After The Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies

2014-12-02 - 6:04 p

Christopher Davidson

"After the Sheikhs", Arabic-edition introduction, published by Awal Centre for Studies and Documentation

First published in English in 2013 by Hurst and then Oxford University Press, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies is now in its fourth imprint. It has been reviewed widely by the international media, with articles appearing in The Economist, The Independent, The Guardian, and many other leading newspapers and magazines. Sections of the book have also been adapted and published by Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, and earlier in 2014 a Farsi language edition was published in Tehran. As 2014 draws to a close I am delighted to endorse this official Arabic translation of After the Sheikhs, which I hope will help the book's ideas reach an even wider and more critical audience. 

Much of course has already changed since the book's first edition, as the Persian Gulf region and the broader Arab world continue to face unprecedented turbulence in the wake of the 2011 Arab Spring. On an external level there have been the dangerous and divisive efforts by certain powers, many of them Gulf monarchies, to extinguish the burst of Arab cosmopolitanism and the glimpse of the new Arab political order that we were so privileged to witness on Tahrir Square and in so many other Arab cities over the course of that year. These extinguishing efforts, to my mind, are best understood as emanating from three camps: firstly an outright counter-revolutionary axis headed by Riyadh and Abu Dhabi that seeks the support and installation of fresh dictatorships - most notably in Egypt - so as to undermine attempts to set up more representative governments in the region; secondly a ‘fake' pro-democracy camp funded by Qatar's vast resources and backed by Turkey's great clout - they appear to be using existing political Islam organizations as a reactionary mechanism to also engineer outcomes in the region that seem far from the spirit of the Arab Spring; and thirdly a ‘resistance camp' including Syria's Al-Assad regime, the beleaguered Baghdad government, along with Iran and its allies - all of which were caught wrong-footed by the Arab Spring and have not only had to withstand domestic pressures and uprisings, but also the opportunistic advances of both the counter-revolutionary and reactionary axes who have seen a golden chance to remove their old enemies. Meanwhile, the international community has been alarmed by the rise of the mysterious Islamic State, which is undoubtedly the nastiest manifestation so far of the counter-Arab Spring efforts and likely connected to one or more of these camps.

Similarly on a domestic level, the ground is also shifting fast from under the feet of the Gulf monarchies. Although After the Sheikhs was never intended to be an exercise in crystal ball gazing, I am grimly aware that many of the arguments I put forward back in early 2013 are now sadly proving valid. Notably, the attempts by these regimes to ‘contain' the Gulf's own version of the Arab Spring have now led to mass and unprecedented repression, with political arrests having mushroomed in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, and even the United Arab Emirates - once the ‘relatively liberal' darling of the Western powers. Even a critical ‘tweet' will now land a young Gulf national behind bars. This emergence of ‘police states' in the Gulf at a time of rapid modernization and powerful new communications technologies will very soon have serious consequences for the social contracts and legitimacy formulas of the various rulers. Perhaps even more dangerously, the strategy of ‘demonizing' opposition discussed in After the Sheikhs is now clearly spiralling out of control with both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia actively provoking sectarian conflict, while the UAE and Qatar are now in a full blown cold war with each other on how to deal with political Islam - with Abu Dhabi viewing the Muslim Brotherhood as a terror organization while Doha continues to view it as a necessary counterweight to Saudi regional hegemony. Finally on the economic front, efforts to diversify away from oil and gas exports have still come to nothing, with almost all of the Gulf monarchies still hurtling towards the point at which their government spending - massively increased since the Arab Spring - outstrips their declining oil revenues. The subject of my October 2013 article in the New York Times, the now fast-falling oil prices in the wake of huge advances in US oil production has meant the situation is deteriorating perhaps even more rapidly than I had earlier expected in After the Sheikhs, with now more than half of these states having ‘breakeven' oil prices that are much higher than the current price of oil. Very soon, perhaps within the next few months, we will see many of the Gulf monarchies have to cut back sharply on subsidies and other wealth transfers to its citizens - an event horizon that will have a profound and likely irreversible impact on their legitimacy and popularity.

Dr. Christopher M. Davidson, Durham, November 2014

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