A Crisis Waiting to Happen: Book Review of Christopher M. Davidson’s ‘After the Sheikhs’


In an important new book Durham University fellow Christopher M. Davidson, author of many books on the Gulf, sets out to explain why despite all the modernising forces that has transformed the Gulf kingdoms, the royal dynasties have still survived. He argues that their continued existence can be explained because they have a ‘social contract’ between them and their citizens, where they distribute the largesse of the hydrocarbon wealth to the benefit of the people who support them in turn. This has allowed them to remain in power despite the transformative modernising forces that sociological theory argues ought to have swept them away long ago. He argues, however, that their rule may not last much longer.

Davidson gives persuasive reasons to suggest that the current models of legitimacy are unsustainable with the looming loss of hydrocarbon reserves and increasing domestic energy consumption. This means that the hitherto enormous public sector spending is economically unsustainable. It seems that the days of keeping their side of the bargain are limited. He concludes by claiming that this will lead to the ‘collapse’ of some if not all of the kingdoms in the next two to five years (Davidson, 2012, p. 2).

The book has rightly attracted positive book reviews and commentary (Black, 2012) (Hussein, 2012) (Sardar, 2013) (Lynch, 2012). While it’s been generally well received, many have voiced doubts on Davidson’s prediction. Unfortunately much of the criticism, as well as praise, suffer from being nebulous and vague. This review attempts to give rigour and substance to the book’s shortcomings, whilst arguing that its overall thesis is convincing.

In part I, the review highlights what Davidson does so successfully and its importance. The book identifies the core problem facing the Gulf kingdoms, the question of creating legitimacy, explaining how it’s been managed so far, and why the current models of maintaining it, especially now in the light of the Arab Spring, are unsustainable. In part II, it is suggested that the book is too quick in predicting the fall of the Gulf kingdoms, and that such a conclusion cannot be sustained from the theoretical framework Davidson employs. Furthermore too little detail is given of what might happen afterwards and too little role for the kingdoms and external actors to react against events that might threaten them or their interests.

Part I – A Question of Legitimacy

The central thesis of ‘After the Sheikh’ is wholly convincing. Davidson directly confronts the core dilemma facing the all of the Gulf Monarchies, in Samuel D. Huntingdon’s apt phrase ‘the King’s dilemma’; how can the monarchies maintain legitimacy in their rule in an age when their peoples won’t accept any political system to be legitimate save a participatory one. More precisely, how can absolute monarchs maintain legitimacy and survive, if their subjects will accept only popular sovereignty in a normative representative democracy. Davidson not only highlights the extent of the problem, he also successfully explains how the monarchies have managed it thus far, and why it has become suddenly so acute.

Davidson argues convincingly that the legitimacy these kingdoms have presently enjoyed has been in large part because of the ‘rentier model’. This model explains how the regimes distribute enough of the largesse of the kingdoms’ hydrocarbon reserves to their citizens, and they in turn are generally supportive and subservient. This is the Gulf kingdoms’ grand ‘ruling bargain’. However, with the looming reality that the region’s hydrocarbons will soon run out, coupled with the increasing energy consumption of domestic consumption means that current levels of high net public spending can no longer be sustained. The populace will no longer be able to be bribed into quietude.

The transformative forces are also hard to argue against. These forces include globalisation, increase in an educated middle classes, internet, social media, satellite TV, as well as inviting the world to your doorstep to buy property amongst others. This has led to a population cut off from the rest of the world, susceptible to new ideas of democracy, popular sovereignty, representation, human rights etc. This has led to a more empowered populace, casting off their ‘characteristic’ docility that many commentators had mistakenly typified the region with and the Arabs in general.

It seems that with the ‘grand bargain’ threatened from both sides, with the looming decline of hydrocarbon reserves and a more empowered citizenry, the contract that sustained the Gulf kingdoms’ legitimacy up to now has an effective expiry date. Neither do they have precious alternative sources of legitimacy. The Gulf kingdoms, as Davidson describes have at best problematic histories. In one sense, the kingdoms are in a more perilous state than the much poorer Hashemite kingdom of Jordan or the King of Morocco, both of whom can claim descent from the family of the Prophet Muhammad, with the latter’s family having ruled Morocco for the last four hundred years. In that sense Davidson is correct that change is ‘inevitable’.

Of course the question of legitimacy is not one that afflicts monarchies alone. Amongst the many things the Arab Spring has done, is given its peoples the courage to believe that sovereignty rightly belongs to them. For some, more surprising still is the belated embracing of democracy in the Middle East, many observers, see for example the late Elie Kedourie (Kedourie, 1992), had after all argued that Arab peoples were at best ambiguous towards democracy. After the Spring, in this new political climate certain questions have proved stubborn, if legitimacy resides only in popular sovereignty how can the existence of authoritarian dictatorships be justified? More incongruously still, how can the existence of absolute monarchies be justified?

Part II

While Davidson’s central thesis is wholly convincing, certain elements can be disputed. Questions can be raised whether the crisis will occur in the predicted timeframe, and whether the ruling elite will manage the crisis in the manner which Davidson assumes.

A question of method

Employing modernisation theory, Davidson persuasively argues that the declining level of hydrocarbon reserves will lead to increasing difficulty for the kingdoms to keep their part of the ‘ruling bargain’ with their citizens. Modernising forces, such as globalisation, the use social media, satellite TV, internet etc., has led to calls for political reforms and greater representation become increasingly shrill. These transformative forces have also led to a greater intolerance by the citizenry to the increasingly brutal repression employed by these regimes to regulate dissent. This in turn further undermines the legitimacy these kingdoms enjoy as ‘benevolent guardians’ of their people. Davidson suggests that these factors have been building up for a while and have now come to a head and further catalysed by external factors such as the Arab Spring that has swept away regimes in other parts of the Middle East.

While Davidson’s employment of modernisation theory is insightful and persuasive, it is doubtful whether the theoretical sociological framework can sustain Davidson’s bold conclusion. Similar to all sociological theories that emphasise larger forces, the sense of inevitability that modernisation theory induces is at the expense of a loss of agency amongst various actors to influence events. Consequently it may lead one to underestimate the capacity of these kingdoms to adapt and postpone the ‘inevitable’. Davidson also by concentrating on the internal workings of these countries alone, is led to underemphasise the role and capacity of external actors to fortify the kingdoms’ resilience in the face of turbulence that is buffering the region.

Too much faith in ‘domino effect’

Davidson also argues that the kingdoms are susceptible to a domino theory. This theory predicts that the survival of all of the kingdoms is only as strong as the most brittle of them. This domino theory suggests that the collapse of one kingdom will, at the very least, threaten the illusion of ‘invincibility’ that somehow ‘monarchies are different’ and are here to stay. This is a key pillar that the dynasties depend on in enthralling their subjects. Hence, it is suggested that the loss of such an illusion would lead to an irreversible loss of legitimacy, ultimately ‘lead to the collapse of the Gulf monarchies, or at least most of them in their present form’ (Davidson, 2012, p. 2).

Whilst there certainly is something to this theory, the conclusion can be overstated. Let us say the first domino had fallen and given lie to the idea that ‘monarchies are different’, why suppose this will lead to an irresistible surge towards democracy? It certainly would lead to a loss in the belief of the ‘invincibility’. But a loss of legitimacy ought not be equated with the fall of a regime. Were one monarchy to fall it is unlikely that the others would simply keel over, even supposing for a moment Saudi Arabia would do nothing. Even if one would fall, the other kingdoms would be forced to stake their survival on confronting the crisis, and with access to great internal as well as external resources whose to suggest they will be unsuccessful?

The thesis is then perhaps too quick to suggest that the fall of one will precipitate the fall of another. This is why, though the domino theory is useful, its usefulness can be exaggerated. It’s guilty of the same defect that afflicts modernisation theory, it fails to give adequate manoeuver for the regimes’ ability to react to and influence events.

The ambiguity of ‘collapse’

While the prediction is bold, it is fairly ambiguous of how exactly these kingdoms will fall, or what that would amount to. We know that a collapse can take on a lot of different forms. It could be similar to the Assads and the armed insurrection in Syria, a power sharing platform like Kuwait, or even the formation of aspirational Western liberal states similar to what happened after the fall of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe that could lead to a rash of new constitutional monarchies in the Gulf. Of course Davidson is wise not to generalise, not least because the Gulf comprises a number of different countries, which despite their similarities, have their own peculiar dynamics which Davidson’s book is so adept in revealing.

That still does not remove the feeling that ‘collapse’ is too strong a word. It plays on an exaggerated dichotomy between absolute power or none at all, and as the examples show the reality is likely to be more complex. It’s also unclear whether the ‘collapse’ of these monarchies would actually lead to a substantive loss of power. After all what would it have to take for a dynasty’s collapse of power be complete?

Monarchies have more survival strategies

Of course in one sense monarchies are ‘different’, at least compared to the authoritarian regimes that were swept away by the initial revolutions of the Arab Spring. As Chatham House Fellow Jane Kinninmont observes, ‘monarchies have more options for power-sharing. There is value in the idea that monarchies have a range of options to develop their political systems in an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, manner.’ (Kinninmont, 2012) These options include having more tools available to preserve their rule as long as possible. What would stop one of the kingdoms finally relenting to or, more surprising still, pre-empting popular pressure and introduce liberal reforms or the facade of them. In the name of a gradualist approach, say to avert the gridlock afflicting Egypt or the carnage of Syria, they could, like Morocco seems successfully have done (Pelham, 2012) (Mandraud, 2013) (Alsaden, 2012), introduce reforms that actually buys the regimes another five, ten or even twenty five years?

It ought to be borne in mind there is nothing in modernisation theory to suggest of imminent collapse. Davidson acknowledges that such a situation can only arise from a ‘perfect storm’ of events, which in comparison to the initial wave of the Arab Spring seems to have receded or at least lessened in its intensity. The initial speed of revolutions is often forgotten, which caught all unaware. The monarchies and their allies will be alert and very much aware of the reality of the existential significance that threatens, and they’re likely to be more prepared. It is too quick therefore to discount that the monarchies have little or no room for manoeuvre. More interestingly, in my mind at least, is that Davidson assumes that even if these options were available, these kingdoms lack the ability or willingness to adapt and seize them. It would be interesting to hear Davidson elaborate on his reasons for such a prognosis.

The assumption of passivity of invested external actors

Davidson’s forensic analysis reveals the soft power strategies these Gulf kingdoms employ to entwine Western regimes to their own domestic and foreign security policy. For example he cites the incredibly high proportion of GDP that is spent on Western defence contracts, amounting to what Davidson calls an effective ‘protection racket’. The loss of such dynasties and the potential change of policy could lead to substantial economic losses for the various Western military-industrial complexes. It is also unlikely no link exists between the conspicuous silence from the American government on the Bahrain protests, and the fact that America’s Fifth Fleet is harboured there. However the book’s account of Western interests and other external actors is still far too passive. There is a strong argument to be made that the survival of the regimes converges with Western interests. It is therefore unlikely that they will remain passive if such interests are threatened.

One of the more unpalatable aspects of the Arab Spring, and to the active distaste of some commentators, is that none of the countries in the Middle East are liberal states in waiting. Sizable majorities in the Middle East recognise religion as a source of laws and disagree only in their specific implementation. Hence were the Gulf monarchies to transform into democracies it is likely that the Islamists who have swept other parts of the Arab world will become an electoral force in the Gulf as well. Because of this many Western educated Arabs lament that their countries ‘may not be ready for democracy’. This reality explains why many in the West, across the political spectrum, find themselves uncomfortably sympathetic to such undemocratic sentiments.

It has also been a reason why Western democratic governments have, in the name of ‘stability’, stayed either silent or actively complicit in the suppression of political reform and human rights of the Middle East. Many commentators have not been slow to baptise the Arab Spring as an ‘Islamist Winter’. Whether these fears are exaggerated or not, it is commonly accepted that more representative governments would be more susceptible to a populace who are far less amenable, hostile even, to Western interests and policies. Israel is unlikely to be happy with the prospect of being surrounded by Islamist controlled governments. It’s safe to say that the possibility of the world’s greatest concentration of readily accessible reserves of hydrocarbons to be controlled by potentially hostile Islamist democracies is not a prospect that Western policy makers look forward to.

In different ways then, Western interests have become implicated in these regimes’ survival and invested in the stability of the region. This explains why many of these kingdoms face little or no international pressure from the West and are given effective license to repress any forms of dissent, especially when considering the alternative. These are also persuasive reasons to believe that they will actively fortify the resilience of these kingdoms were one to fall, or assist them with anything that would threaten their survival.

Despite criticisms the value of the book should not be belied. Davidson’s ‘After the Sheikhs’ is erudite, fascinating and crammed full of valuable insights. Whilst it’s bold prediction on the exact timing and form of the Gulf Kingdom’s collapse is open to disagreement, the thoroughness of his research and sophisticated use of theory leads to no uncertain conclusions that the Gulf kingdoms will not be able to keep the ‘ruling bargain’ for much longer. They will soon be forced to rely on different tactics to perpetuate their rule. Any criticisms therefore ought not distract our gaze from the impending crisis that his book so effectively describes. The core problem remains; how do these kingdoms maintain legitimacy when the oil runs out?

Without any quick answers it seems that for the Gulf kingdoms theirs’ is a crisis waiting to happen. Keen observers in the region should be aware that whilst Davidson’s book may not have the final say regarding the future of the Gulf, no conversation can count itself informed in ignorance of it.

This article was originally published at Some Thoughts on the 17th of June 2013.

Faheem Hussain is an education professional, having taught a variety of subjects including teaching History, Citizenship, and Religious Studies amongst others. He speaks four languages and obtained his BA Arabic and Islamic Studies (Hons.) from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, a PGCE in Religious Studies from Roehampton University, and a MA Philosophy at Heythrop College, London. He tweets at @FaheemHus, and blogs occasionally at Some Thoughts.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of MENA etc.


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