Hurst, £29.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, By Christopher M Davidson

Both medieval and modern, Gulf rulers thrive. But will the sands of time soon run out for them?

The place looks and feels unreal. That's the conclusion I reach every time I visit a Gulf state. It is not just the Disney World architecture, the obscene display of wealth, the ubiquitous presence of poor migrant labourers, the insidious racism of the natives, and the segregation and seclusion of the women. What really strikes you is the fact that the region is totally out of sync: the contradictions between imported hyper-modernity and the reactionary and anachronistic local traditions are just too stark. I always leave thinking, "This is not going to last long".

Indeed, reports of the demise of the Gulf monarchies began to circulate almost as soon as these states emerged during the early 20th century. Pressures from urbanisation, the demands of increasingly literate and educated populations, mass communication, and decline of religious values would transform them into modern democracies. There have been predictions of revolutions, internal collapse and popular uprisings.

Yet the Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain have proved remarkably resilient. The despotic kings, emirs and sheikhs have an uncanny ability not just to survive but thrive. They have even discovered a formula to graft seemingly modern institutions on to patriarchal and autocratic societies. So what is the secret of their survival?

There are numerous reasons. The support of Western powers, oil wealth and an effective secret police are among them. But in this exceptionally argued book, Christopher Davidson concentrates on the prime reason: the Gulf monarchies enjoy considerable legitimacy from their populations. The rulers and citizens are bound together in a system of traditional tribal loyalties. The citizens look up to their rulers, and see them as guardians of political stability, wealth, religious values and tribal culture. In return for their political acquiescence, the rulers shower them with generous subsidies, privileged positions in the public sector and lavish hand-outs.

The autocratic rulers have also been very adept at using traditional institutions to enhance their position and promote loyalty. An example is the old kafala system, which has its origins in slavery, practised widely in the Gulf. It requires foreign businesses to have a local sponsor. Gulf nationals are able to market themselves as sleeping partners to industrious foreign entrepreneurs. Many have become enormously wealthy without actually doing anything.

Kinship has also been used to create a network of loyalty. The royal families have expanded continuously, and have become so large that they now resemble large-scale political parties. The states operate as single party system, a self-regulating proto-institution.

This fine-tuned monarchical resilience, Davidson argues, cannot be sustained for much longer. Immense internal pressures are building up and the pressure-cooker is about to explode. Davidson marshals an impressive array of evidence: there is, to begin with, a rapidly increasing indigenous population, based on high fertility rates and excellent health care. In Saudi Arabia, 47 per cent of the population is under the age of 18, with 80 per cent under the age of 30, making the Saudi population one of the youngest in the world. It has grown up on a system of sponsorships and subsidies. Young citizens have little motivation to gain meaningful qualifications or enter a competitive job market. So they are in a permanent state of "voluntary unemployment".

The states are in no position to maintain cheap utilities, low-cost fuel and foodstuffs – the three basic types of subsidies. Oil revenues are either dwindling or have disappeared altogether. Dubai, Bahrain and Sharjah are now net oil importers. Abu Dhabi has only a few decades of reserves remaining. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are in a much stronger position but their exports will decline as domestic demands increase rapidly. Already, power cuts and long queues at patrol stations can be seen in Sharjah and Dubai.

The traditional behaviour and established policies of the monarchies add to their instability. Thus, Davidson suggests, the pathology of squandering wealth, state-sanctioned discrimination against minorities, the hostility against Iran, the secret alliance with Israel, and the increasingly problematic nature of Western security guarantees – all undermine the resilience of autocratic polities. Wholesale collapse is thus inevitable; it is only a matter of time. The regimes are as strong as the weakest link in their chain. That is why Saudi Arabia moved rapidly to help Bahrain suppress its uprising. I am keeping my fingers crossed and counting the days, hoping Davidson's forecast is more accurate than the previous ones.

Ziauddin Sardar is co-editor of the quarterly 'Critical Muslim'



Dermot O'Leary attends the X Factor Wembley Arena auditions at Wembley on August 1, 2014 in London, England.


Arts and Entertainment
At this year's SXSW festival in Austin, Texas

Music Why this music festival is still the place to spot the next big thing

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall

Mexican government reportedly paying Bond producers for positive portrayal in new filmfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Disney’s flying baby elephant is set to return in live-action format
filmWith sequels, prequels and spin-offs, Disney plays it safe... and makes a pachyderm
Arts and Entertainment
Nazrin with Syf, Camden
The QI Elves photographed at the Soho Theatre. They are part of a team of researchers who find facts for the television programme 'QI'.
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv0-star review: Sean O'Grady gives it his best shot anyway
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
    The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

    The saffron censorship that governs India

    Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

    Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
    Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

    How did fandom get so dark?

    Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
    The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

    Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
    The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

    Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

    Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
    Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

    Disney's mega money-making formula

    'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
    Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

    Lobster has gone mainstream

    Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
    Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

    14 best Easter decorations

    Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
    Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

    Paul Scholes column

    Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
    Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

    The future of GM

    The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
    Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

    Britain's mild winters could be numbered

    Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

    Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
    Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

    The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

    The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
    Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

    Cowslips vs honeysuckle

    It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower