Misreading the resilience of Gulf monarchies

Author Christopher Davidson’s central argument about the coming collapse is a confused reading of the contemporary history of the Arab Gulf states

By Abdulkhaleq Abdulla | Special to Gulf News
00:00 January 8, 2013

Fulminating about the demise of the relatively small oil-rich Arab Gulf monarchies has a long history that has been written time and again over the past 60 years. However, the six Arab Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman and the UAE have gracefully survived and adapted swiftly to the myriad internal and external challenges of the past six turbulent decades.

Speculations about the “collapse of the Arab Gulf monarchies’ have picked up steam in the past two years of the ongoing Arab Spring. However, no one has gone as far as Christopher Davidson who boldly claims in his 2012 book, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, that the decline of the kings, the emirs and the sultans of the Arab Gulf is not only inevitable, but anticipates it to happen in the near future, “no more than two to five year’s time”.

This provocative predication, made at the outset of the book, is enough for some to stop reading it. However, it is also an incentive to many to continue reading the book to the very end only to be disappointed that the author fails to provide compelling evidence to substantiate this outrageous claim. All the mounting internal pressure (declining oil reserves, rising population, growing unemployment, widening wealth gap, sectarian tensions and new waves of censorship) plus the external pressures (growing foreign population, western bases, antagonising Iran and strengthening relationship with Israel) discussed in chapters four and five are too simplistic to make a credible case for the coming collapse of the Gulf monarchies. This is a hasty reading of Arab Gulf realities. It underestimates the resilience of Gulf monarchies and ignores the fact that the legitimate foundations of these centuries-old ruling families are deep rooted and strong enough to give them solid protection to survive for many years to come.

Indeed, the main purpose of the book is to go on record as the first to predict the Gulf monarchies’ imminent collapse. This is a distinguished trade mark of Davidson’s recent political writings and his exaggerated media sound bites on Gulf affairs. The glossy cover of the book, which features the Gulf monarchies doomed in a ‘domino effect’ fashion, is the height of provocation. In this scenario, Davidson asserts: “If one Gulf state failed, then even the wealthiest and most confident rulers would find their position, or at least their legitimacy, under threat”.

No one these days believes the ‘domino effect’ theory of the 1960s any more. It has been proven wrong in Latin America, Asia and Africa and all over the developing world. It is wishful thinking to apply this outdated theory to the Gulf monarchies. They deserve not a provocative reading, but a more sophisticated and original conceptual framework.

Last week, the 30-year-old Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) reaffirmed its golden principle that any threat to one GCC state is a threat to all. GCC leaders have put this governing principle into action successfully in Bahrain in 2011. No one is allowed to go down and they have decided to bunch up together in good times and bad times. The domino effect theory makes the argument about the coming collapse of the Gulf monarchies mere wishful reading. Worst yet, Davidson, like many western scholars, is unable to get over the rentier state theory, which is another out-dated concept that does not address 21st century socio-political realities of the Arab Gulf states. These distant Gulf experts are stuck in the 1970s era, whereas the Gulf states have gone way beyond the simplistic assumptions of the rentier state. However, this theory is apparently the backbone of the ill-founded predication of the coming collapse of the Gulf monarchies by Davidson.

He claims in the closing chapter that the rentier states of the Gulf fail to meet the rising expectations of their agitated citizens, who are no longer as politically acquiescent. He also thinks that a new brand of political opposition is evolving, equipped with the new social media and aided by forces of the Arab Spring. What he 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. For the time being, the majority is satisfied with the status quo and value stability above anything else.

Does that leave the Arab Gulf states on the wrong side of history? This is a wrong question and another gross misreading. Today, the Gulf monarchies are comfortably at the driver’s seat and at the centre of Arab politics, taking the lead. They are full of resources and confidence and more daring than they have ever been. Of course time is tough and the Arab Gulf states are not taking the winds of change of 2011 lightly, but the Gulf monarchies have been through tough times before and survived. That is why Davidson’s central argument about the coming collapse is a confused reading of the contemporary history of the Arab Gulf states.

My advice is, read his book for the fun of it, but ignore the juicy prediction of the coming collapse of the Gulf monarchy.

Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla is a professor of political science. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Abdulkhaleq_UAE