cost capacity) to 3 (high audience cost capacity).

  16. 16.

    The Wilcoxon rank–sum test is a nonparametric hypothesis test that assesses whether the average ranks of two subgroups significantly differ from one another.

  17. 17.

    All absolute monarchies are coded as having no (i.e., zero) audience cost capacity. Conversely, 1.3% of personalist regimes are ranked as having medium audience cost capacity, 30.1% as having low audience cost capacity, and 68.6% as having zero audience cost capacity.

  18. 18.

    The appendix and replication data can be found on the Review of International Organization website.

  19. 19.

    When defining countries in the Middle East, we include all 22 Arab League members as well as Israel and Turkey.

  20. 20.

    Major powers, particularly Western and democratic major powers, may have more influence over agreement design relative to their partner (Drezner 2008; Stone 2011).

  21. 21.

    We define a state as wealthy if they are in the top 25% of all countries in terms of their total GDP, drawing from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators.

  22. 22.

    This binary variable indicates whether both country regimes in a dyad have been stable (i.e., not experienced armed conflict) for at least 5 years based on POLITY IV durable variable.

  23. 23.

    This is a binary variable that indicates whether a dyad is part of the same alliance, drawing from the ATOP data set.

  24. 24.

    The COIL research agenda’s premise is that states choose particular design features because those provisions help them most effectively resolve the problems that arise when they attempt to cooperate.

  25. 25.

    For more information about how these interviews were conducted, see the appendix.

  26. 26.

    The percentage of informal events that occurred between joint absolute monarchy dyads substantially dropped in 1999 as well, indicating that there were lower levels of cooperation overall in this year. As mentioned previously, rivalries between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar led these monarchs to boycott meetings, likely depressing overall levels of informal cooperation between absolute monarchs in 1999.

  27. 27.

    With respect to Table 5, the category ‘Other dyads’ consists of at least one government that Geddes et al. (2014) coded as having a ‘mixed’ regime type, e.g., a mix of military-personalist characteristics.

  28. 28.

    Our data set has a low number of joint absolute monarchy dyads for two reasons. First, the time period of events examined spans 1990 to 2004. This, coupled with the exclusion restrictions outlined in section 4.1, implies that the only absolute monarchies included are Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan, Swaziland, and Brunei.

  29. 29.

    We specified a first-order autoregressive correlation matrix in our models. We use the GEE method because it estimates population-averaged (marginal) coefficients from correlated data, allowing us to compare changes in the mean levels of formal and informal cooperation across subpopulations like dyad types (Zorn 2001; Hardin and Hilbe 2003). Put differently, using a GEE model allows us to obtain the average effect of dyad type on informal cooperation (Zeger and Liang 1986). Previous scholarship that examines the effect of regime type on various types of international behavior has used this modeling technique (e.g., Oneal and Russett 2001; Mattes and Rodriguez 2014).

  30. 30.

    Because the events ‘Collaborate,’ ‘Mediate talks,’ ‘Agree to mediate,’ ‘Request to mediate,’ and ‘Promise to mediate,’ may indicate informal cooperation, we ran the same models above including these events in our measure of informal cooperation. The direction, magnitude, and significance of our coefficients are robust to these category changes.

  31. 31.

    For the measure of precise language, we draw from Koremenos (2016), who codes the precision of an agreement, namely the “degree of precision surrounding the main prescriptions, proscriptions, and/or authorizations embodied in an international agreement” (2016: 159). The precision variable is ordinal and takes four ascending values: (1) very vague; (2) somewhat vague; (3) somewhat precise; and (4) very precise.

  32. 32.

    For the measure of externally delegated dispute resolution, we draw from Koremenos (2016), who defines formal (i.e., delegated) dispute resolution mechanisms as those which stipulate third–party arbitration and/or adjudication with the third party being external to agreement membership as opposed to a subset of the member states (what Koremenos defines as internal delegation).

  33. 33.

    Our other regime binary variables are coded similarly. For example, our variable ‘Personalist Regimes’ codes whether at least one state signatory has a personalist regime.

  34. 34.

    Our results also call into question existing literature’s assertion that Islamic law states have a non–instrumental preference for less formalized dispute resolution and that Islamic law states tend to use informal design characteristics. It is important to note that, for absolute monarchies and states with Islamic legal systems, the Pearson’s correlation co-efficient is 0.35, indicating the weak correlation between the variables.

  35. 35.

    It is important to note that we include issue area dummies and use human rights as the baseline for issue area comparison (the excluded variable) because the COIL sample is random conditional on issue area. As such, the coefficients on the issue areas are relative to human rights agreements.

  36. 36.

    It is possible that we do not have enough power to statistically detect effects of substantively meaningful size.

  37. 37.

    We should note that the magnitude and lack of significance of the coefficients do not change when we run the model with unclustered robust standard errors. Our results also remain robust when we include Uncertainty about the State of the World and Uncertainty about Behavior, two cooperation problems that Koremenos (2016) includes in her analysis of delegated dispute resolution but for which she finds no theoretical justification and no statistical significance.

  38. 38.

    Several interviewees suggested that GCC member states sought cooperation in order to prevent domestic upheaval.

  39. 39.

    The 2010 Agreement Establishing the Monetary Union was only signed by Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Kuwait.

  40. 40.

    For the complete list of GCC laws and regulations, see Table A.8 in the Appendix.

  41. 41.

    See Other Treaties and Protocols, EUR-Lex at: Accessed on July 2, 2018.

  42. 42.

    See the Directory of EU Legislation, EUR-Lex at: = CC_1_CODED%3D03&displayProfile = allConsDocProfile&classification = in-force#arrow_03. Accessed on July 2, 2018.

  43. 43.

    Additionally, of the ten interviews conducted, all participants agreed that the six GCC member states cooperate at elite levels outside of the GCC bureaucracy.

  44. 44.

    Although many multilateral disarmament agreements are similarly vague because they delegate punishment authority to the UN Security Council (which may or may not decide to act), delegation to the UNSC is formal and public.

  45. 45.

    Entitled “Agreement between the Government of His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di–Pertuan of Brunei Darussalam and the Government of the Sultanate of Oman for air services between and beyond their respective territories,” this agreement was signed in 1988.


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We are very grateful to all those interviewed for this project. We thank Jonas Tallberg, Michael Mosser, Nicole Simonelli, Mark Dincecco, and workshop participants at the University of Michigan (CPRD), U.C. Berkeley (MIRTH), U.C.L.A. Law School, and the University of St. Gallen’s School of Economics and Politics for comments on earlier drafts. Jeff Smith kindly and expertly provided detailed and very helpful comments on our penultimate draft. Barbara Koremenos thanks the KROC Institute at the University of Notre Dame for fellowship support during the early stages of this project and Julia Gysel and Raya Saksouk for providing excellent research assistance. Finally, we thank the four anonymous reviewers for their careful reading and insightful feedback. This project has been approved through UC Berkeley IRB protocol 2017-10-10405.

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Carlson, M., Koremenos, B. Cooperation Failure or Secret Collusion? Absolute Monarchs and Informal Cooperation. Rev Int Organ (2020).

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  • International cooperation
  • Informal cooperation
  • Secrecy, Authoritarian regimes