A debate currently playing out between Middle East specialists/academics portends the downfall of Gulf rulers in keeping with the so-called Arab Spring that has turned out to be anything but. Leading the doom-merchants is author and former assistant professor at Zayed University Christopher Davidson, who has recently an update of his controversial book titled ‘After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies’. His prediction that leaderships will imminently topple like a house of cards has its basis in wishful thinking, argues Linda S. Heard.
During the first half of the last century, political commentators were predicting that Gulf States would fall to communism which never happened. More than 40 years ago, the book ‘Arabia without Sultans’ portraying a caricature of a sheikh in a vat of oil on its cover, written by Professor Fred Halliday caused a stir. It argued that the sheikhs were in danger from burgeoning social conflict that, to date, has failed to manifest. Despite being a frequent visitor to the region, he failed to accurately read the tealeaves, as I believe Davidson and others of like mind, including the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS), are currently doing.
Davidson’s original thesis expounded in 2009 that Gulf monarchies would cease to exist within a decade has already proved erroneous; in the latest version he sticks out his neck with a new timeline of two-to-five years. His argument is two-fold. The first is based on what he calls “internal pressures” such as rapidly expanding populations able to communicate via social media and a reduction in oil revenues that will impact such state benefits as free medical and educational facilities.
The second premise revolves around “a contagion effect” from the revolutionary wave shaking the Middle East and North Africa combined with Iran’s growing hostility towards Gulf States, citing the unrest in Bahrain as an example. Daniel Brumberg, co-director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University, writing on the topic for POMEPS goes a step further. He describes “Arab autocracies” as “a protection racket” offering nationals “a haven from the uncertainties of open democratic process” while using the threat from Islamists to instill populations with fear.
Those arguments don’t hold up on multiple levels. They ignore cultural unity, hundreds of years of traditional tribal loyalties, and the fact that, unlike citizens of Arab republics, repressed and deprived of basic necessities by dictators, Gulf nationals enjoy personal freedoms and superior standards of living that are the envy of the rest of the world. Gulf States have succeeded in marrying broadly conservative societies with modernisation and have successfully adapted to the changing needs of their people. It’s true that oil is a dwindling resource but the rulers have wisely invested in trade, commerce, banking, manufacturing, tourism – enterprises that will sustain growth long after the last drops of black gold are excavated.
Sean L. Yom, assistant professor of science at Temple University, believes that Gulf monarchies are here to stay for the foreseeable future primarily because “they resonate with the religious and tribal values of Arab culture” and “therefore, enjoy legitimacy”. He gets it but then he spoils it all by maintaining that Arab monarchies are exceptional because “they are beneficiaries of geological fortune, geographic providence and strategic attention from outside powers”. That last statement may contain a kernel of truth, but doesn’t explain why Gulf rulers were revered and respected – in many cases loved in a paternalistic sense – during the pre-oil era when their people were overwhelmingly poor and Britain and the US courted the Shah’s Iran.
It seems to me that Western academics ignore the emotional equation; they fail to tap into the admiration most Gulf nationals, including the youth, feel for their leaders and how much they appreciate the continuity they provide. When Gulf sheikhs decide upon a course of action to benefit the country, they are able to see it through to completion without the obstruction of partisan party politics, the need to offer sops to their political base or getting caught in the diversion of pre-election campaigning.
Westerners tend to be mesmerized by the idea of democracy as the panacea for all ills even where ills are nothing but a figment of their imagination. Nowhere is perfect, but there’s no getting away from it, Gulf nationals are better off than most other Arabs, if not most nationals of Western democracies where soup kitchens are mushrooming along with civil unrest. The process, in this case the democratic process, is less important than the outcome. In other words, the taste and nutritious value of the pudding is more important than how it’s made.
In any case, the supposition that Gulf leaderships are autocratic is skewed when rulers heed the concerns of tribal sheikhs, the heads of prominent families and religious leaders as well as national parliaments and councils. Indeed, governance throughout the Gulf is far more ‘democratic’ than elsewhere in the region where presidents and their immediate family members ruled with an iron fist while stuffing their own pockets with the fiscal purse.
Likewise, the belief of Davidson and others in the Arab Spring’s contagion effect is way off base. With few exceptions, can there be any Gulf national who looks enviously at ‘democratic’ Tunisia or Egypt en route to becoming theocracies? As I write, there are demonstrations all over Egypt calling for the country’s first ever democratically-elected president to go while Tunisia is paralyzed by a nationwide strike over the assassination of an opposition leader. As it happens, warnings from former presidents Ben-Ali and Mubarak of an Islamist take-over subsequent to their departure weren’t just empty threats to hold onto their chairs. There’s no denying that Bahrain has serious problems that may have been brought to a head during the Arab Spring, but civil dissent there isn’t a push for democracy; it’s rather an Iranian-instigated plot to bring the Shiite minority to power. The only real threat to the stability of the Gulf is from outside agitators and fifth columnists which are being dealt with appropriately by state security apparatuses.
I will leave you with wise words from Dr. Abdul Khaliq Abdullah, a political science professor, as written in the Gulf News. “What he [Christopher Davidson] fails to see is that forces of continuity are stronger than forces of change in this part of the Arab world. The prevailing political wisdom here still is that the old way is the best way…”