After the Sheiks: Is the Rule of Gulf Monarchs Approaching the End?

By Alex Doherty · 4 Feb 2014

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Christopher Davidson is a Reader in Middle East politics at Durham University and the author of, most recently, 'After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies.' New Left Project's Alex Doherty spoke with him about the possibilities in the region for radical change, inter-state rivaly, a possible thaw between the United States and Iran, relationships with Israel, religion, women, Syria and more.

ALEX DOHERTY: You describe a constellation of internal and external factors that are eroding the stability of the Gulf monarchies and you say that you expect some kind of radical change within the next two to five years. Could you explain what those factors are that are driving the erosion of the stability of the regimes and why you feel so confident making such a strong claim regarding the time frame.

CHRISTOPHER DAVIDSON: I think firstly the best way to understand this is as a pincer effect that is building upon these states. On the one hand we very clearly have what we could describe as the political economy concerns, or the ‘realist’ concerns – if we want to use the terminology of international relations theory – those pressures relating to resources (oil and gas revenues in this case), population size increases, and the declining ability of these states to continue subsidising their citizens in return for political acquiescence. Then in parallel we also have what I have tried to describe as the “supermodernising forces” – these are the pressures that are likely to be placed on autocratic regimes by better connected, more modern, more literate, and more urbanised populations. And here we really have the root of the matter in the Gulf states. Of all of the developing world the Gulf has the best infrastructure in place, courtesy of the oil revenues in previous decades which has created this more modern class in the population. This stands in contrast with many other parts of the developing world, including North Africa and Syria, where we have seen some elements of modern communications, for example, that have clearly played a role in the Arab spring revolution but it's still a hazy somewhat unclear role. But now in the Gulf states we're entering into an era where things like satellite television and social media are accessible by nearly all of the population. So it's a question of how these new technologies and forces are effectively creating ’new parliaments’ amongst the people.

Regarding the rapidity of change, the answer here lies in modernisation theory. We had all these predictions in the past about the inability of traditional monarchies and old political systems that were always likely to face pressure in the face of these new forces of technology. Those predictions were largely wrong due to favourable economic circumstances in the past decades and the sort of fudges that the rulers have been able to come up with whereby they have been able to combine elements of autocratic rule with modern resources, which is one of the things I try to describe in the early chapters of the book. In the later chapters of the book I try to show how those pillars are now being knocked out from underneath the rulers one by one. The most telling sign that we are now entering the final chapter of the traditional monarchies is that they are becoming increasingly willing to use police state strategies, whereas previously repression was never really a primary element of their control and survival. But now we are entering an era where it seems that their other sources of legitimacy are either eroding or even in the process of being destroyed. As a consequence we see increasing numbers of political prisoners, censorship of the media and so on.

ALEX DOHERTY: In the book you talk about how the GCC states are becoming increasingly belligerent regarding Iran and are increasing their covert cooperation with Israel. Why do you think that is occurring given the risk, that you describe yourself, of inflaming domestic opinion because of the obvious unpopularity of Israel in the region?

CHRISTOPHER DAVIDSON: I think there are two parts to that answer. Firstly, if we consider the domestic social contract, or ruling bargain, between the rulers and their citizens – that was carefully developed over several decades. But we are now seeing how many of these rulers, facing this unprecedented wave of pressures, have started to abandon the social contracts their fathers built up and favouring instead easy quick solutions: repression, censorship, riot police and so on. The same argument can also be extended to their external relations. Previous rulers of the Gulf were well aware of the need to have carefully balanced foreign relations in the region. As small, resource rich powers, which have never had to actually take part in major conflict in spite of all the weapons they have bought, the policy was always to avoid antagonising their larger neighbours and of course to display solidarity with the rest of the Arab and Muslim world – especially when it came to Israel. So the boycott of Israel is still in place today and perspectives on Israel on the part of the average Gulf citizen remains very negative. However, we have governments which are again taking the easy option in the face of pressure. One of the easiest ways to keep the US on board is to play into the US game on Iran, supporting US sanctions, continuing to purchase American weaponry and thereby creating this de facto arms race in the region. And of course enjoying increasingly warm relations with America's historically strongest ally in the Middle East – Israel. There is also the political economy argument which points out that Israel is of course the most advanced economy in the region and represents strong lucrative trade interests to the Gulf monarchies. My own view is that the former is more important, that this is more about alliance building and maintaining good relations with the United States.

ALEX DOHERTY: What is the significance of the developing thaw between the United States and Iran. What are the implications of this development for the GCC states?

CHRISTOPHER DAVIDSON:There are several implications for Saudi Arabia.  Not only may Iranian oil reach international markets once again, thus lowering oil prices and the ability of Saudi to balance its budget, but it will also make it harder for Saudi Arabia to keep portraying Iran as some sort of rogue or demon state to the US and its other western allies.  Within the region, it will also make it harder for Saudi Arabia to achieve its objectives in countries such as Syria, as it becomes less and less clear that the US will necessarily support its position in any proxy war against Iran.  With regards the smaller GCC states, Iran’s rapprochement with the US perhaps offers some opportunity, not least with improved trade ties.  Oman of course played a key role in brokering the US deal, and the ruler of Dubai has already welcomed Iran’s forthcoming perestroika.

ALEX DOHERTY: Perhaps one of the most surprising thing in the book is your description of the inter-state rivalry between the Gulf states. I say surprising because I think the perception is that the GCC states have collaborated very effectively to block a Gulf Arab spring. Could you describe the nature of that rivalry between the GCC states?

CHRISTOPHER DAVIDSON: These are in many ways historic rivalries that go back to the 18th and 19th centuries. We don't have to look too far into the past to see very direct interference in each other's business. For example when in Qatar, in the 1990s, there was a change of leadership – a son taking over from his father –neighbouring Gulf states tried to get the father back on the throne. There are countless other examples in recent decades. So we see lingering border disputes which really matter now, especially when it comes to oil and gas concessions. In many ways there is no love lost between these states but they had to form the Gulf Cooperation Council in the 1981 in order to fend off existential threats – namely possible attack by Iraq or Iran. The GCC continues to function of course, though often just in name. We have seen a lot of recent actions in the wake of the Arab spring which are often described as GCC manoeuvres such as the deployment of troops into Bahrain in 2011, the opening up of GCC funding to Jordan, Morocco and Oman in the wake of the Arab spring to keep the traditional monarchies in control. In many cases it's been a bit of a circus - we see that it's primarily Saudi and UAE funding, which is then labelled as ’the GCC’.

ALEX DOHERTY: How optimistic are you about radical change in the Gulf. Do you expect to see a victory of more progressive forces? The regimes of course claim that any change will lead to radicalisation and the elevation of more radical Islamist elements (which does not seem entirely implausible given developments in Syria). Do you think there is a danger of the emergence of something worse than the existing regimes?

CHRISTOPHER DAVIDSON: The book is not necessarily a book about revolution, though that is one possible outcome. What the book tries to show is that there is this window over the next three or four weeks where we are going to see some kind of significant change, though we don't know exactly what that change will be. The book more or less predicts that the traditional monarchies in their present shape and form will be gone or will be under severe pressure.  Since the book was published we have already seen that pressure make itself apparent – most obviously in Bahrain. There is a window of opportunity that could, in the most peaceful and smooth transition scenario, lead to traditional monarchies retreating to constitutional monarchies. Now before I published the book I had strong hopes for countries, like Kuwait for example, where we have many of the political structures and institutions of a constitutional monarchy already in place: a parliament, an electoral system and some semblance of separation between the justice system and the executive. However, unfortunately almost every indicator in Kuwait over the past year suggests it is going to go the way of its neighbours. So we have this window of opportunity to retreat to constitutional monarchies but unfortunately all the signs are that the monarchs are not going to take that path. We've seen massive ramping up of police state strategies in tandem with massive public spending over the last two years which has put many of these countries on course to bankrupting themselves, or at least sending them into public spending deficits in the next two or three years.

As to the other part of the question: what might happen next - I'm quite optimistic. I believe in modernisation and I believe in youth. We have now a substantial population in this region of young people, many of whom who are already accessing and participating in globalising communications technologies, probably at a more progressive level than people in the west. In fact in the Gulf we probably have a superior social media structure than anywhere else in the world. There's certainly this counter-argument that we're going to see scary big-bearded fundamentalists  - Al Qaeda states forming in the vacuum that's left by the strong men who were able to keep the population in line and hold the line against Iran.

What we've seen from all of the Gulf monarchies, since they have begun to experience these enormous pressures, is to ring alarm bells with their western allies. We've seen them go for the loudest sounding alarm bell that they think will wake up Washington and London. In Bahrain and Saudi Arabia the alarm bell has been the claim of an Iran-backed Shia population threatening the stability of those states (in Bahrain and the eastern provinces of Saudi the majority are Shia). The UAE would have loved to use the sectarian angle, the Iran angle – if they could. The problem they have is that their population is much more homogenous – they don't have this Sunni-Shia divide. Instead they have picked on another foreign bogeyman – the Egyptian Muslim brotherhood, which explains the mass show trial that's taking place in the country at the moment. Of course these strategies are riddled with inconsistencies – in Kuwait we have a largely boycotted parliament where loyalist Shia MPs are very much helping to form the backbone of the Emir's support base. So these sectarian strategies, these invocations of bogeymen, really have very little connection to reality.

ALEX DOHERTY: You've talked a little bit about the role of the United States in buttressing the GCC states but in your book you also talk about the role of the British and the French – could you describe what role they have been playing in the region?

CHRISTOPHER DAVIDSON: Well it's difficult to find a polite answer here. The US is playing the role of a world power of course, which means it's not just interested in trade and natural resources – it's also thinking about the long term. It's thinking about its future relations with Iran, its relations with all of the Gulf monarchies, and the presence of its military bases in these countries. In the US especially as the US becomes more hydrocarbon self-sufficient (which causes great concern, rightly, for the Gulf monarchies) we have started to see them play, predictably, a more hedging strategy. In Bahrain for example, last summer, we had the Bahraini cabinet declare that they intend to limit the level of interference of the US ambassador in their country. In other words the US ambassador, it would seem, has been opening up channels of communication with the Bahrain opposition and other opposition movements in the Gulf. Britain and France are no longer playing the role of world powers anymore in the Gulf and have not for several decades. They are still portraying themselves to Gulf monarchies as world powers – drawing on historical links and legacies. But in effect they are just trade missions trying to secure hydrocarbon interests, trade deals – and unfortunately a substantial part of that trade is still the weapons industry. So it is in France and Britain's interest to keep this current antagonistic foreign policy of the Gulf monarchies towards Iran very much alive. British and French foreign policy in the Gulf seem to be about ringfencing the region from the broader Arab spring, more than happy as they are to buy into oriental exceptionalist arguments as to why monarchy is different to Arab authoritarian republics. This means of course that France and Britain are creating untold long term damage, especially in the eyes of the Arab youth. In Bahrain for example Britain is regarded with deep suspicion at best and this is entirely understandable as the British government's position on Bahrain can hardly be described as neutral and the same could be said for the other Gulf states.

ALEX DOHERTY: Regarding specifically Saudi Arabia – how do you feel that the dominance of the religious establishment in the country will effect the process of change, given the historic quid pro quo between the monarchy and the religious authorities?

CHRISTOPHER DAVIDSON: Saudi Arabia is a much more complicated country to make predictions about, not least because of the historic alliance between the ruling family and the religious establishment. What we've seen in the wake of the Arab spring is the ruling family playing a very dangerous game. On the one hand they are clearly trying to co-opt the religious establishment into prolonging their authoritarian rule. We have had key figures in the religious establishment, including the grand mufti in Riyadh, declare that protests are illegal and un-Islamic etc, make pro-Mubarak statements in the midst of the Egyptian revolution and so on. On the other hand, though, the ruling family is also caught in a vice – they have powerful opposition movements at play in the country, both regionally based – from liberals and other quarters too. Many of these groups are pressing the Saudi ruling family to try to create some distance from the religious establishment. There are very clear signs that the ruling family are trying to limit the powers of the religious police for example. This of course is like playing with a stick of dynamite. We're likely to see several different factions emerge, some will be regionally based, some will be drawn along lines of religious conservatism with great concern about what the ruling family is now doing. While other groups will be continuing to pressure the ruling family to do something about the religious establishment.

ALEX DOHERTY: The Gulf states are of course notorious for their extremely repressive treatment of women – how are things changing, if at all, in this regard?

CHRISTOPHER DAVIDSON: It really depends on which Gulf state you are looking at. In Saudi what we have noticed in the last couple of years is how the ruling family has tried to gain political legitimacy from improving women's rights. Of course they are not real improvements but rather a case of parachuting women into governmental positions – including the thirty or so women who were appointed to the very toothless talking shop parliament that Saudi Arabia currently has. These “advances” are essentially decisions made by the ruling family and the patriarchy rather than an organic bottom up improvement of women's rights. As for the other smaller Gulf states, the rights of women have improved in recent years and with new governments and constitutional monarchies we can expect further improvements. Many of the manifestoes being prepared by opposition movements in the smaller Gulf states have made it clear that women will be playing a key role in these countries in future. And of course these opposition movements are keen to make their countries subscribe to the basic international human rights protocols which include women's rights.

ALEX DOHERTY: The Gulf states have taken a more aggressive approach towards Syria than the United States – what is the significance of the partial divergence between the US and the GCC states regarding Syria?

CHRISTOPHER DAVIDSON: The GCC states are disappointed that the US is unwilling to militarily intervene on their behalf (as has happened in the past, most notably with the liberation of Kuwait).  There is a sense that the billions of dollars they have spent on expensive (but ultimately useless and unused) Western armaments was a waste of time if it didn’t guarantee Western intervention as and when needed.  Given that the GCC states, and especially Saudi Arabia, find themselves engaged in a bloody and seemingly endless proxy war with Assad, they fear that the war will eventually reach their borders.  After all, Assad will not easily forgive the GCC for providing arms and financial support to rebel groups – including various extremists.  Meanwhile, from the US’ perspective, it cannot afford to back the wrong side.  If, as is increasingly likely, the various extremist rebel groups end up posing a greater threat to US security interests, then Assad’s regime will likely be judged the lesser of two evils.

Doherty is a co-founder of New Left Project.

This article originally published by New Left Project is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 License.

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