With his title echoing Fred Halliday’s seminal 1974 book Arabia Without Sultans, Christopher Davidson begins with a bold prediction about the six Gulf monarchies – Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE. “Most of these regimes – at least in their present form – will be gone within the next two to five years”, argues the Durham academic.
Employing controlled academic prose, Davidson methodically sets out the internal and external factors that have allowed “these absolutist, almost medieval entities” to have survived for so long. Of course oil and gas have been central to their durability, the region’s huge reserves allowing rentier states to develop in which the ruler distributes large amounts of wealth and services to its citizens in exchange for their political acquiescence.
However, according to Davidson time is running out for this US and UK-supported status quo. The monarchies with large energy reserves (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar) are in a stronger position than those (Bahrain and Oman) who have dwindling supplies but all face mounting pressures for change. For example, the rapidly growing population in Saudi Arabia is beginning to affect its ability to export oil and provide generous services and subsidies to its nationals. Official figures show unemployment at 27 percent for men under 30 and there are even reports of poverty and poor living conditions in Saudi Arabia today, producing crime and xenophobia.
With discontent long bubbling under the surface, arguably it was the 2011 Arab Uprisings that provided the example and spark of inspiration for dissatisfied Gulf nationals to rise up against their own governments. Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Oman have all experienced significant street protests. The Gulf autocrats have responded with a considerable amount of carrot and a lot of stick. On the former, facing large demonstrations in its Shia-dominated Eastern Province Saudi Arabia distributed an incredible $130 billion to its population in an attempt to blunt further disquiet. Elsewhere peaceful protestors have been murdered, beaten and tortured, and tweeters and opposition leaders jailed for daring to criticise the head of state. Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet, has seen the most bloodshed. The government’s harsh crackdown has killed dozens and injured thousands, and Saudi Arabian forces have been deployed to prop up the House of Khalifa.
Accessible though it is to the interested general reader, with its academic-length references and bibliography After the Sheikhs is set to become a standard textbook, a brilliant primer for students studying the Gulf. Of particular note is Davidson’s continuous citing of the Wikileaks US State Department cables, a clear indication of the huge historical importance of Bradley Manning’s actions.
Made in the heat of revolutionary struggle, Halliday’s prediction about the imminent demise of the Gulf monarchs turned out to be wrong. Will Davidson’s hopeful thesis fare any better? If he turns out to be right his academic kudos will skyrocket and the book will surely become known as a kind of starter pistol for the region’s much needed political reform. The stakes couldn’t be higher – for the Gulf monarchies themselves, their cynical backers in the West and, most importantly, for the men and women who have lived under absolute monarchy all their lives, and dream of a more democratic, pluralist future.
After the Sheikhs. The coming collapse of the Gulf monarchies is published by Hurst, priced £29.99.