Power and Politics in the Persian Gulf Monarchies
Edited by Christopher Davidson. London: Hurst and Co., 2012. 203 pp. £17.99, paper
Reviewed by Richard Phelps
Quilliam Foundation, London
Middle East Quarterly
Recent Middle Eastern upheavals have centered on the Mediterranean littoral, not the Persian Gulf—and with them the bulk of attention. Power and Politics in the Persian Gulf Monarchies remedies that deficit with a concise and informative volume about the six countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
The gulf states share a number of similar tendencies and challenges but operate in different contexts, thereby producing different results. Saudi Arabia—the powerhouse of the group—must necessarily adopt different approaches when accommodating the needs of its nearly thirty million subjects than neighboring Bahrain which hosts a population of under one million.
These differences notwithstanding, certain themes recur in all six essays: a reliance on hydrocarbon rents and imported labor and a concentration of power in the hands of hereditary monarchies. The issue of political succession presents uncertainties; though most states have designated heirs, formal systems scarcely exist to determine the procedure by which these successors are decided. While this affords an incumbent ruler flexibility, it also generates its own problems: in Saudi Arabia, none of the candidates are under sixty-five.
None of the states are stagnant, however, and all have repeatedly announced reforms to their systems in recent years. Yet as Jane Kinninmont notes in her essay on Bahrain, even the reformists present their changes as gifts bestowed upon subjects rather than rights earned or due a citizenry.
Bahrain did witness a significant rise in political tensions during 2011. The Sunni monarchy—with the assistance of other GCC states – crushed a nascent mobilization of the Shiite majority population. However, whereas the uprisings around the Mediterranean were characterized by the participation of forces that did not constitute the countries' traditional opposition currents, the same cannot not be said in Bahrain where the protests were led by the long-standing Shiite opposition.
Qatar is another anomaly: The country's natural gas stocks are abundant and enable the regime to placate its small domestic population, making it an unlikely candidate for domestic unrest. Yet in light of its adventurous foreign policy, Davidson boldly states that Qatar is the most likely to experience a coup or an invasion.
Unlike the republics now experiencing volatility—where earlier political and social change had been introduced quickly—the GCC states have become increasingly adept at resisting being confronted by instability. This is not to say that they do not face challenges, but that they have a longer time frame to respond to them and to head them off.
Related Topics: Persian Gulf & Yemen | Richard Phelps | Summer 2012 MEQ
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