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Coming Soon? The End of the Gulf Monarchies

Review of After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies,
by Christopher M. Davidson,
London, C. Hurst & Co., 2012, 224 pages.
Mary Ann Tetreault
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Christopher M. Davidson, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, London, C. Hurst & Co., 2012, 224 pages

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1Some assessments of the “Arab Spring” separate the Gulf monarchies (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) from the rest of the Arab world, seeing them as countries that have “escaped” or been “mostly unaffected” by it. Some nod in the direction of Bahrain as an exception, but dismiss its situation as under control thanks to military intervention by its neighbors and the passivity of the United States, which they say depends on the current regime to keep its naval base open and safe. On the other side are most of the specialists studying and residing in the Gulf. Many agree that the Arab Spring did not touch off the unrest characterizing current politics in most GCC states, but not as a result of bribes from their rentier states. Rather, it is because they can trace significant pressures for more open politics and economies much further back, in some cases to the early part of the twentieth century.

  • 1 See the GCC country cases in Mary Ann Tétreault, Gwenn Okruhlik, and Andrzej Kapiszewski (eds.), Po (...)

2 What Gulf specialists do see as the influence of the Arab Spring on domestic politics in the Gulf states are lessons learned. Opposition movements have adopted and adapted tactics such as gathering in prominent urban spaces like the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain or the Kuwait Towers along the seafront in recognition of the powerful symbolism of Egyptians gathering openly in the public urban space of Taḥrīr Square. But popular demands for dignity and civil status from unresponsive regimes and their core supporters, and a say in how their states should be governed are not new in any of them.1 What is new is the nakedness of the repression with which these demands have been met since the fall of the kleptocracies governing Tunisia and Egypt, and the gradual hardening of hearts on all sides. The Arab Spring seems to have taught all the wrong lessons to the leaders of GCC states.

  • 2 Examples include Michael Herb, All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in the Midd (...)

3 Before the Arab Spring, scholars were inclined to emphasize the resilience of the Gulf monarchies and their structural resistance to regime change.2 Christopher Davidson’s book reviews some of the reasons why such judgments seemed justified, tracing the development of the Gulf’s patrimonial states and how oil revenues kept them humming. Davidson is an expert on the UAE. He sees much of the stability that had characterized the Gulf states as a product of carefully crafted national identities, more difficult in the UAE federation than elsewhere, relying on the omnipresence of foreign guest workers to confirm the sense of entitlement citizens felt as a result of being a privileged group, distinguished by costume, accent, and lifestyle. The flow of oil revenues paid for a rising standard of living for Gulf citizens, providing them with free education, health care, utilities, free or subsidized housing, servants, and public-sector jobs that often meant doing no work at all. Despite income and distributional differences that translated into different levels of citizen entitlements across the region, with Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE on the high end and Oman, Saudi, and Shi`a in Bahrain on the other, the privilege of citizenship remained a clear and ever-present reminder of ruler largesse, giving rise to a large literature on the “rentier” state. Critiques from Islamist movements whose prestige and resources grew following the revolution in Iran and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, encouraged the rulers to co-opt those willing to be co-opted rather than to reform policy on a more sustainable and participatory basis.

  • 3 See, for example, Anh Nga Lonva, Walls Built on Sand: Migration, Exclusion, and Society in Kuwait, (...)

4 Hydrocarbons also ensured protection from rapacious neighbors by major powers that depended on Gulf oil and gas to run their giant economies. In return, Davidson describes how GCC governments used their financial resources pursuing soft-power strategies to forge links between their societies and those of the West. They invested surplus funds in government securities and capital-hungry (and often troubled) industries, endowed university chairs and fellowships, and invited — and subsidized — prestigious institutions from museums to universities to set up shop in the Gulf. Little in the way of criticism of their policies issued from Western governments, although NGOs like Human Rights Watch publicized civil liberties violations, repression of women and minorities, and the exploitation of the foreign workers, many trafficked with the connivance of Gulf citizens, who formed the other side of citizen privilege.3

  • 4 Shireen T. Hunter, “The Gulf Economic Crisis and Its Social and Political Consequences”, Middle Eas (...)

5 GCC reliance on oil revenues to keep the peace at home and abroad was threatened after the collapse of oil prices in the mid-1980s,4 most clearly illustrated in Kuwait when it demoted stateless residents (bidūn) from quasi-citizens to a few steps above illegal aliens in 1986, and by Iraq’s attempted takeover of Kuwait in 1990–91. Later, the abolition of regulations on commodity futures trading and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 pushed oil prices to levels that enabled the GCC states not only to resume their lavish spending but also to expand it. More of the same made many of the contradictions astute observers had already noted sharper and visibly destabilizing. The accumulation of contradictions explains Davidson’s pessimism about the future of the Gulf governments.

6 Domestic economic contradictions undermine the social contract promising high living standards in return for political quiescence. Generous contracts for well-connected regime supporters produce buildings with spectacular façades but few tenants, little fire protection, poor construction, and complaints about corruption. Expanding citizen populations and the rising numbers of foreign workers embody a nested contradiction in the form of labor markets with a surplus of unemployed citizens seeking easy, highly paid jobs in the public sector, and foreign workers who contribute to citizen unemployment by depressing wages in the private sector, a situation few citizens complain about. Free or subsidized housing has led to the mushrooming of gigantic homes — requiring even more household help to maintain and highly paid jobs to fill with consumer goods. Virtually free utilities and heavily subsidized food underpin an ethic of waste despite constrained supplies. Roads are choked with traffic, poorly staffed and maintained public hospitals are choked with patients. Most proposed solutions focus on denying benefits to foreigners, but do not address the larger structural deformations of rentierism.

  • 5 Andrew Torchia, “Shale Oil may Shift Economic Policies in Nervous Gulf,” Reuters, 6 March 2013, at (...)

7 GCC regimes also face larger, richer, and better-organized Islamist movements. So far they have been successful in keeping foreign allies in line by emphasizing the preferability of governance by themselves rather than by Islamists. This argument also appeals at home, especially to many women and members of the “wrong” sect(s). An even larger shadow on the future of the GCC comes from changes in energy markets, not only climate change which so far has had little success in changing consumption habits, but the bigger threat from the development of fracking technology that promises to turn North America into a hydrocarbon production zone that rivals the Gulf. In March 2013, an official from the UAE cautioned his colleagues about the threat to OPEC from rising U.S. oil and gas production.5

8 Inept governance and defaulting on the rentier social contract are certainly dangers for GCC regimes but as Davidson and others point out, it is their belief that their problems can best be solved by throwing money and security forces at them that is their Achilles heel. The Arab Spring changed the terms of political discourse. Citizens are demanding dignity: recognition of their civil rights, including their right to participate in governance and to know how the nation’s money is being spent; real jobs in a real economy; a future with more to look forward to than over-priced goods in high-end malls. Repression, government-promoted personality cults, and Disney-fied attempts at what Davidson calls “reorientalization” both insult dignity and reveal a hollowness in these regimes few suspected twenty years ago, when many hoped for and a few anticipated their democratic transformation into constitutional monarchies.

9 Davidson sees different levels of vulnerability to the forces of collapse, depending on the skill of the managers of rentierism and how long the money lasts. Even so, his outlook for the region is bleak because of the heavy-handedness of the response to what have so far been quite moderate demands. As events continue to unfold in persistent demonstrations and intemperate reactions to them, the Arab Spring in the Gulf is not turning out the way anyone expected.

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1 See the GCC country cases in Mary Ann Tétreault, Gwenn Okruhlik, and Andrzej Kapiszewski (eds.), Political Change in the Arab Gulf States: Stuck in Transition, Boulder, CO, Lynne Rienner, 2011.

2 Examples include Michael Herb, All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies, Albany, N.Y., SUNY Press, 1999, and several of the essays in Joseph Kostiner (ed.), Middle East Monarchies: The Challenge of Modernity, Boulder, CO, Lynne Rienner, 2000.

3 See, for example, Anh Nga Lonva, Walls Built on Sand: Migration, Exclusion, and Society in Kuwait, Boulder, CO, Westview Press, 1997.

4 Shireen T. Hunter, “The Gulf Economic Crisis and Its Social and Political Consequences”, Middle East Journal, 40(4), Autumn, p. 593-613.

5 Andrew Torchia, “Shale Oil may Shift Economic Policies in Nervous Gulf,” Reuters, 6 March 2013, at

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Mary Ann Tetreault, « Coming Soon? The End of the Gulf Monarchies », Arabian Humanities [En ligne], 2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 11 novembre 2013, consulté le 16 mai 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Mary Ann Tetreault

Cox Distinguished Professor Emerita of International Affairs, Trinity University

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