An expert's point of view on a current event.

Lords of the Realm

The wealthy, unaccountable monarchs of the Persian Gulf have long thought themselves exempt from Middle East turmoil. No longer.


As the history of the ruling dynasties of the Gulf monarchies seemingly begins its final chapter, or — in Bahrain’s case — final weeks, it’s worth pausing to consider where these families came from, how they ruled, and who’s who. So here’s a short guide to keeping your al-Khalifas straight from your al-Sauds, and avoid mixing up your al-Maktoums and your al-Thanis.

Of the current rulers, most had ancestors who were British creations. The 19th-century empire had been grappling with expensive far-flung colonies and preferred to make its new Persian Gulf dominions low-cost protectorates by signing peace treaties with whichever clan happened to be on top at the time. Britain provided signatory sheikhs with protection from all threats (including internal insurrection) in return for pledges to keep vital shipping lanes to India free from pirates. By the end of 1971, Britain had left the Gulf, but not before putting a new sultan on the Omani throne the year before, swapping Abu Dhabi’s ruler in 1966, and extricating Kuwait from Iraqi annexation in 1961. The al-Saud dynasty of the Arabian interior — a fierce Bedouin tribe from the unforgiving Nejd region — were, as an exception, largely disconnected from British interests. But by 1933, with the founding of the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), their fortunes became increasingly tied to Western interests as they filled out the political vacuum of the oil-rich peninsula.

Prospering in the post-imperial, latter part of the 20th century, the various dynasties of the Gulf consolidated their grips on power by establishing extensive social contracts or "ruling bargains" with their citizenry. By receiving a portion of the oil wealth in the form of subsidies, housing, welfare, and easy public-sector employment, the bulk of the indigenous population forwent political participation, while the masses of imported foreign workers enjoyed better salaries than at home, could be deported at any time, and could never aspire to citizenship. With this setup, the dynasties were able to shift quietly from their former role as time-honored tribal leaders to their present-day role as autocrats presiding over closed, censorious societies and police states with appalling human rights records and few structural differences from dictators elsewhere in the pre-2011 Arab world.

In many ways, with political parties mostly forbidden in the Gulf, the ever-expanding dynasties have become akin to large parties in a single-party system. With hundreds of members, and in Saudi Arabia’s case many thousands, they occupy most key government and business positions and are able — through shell companies — to take cuts in most substantial domestic enterprises and joint ventures with foreign companies. All receive annual "stipends" from the ruler himself, ranging from about $140,000 for lowly members of the Bahraini ruling family to far more substantial sums for members of the more affluent Abu Dhabi and Qatar dynasties. Much of this wealth — which future governments should try to recover given that it was derived from the region’s oil — has been secreted abroad, funding substantial properties in Western capitals and other destinations, both for leisure use and for setting up bolt-holes should the Gulf become unstable. Moreover, as proved time and again, the dynasties are often above the law, with it proving all but impossible to prosecute successfully senior members of ruling families in their home countries.

The al-Saud family, presiding over the largest of the Gulf states, deserves the most attention. Given its guardianship of the two holy shrines of Mecca and Medina, and a historic alliance with the Wahhabi movement, it has always maintained a conservative edge. This has been a blessing and a curse for the family, for while it has been able to draw on greater religious legitimacy than its neighbors, it has also made it difficult to enact meaningful social reforms. The current king — Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud — has stated that he is in favor of women driving and has even set up a coeducational university. But he faces opposition every step of the way. Another difficulty for the family is the looming succession crisis. The crown prince — Sultan bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud — is 83 years old and nearly as aged as the king. The powerful Nayef bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud — the kingdom’s minister for interior — is 77, and the long-serving governor of Riyadh — Salman bin Abdel Aziz Al Saud — is 71. Very soon the dynasty will have to decide how to shift away from appointing the sons of Saudi Arabia’s original patriarch, and move on to the next generation. There are several contenders, including Sultan’s son, Bandar bin Sultan al-Saud — a former ambassador to the United States; Nayef’s son and effective deputy Mohammed bin Nayef al-Saud; and Mohammed bin Fahd al-Saud — a son of the former king, Fahd bin Abdel Aziz al-Saud.

The United Arab Emirates is an equally complex case. Made up seven different emirates bound together in a loose confederation, each has its own monarchy, but with Abu Dhabi commanding the bulk of the UAE’s oil wealth, that emirate’s leaders have always been synonymous with the UAE’s presidency. The al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi have historically been quite cautious and conservative rulers, preferring to keep family matters as private as possible and position themselves as "honest brokers" in trying to fix disputes elsewhere in the UAE. Their patriarch — Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan — was ruler up until 2004, when he was succeeded peacefully by his eldest son, Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Khalifa rules as a figurehead, having been described in a recent WikiLeaks cable signed by the U.S. ambassador as a "distant and uncharismatic personage." The real power rests with Khalifa’s crown prince and younger half-brother, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Mohammed has five younger full brothers, including the UAE’s minister for foreign affairs, and these represent the future of the regime. Dubai’s ruler, Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, serves as the UAE’s prime minister and minister of defense. But these are meaningless positions, and his role in Dubai’s spectacular economic collapse will ensure he plays little part in future UAE-wide politics. The rulers of the smaller emirates have minimal influence and have ended up as subsidized vassals. Sultan bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, deserves special mention as an educated and well-respected figure. (That said, Sharjah has been the scene of some horrific human rights violations in recent years.)

Kuwait’s al-Sabah family has historically been the least autocratic of the Gulf dynasties, having operated a parliament — on and off — for several decades. This relative openness is not out of choice, however, as it is best explained by Kuwait’s relatively early independence, which came at a time when the merchant classes were still powerful and had to be consulted by the ruling family. The emir, Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, was formerly Kuwait’s prime minister and minister for foreign affairs, and is generally well liked, though perhaps regarded as unable to control members of the family underneath him. The crown prince is the emir’s brother, Nawaf al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, while the current prime minister, also a royal, is Nasser Mohammed al-Ahmed al-Sabah.

Qatar’s ruling al-Thani dynasty is small and dynamic. With massive gas reserves it is in the best position of all the monarchies, able to distribute wealth freely to its small citizen base. Moreover, with an "active neutral" foreign policy and as guardians of the hard-hitting Al Jazeera network, it has been able to claim credit with protesters across the Arab world. Four people matter within the family: the emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani; his crown prince and son, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani; his powerful prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani; and his much-feted wife, Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, who oversees the flush Qatar Foundation and many of the emirate’s high-profile education projects.

Oman’s Al-Bu Said dynasty is the most difficult to understand. Having ousted his father with British help in 1970, the current sultan, Qaboos bin Said Al-Bu Said, is childless and without heirs. As with Saudi Arabia, a succession crisis looms as Qaboos is now 70. Also complicating matters, Qaboos has historically kept relatives out of government, fearing parallel power bases. As such, there is much speculation about who may come next. According to primogeniture, it should be one of the sons of his late uncle, Tariq bin Taimur Al-Bu Said, who was Oman’s only-ever prime minister in the early 1970s.

Finally, the smallest and most embattled of the Gulf dynasties, the al-Khalifa of Bahrain, have always had the hardest job. With much less oil wealth than their neighbors, they have been unable to subsidize their population as effectively and have been dogged by accusations of torture and human rights abuses. Moreover, the majority of the population is Shiite, while the ruling elite are all Sunni. This has added a sectarian tinge to Bahrain’s problems, as most Shiite have been excluded from significant positions and have complained that the al-Khalifa have been trying to alter the demographic makeup of Bahrain by offering passports to expatriate Sunnis. Only three people really matter in Bahrain: the self-proclaimed king since 2002 and ruler since 1999, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa; his crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa; and the much-disliked uncle of the king, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has been Bahrain’s prime minister for 40 years. Of the three, Crown Prince Salman is seen as the most moderate. Unsurprisingly, therefore, he has been pushed to the fore in negotiating with protesters. But given the small size of the Bahraini ruling family, any portrayal of one member as more moderate than another is meaningless, as all operate within the very core of the regime.

Now that the al-Khalifa have sanctioned the use of live ammunition, rubber bullets, and tear gas on the population, and were quick to deploy tanks and mercenary troops, it’s unlikely that the protesters will give up until they achieve full regime change. At the very least, the long-serving prime minister will have to go, and a genuine constitutional monarchy set up. Given Bahrain’s historic role as a political and cultural hub in the region, its protesters are already having a demonstration effect on disgruntled citizens in the other Gulf monarchies. Qatar remains fairly secure given the masses of distributed wealth, while Kuwait — courtesy of its parliament — should have enough of a safety valve to avoid full-blown riots. This is ironic, as for many years its stumbling parliament was derided by its more autocratic neighbors.

Saudi Arabia and Oman, however, have large numbers of poor, disenfranchised nationals, many of whom will now see a future without dynasties, palaces, and subsidies. They will likely take action. Even in the UAE, where there are hundreds of thousands of nationals living in modest conditions in the northern emirates, plus up to a hundred-thousand stateless "bidoon" people, there are protests planned against their Abu Dhabi masters.

<p> Christopher M. Davidson is reader in government and international affairs at Durham University. He has authored several books on the Gulf states and has held academic posts in the United Arab Emirates and Japan. This is an adapted excerpt from his new book, After the Sheikhs. </p>