Review: After the Sheikhs, Christopher Davidson

Christopher Davidson does not shy from controversy. “Most of these regimes – at least in their present form – will be gone within the next two to five years” he contends on the very first page. A bold statement to be sure, but Davidson’s words have more weight to them than most who would dare to make this remark. He’s the author of several books on the Gulf including The United Arab Emirates: A Study in Survival, Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success and The Persian Gulf and Pacific Asia: From Indifference to Interdependence. He’s also a United Nations expert on the politics and developments of the Gulf monarchies and currently a reader in Government and International Affairs at Durham University.

All this to say that Davidson’s detailed analysis of the Gulf monarchies in his latest book, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, is not one to be ignored. As a map charting the development of the monarchies in recent decades and their future, it is unmatched. The text begins with an explanation of the formation of the six states (Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar) and their development in the 20th century before Explaining Survival. This header is split in two, with one chapter explaining domestic factors and another explaining external factors.

And how is survival explained? I cannot hope to sum Davidson’s ideas in this review without watering down his analysis, but in brief, he suggests that much of their strengths arise from the distributive economies of the oil-producing states and how the monarchies employ the use of their wealth. Indeed, Distributing Wealth is the title of the very first survival explanation listed in the book. Though use of wealth varies from country to country, Davidson shows how the wealthier of the monarchies have created a cradle-to-grave welfare state, raising their small native populations into national elites who receive the full benefits of the rentier state model. Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the richest of the United Arab Emirates (Abu Dhabi and Dubai) all exhibit this to differing extents, while the poorer states of Bahrain, Oman and the poorer of the Emirates cannot hope to deliver quite as great a welfare state as their neighbours.

Beyond these domestic expenditures, Davidson shows how the monarchies also use their great wealth to exert ‘soft power’ abroad, particularly in the West. Perhaps the most interesting of these strategies is the involvement of various monarchs with cultural institutions: “The UAE has been financing a new art research centre in Paris and is providing $32 million to help the Louvre repair a wing of the Pavilion de Flore”; “in 2011, Saudi Arabia was listed as one of [Book World Prague’s] ‘guests of honour’ and reportedly a ‘huge and lavish stand’ was erected”; “it is now difficult to find any leading British institution focusing on the Middle East that has not received all of the varieties of gifts”.

It would be wrong to suggest that the book focuses solely on the policies and politics that stem from the rentier state model though. Davidson also shows how the UAE and Qatar have attempted to set themselves up as peacekeepers and mediators in the region, with Qatar in particular being quite successful. More broadly, in all the monarchies, there is a cult of personality around the monarchs and their families, such that the royalty in each state still has considerable popular support within their individual countries.

Having established the strengths and survival strategies of the monarchies, the second half of the book details mounting pressures on them to change and adapt. Like the chapters on survival, these pressures are split in two: internal and external. Of particular concern amongst internal pressure is the squandering of wealth, as best exhibited in the UAE’s rival prestige projects between the various emirates that do little to produce real wealth. “Under-utilisation of major airports was a direct result of so many facilities having been built in a relatively small country. This is a problem still very much in evidence today, with new international airports in Al-Ayn and Fujairah, and with foreign airlines having long since cut back their flights to Sharjah airport as a result of the continuing expansion of Dubai’s airport only a few miles away.”

He records royal privatisation of historically public land, such as islands dotting the coast of the Gulf which were once open to all but are now the estates of the monarchies.”Even Google Earth has been blocked,” Davidson writes in the section on censorship, “after activists began using satellite images from the software to demonstrate how vast and lavish the ruling family’s palaces were in comparison to the poor suburbs that most Bahrainis have to live in.”

Meanwhile, the cradle-to-grave welfare state of some monarchies has led to a generation of people who see state welfare not as a gift or an investment by the state into them as future productive citizens but as a right; it has also bred such a culture of contentedness for there to be a large amount of voluntarily unemployed people in the various states. The emir of Qatar, Davidson tells us, was more surprised that his doctor was a native Qatari than he was by the heart attack that had hospitalised him.

As to external pressures, states suffer from a variety of policies that erode their legitimacy. This ranges from the open-door policies to foreign workers, which the native populations of some countries view with xenophobia, to the increasing military and diplomatic ties the states have with the West, particularly the United States and scandalously, Israel. The monarchies are also a disunited bunch: though the Gulf Cooperation Council was set up in in the early 1980’s, it has been of little political benefit as a union of the six monarchies. Their Peninsula Shield force was barely employed in the liberation of Kuwait during the Gulf War despite being ostensibly set up to defend the monarchs from external forces. The most prominent deployment of the Peninsula Shield was in Bahrain in 2011, invited in by the authorities to put down the pro-democracy ‘Arab Spring’ protests. A general picture of disunity between the many states is painted, one that threatens to facilitate the collapse of the monarchies.

The final chapter, titled The Coming Collapse, reviews each of the six states’ current situation. Davidson lists the states in order, from least to most stable: Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and Qatar. It was somewhat surprising to see Saudi Arabia implicitly called the third least stable monarchy, but the argument for their placement is convincingly made: despite the great wealth of the Al Saud, their prodigiously large population means that they cannot employ the strategies of rich and population-light Qatar and UAE (that of throwing money at the problem) quite as effectively. The short-term attempts to create thousands of new public sector jobs by all these countries will lead to more unproductive work are an unsustainable attempt to stave off criticism, especially as resources dwindle increasingly in most of these states. The monarchies, Davidson argues, will not be able to continue ignoring or imprisoning their native opponents for much longer.

But I did not feel the case that the monarchies will collapse within the next five years was made convincingly. If Davidson has highlighted anything, it is just how much money the monarchies have banked that they can use to mitigate the problems. And though the resources are dwindling, I remain unconvinced that they will have been reduced enough within five years to no longer be able to dam the demands of local opposition groups.

It also seemed as though Davidson touched too lightly on one topic. A significant event to be expected in the next decade is the deaths of many heads of states King Abdullah of Saud Arabia is 88; Emir Sabah of Kuwait is 83; Sultan Qaboos of Oman is 72. The Emir of Qatar and the president of the UAE and emir of Abu Dhabi are both in their early 60s. So too is the King of Bahrain, though his long-serving Prime Minister and uncle Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman is 77. It can easily be predicted that the deaths of these elderly statesmen in relatively quick succession will rock the stability of the Gulf monarchies, but it is unlikely that they will all pass away in the five years. Perhaps the ten year time frame Davidson originally envisioned when he first began writing in 2009 would be more realistic. But all this can only be judged in hindsight.

What will we think of Christopher Davidson’s bold prediction five years from now? Will it be as an amusing product of its time, an over-optimistic guess in the wake of the Arab Spring? Or will it be as a prescient vision of the future of the Gulf? Ultimately it should not matter too much, for what makes Davidson’s book a valuable addition to our understanding of the Gulf is not his predictions but his incredibly detailed and well-researched analysis on the political, economic and social state of all six Gulf monarchies.

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About alialjamri

Young journalist, blogger, trying to make sense of the world we live in.
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One Response to Review: After the Sheikhs, Christopher Davidson

  1. Well written review. I look forward to reading this book. As you said, not because of his shaky predictions but because I sense that he has analysed the Gulf in a very interesting way.

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