It is almost 40 years since the publication of Fred Halliday’s landmark book Arabia without Sultans. Now, in the wake of the Arab spring, another young British academic has written an important account of prospects for the Gulf region, calling his study After the Sheikhs. Both titles contain a strong element of wishful thinking. But Christopher Davidson takes a punt on collapse coming soon.
Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Oman form a distinct group. (Poverty-stricken republican Yemen is in a miserable category of its own.) Three of the six monarchies enjoy vast oil or gas reserves and enormous wealth; all have anachronistic political structures that have shown the strain as change has blown through the Middle East and North Africa. The rich ones have thrown money at the problem, but the underlying fractures remain.
Davidson argues that the emirs, kings and sheikhs (only Oman still has a sultan) have survived for so long because they have grafted seemingly modern institutions on to traditional power bases. Loyalty has been bought in exchange for stability and the generous provision of services – though spending cannot be sustained indefinitely at current levels. There’s no taxation and little or no representation. Deference, religion and western greed have helped keep critics at bay and the status quo in place.
Orientalist special pleading doesn’t get a look in. This is an unsentimental story of hard-nosed political calculation, conspicuous consumption (the UAE is the world’s biggest consumer of scotch), opaque budgets and sovereign wealth funds that hoover up assets such as Harrods and the Emirates Stadium. Sporting events such as Bahrain’s Formula One race and the Qatar World Cup are good for the brands – even if it means the squandering of resources. « Heart-beguiling Araby » it ain’t.
Away from the glittering skyscrapers and monster shopping malls the social consequences are grim. Rentier economies provide mostly tiny and young populations with undemanding government jobs that are a recipe for boredom, while expats from the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines do the hard graft.
Nowhere in the Gulf is there state repression on the scale of Syria or Gaddafi’s Libya, but rising expectations and the spread of social media have created new possibilities for protest. Kuwait has the highest rate of smartphone use in the world. Democracy activists in Bahrain have used Google Earth to reveal vast palaces hidden from public view. Anonymous Saudi Twitter accounts tell tales of royal corruption. Still, technology is only a tool: governments can invent catchy hashtags and royal Facebook pages as well as pay foreign advisers and lobbyists. Davidson has an alarming section on Gulf sponsorship of academic institutions in Britain and the US.
Like Mubarak or Gaddafi, the rules of some Gulf states (with the exception of tiny, fabulously rich Qatar) play that old favourite, the Islamist card, warning that they are targets of a Muslim Brotherhood conspiracy. Events in Egypt may unfortunately help them deploy that card more effectively.
Davidson catalogues the internal and external pressures that are building up – the looming crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme figures prominently among the latter. But it is not clear how soon they will trigger change or what form it will take. Unless oil and gas prices nosedive, or long-awaited American energy independence arrives faster than anticipated, his two to five-year time-frame for collapse is likely to turn out to be too short.
Zooming in on Saudi Arabia in his book The Islamic Utopia (Pluto, £17.99), Andrew Hammond neatly decapitates the argument that the ultra-conservative kingdom (which, it bears repeating, is named after its ruling family) is undergoing a credible reform process. Since the 9/11 attacks, which upset their cosy relationship with the US, the Saudis have claimed to be leading the fight against jihadism and to be responding (cautiously) to demands for change at home. Attention abroad focuses on eye-catching issues such as allowing women to drive – though even if that happens, he argues, it will have no impact, in a country without political parties or a parliament, on the wider issue of the right of citizens to take part in their own governance.
Outside a few « gimmicky » liberal enclaves that are beyond the reach of the morality police, ordinary Saudis are encouraged to shop and pray, but not to think. A « soporific media » does nothing to challenge a status quo in which « untold sums are off budget for defence, mosque expansion and princely usage. »
Hammond combines dense, informed analysis with the rare experience of working as a journalist in « one of the world’s most unusual and enigmatic countries in the most interesting of times » – not easy even for a fluent Arabic speaker. But in a critical appraisal of how the Saudis manage the movements and logistics of the annual hajj, he also describes his own « humbling » experience of the beauty and simplicity of « the Meccan dream of one common humanity ».
But he sees clearly: the Al Saud, he concludes, « are happy to entrap all those who will expend mental energy on their realm in the intricacies of internal debates, Islamists versus liberals, progressive princes versus retrograde clerics and hawks, the Kremlinology of who’s in and who’s out, who’s up and who’s down. But it’s largely a ruse to distract attention from the more fundamental issue of the arbitrary and massive powers of a hyper-dynasty haunted by fear of losing it all. »