Christopher M. Davidson’s From Sheikhs to Sultanism is an outstanding conceptualization of authoritarianism and statecraft in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Like Davidson’s previous publications on the Gulf monarchies, it delivers a detailed analysis of the transformations in the Gulf’s leadership and the political networks embedded in the region’s rentier economic system.
The book consists of ten chapters combining theoretical discussions and case study examples. Remarkably, the notes and bibliography make up almost half of the book. Davidson focuses on two de facto rulers in the Gulf: the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan (MBZ). While MBZ is the de jure ruler of Abu Dhabi, his de facto power extends over all of the Emirates, and MBS increasingly takes on the role and powers of his aging father, King Salman.
For closed societies like the Gulf monarchies, scholars face a serious challenge in acquiring the details of political changes and the “reality on the ground.” Davidson devotes a significant portion of discussion to his data collection methodology and the general difficulties of scholarship on the Gulf. Not only do the political elites and royal families avoid clarifying their agendas or networks in the monarchical or rentier systems, but these states’ citizens or residents are further hesitant to share their opinions on the political structure. Moreover, he argues that gathering data in the GCC is challenging because of embedded power struggles in the Gulf monarchies. For instance, the data released by state institutions often does not match with international organizations’ data on the GCC. This makes the task of methodologically and structurally assessing statecraft and authority in these countries doubly difficult.
As such, Davidson conducted anonymous interviews with “incumbent or former citizen state functionaries” and “other citizen stakeholders” over two years while also navigating and circumventing the fields of power in order to handle the data challenge. This academically conducted research on public opinion in the Gulf, therefore, makes this book an invaluable resource for students of Gulf Studies.
Chapter one summarizes the political culture of six GCC states in terms of statecraft and authoritarianism and introduces the main research question: “if the contemporary Saudi and UAE regimes are so manifestly different to their predecessors, and remain distinct from those of other nearby authoritarian states, then what have they become, or what are they in the process of becoming?” (p.18) In the remaining chapters, Davidson answers this question, delineating the strategies and challenges MBS and MBZ have faced as they “supplanted the ‘sheikhly rule’ (or consultative-neo-patrimonialism) of their predecessors with something more autocratic, more personalistic, and perhaps even analytically distinct” (p.25).
Chapter 2 presents Davidson’s main arguments on the “conceptual centrality of sultanism to comprehending MBS and MBZ’s regimes” (p.25). While Davidson assesses the GCC states evolving political regimes as sultanism, he admits that the concept itself needs further clarifications with more on “state-of-art understanding of the term” (p.25). He adds that since the primary case studies MBS and MBZ are de facto rulers, there must be a further elaboration on “their remarkable career trajectories and significant accumulation of personal-and perhaps sultanistic- powers” (p.26). The chapter states that the book’s aim is a substantive investigation into MBS and MBZ’s modes of governance, differentiating them from their predecessors.
Chapter 3 presents theoretical and conceptual discussions around the term of sultanism, including its origins and variations such as neo-sultanism, hybrid-authoritarian sultanism and sultanistic neo-patrimonialism. Davidson asks in this chapter to what degree this state of affairs is intrinsic to the Middle East or not. He later devotes a very long discussion arguing that “sultanism,” has had a universal tendency since the early history of the concept. He includes contemporary examples from all around the world in “Latin America, the former communist regimes in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, sub-Saharan Africa, and part of Southeast Asia” (p.72).
Before scrutinizing the current power mechanisms utilized by MBS and MBZ, Davidson devotes attention to their immediate circumstances, referring to their ambitious strategies and dynastic advantages; wider determinants such as their charisma, impact on youth, economic crises, the purpose of repairing damaged reputations and finally, the Trump factor. Thus, chapter 4 deliberates the atmosphere supporting MBS and MBZ’s rising leadership since their early years in the political scene.
Chapters 5, 6 and 7 depict the institutions, mechanisms, and networks of establishing control in domestic and regional politics, which include political patronage networks, economic affairs, institutions, media and security. These three chapters give the reader a broader political history of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, focusing on MBZ and MBS’s leadership strategies. For scholars and students looking for a detailed list of political, economic and social issues that trigger domestic and regional problems and strategies against these two states, these three chapters are vital readings.
Chapter 7 covers how the two leaders have used ideology and religion while balancing internal and external vulnerabilities. This chapter is crucial for understanding the delicate balance these leaders strike while simultaneously supporting domestic ulema (scholars) and secular interpretations of Islam. On the other hand, MBS and MBZ condemn political Islam or Islamists and support reform, while ensuring authoritarian tools are secured.
The external and internal inconsistencies over Emirati and Saudi regimes supporting or condemning political Islam are especially difficult for scholars to assess. This is not only because of leaders’ lack of transparency in strategic decision making, but also the overall social and political change GCC monarchies are going through in reforms, new-nationalism, and “liberal engineering,” as Davidson names it.
The book notably scrutinizes MBS and MBZ’s policy toward political Islam (mainly the Muslim Brotherhood) to pose resurgent threats and policies to mitigate them. In this precarious and critical discussion, Davidson asserts that neither the leaders nor their inner circles have been ideologically motivated in their approach towards political Islam. According to Davidson, MBS and MBZ are driven by anti-Iranian realpolitik. Thus, the book claims that “most of MBS and MBZ’s best known public policy positions, whether opposing Islamic extremism and political Islam or promoting ‘local’ state nationalism and secular liberalism, seem to have been primarily counter-ideological efforts intended to mitigate potential regime security threats and facilitate their countries’ ambitious diversification programmes (199)”.
Chapter 9 and 10 conclude discussions of contemporary and advanced sultanism by wrapping up the conceptualization and case study examples. The book’s hypothesis underlined in this chapter states that both of the regimes constitute notable examples of contemporary sultanism as MBS and MBZ’s “respective blends of autocratic authoritarianism are now quite distinct from the old ‘sheikhly rule’ or their antecedents” (p.237). Chapter 9 illustrates the UAE and Saudi Arabia’s aspects of convergence and divergence compared to contemporary sultanism. “Soft coup” elements and these states’ economic welfare especially differentiate their state-of-art contemporary sultanism. Thus, Davidson argues that a new category of sultanism, advanced sultanism, emerges in the current Emirati and Saudi regimes.
From Sheikhs to Sultanism extensively covers statecraft and authoritarianism in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As a minor note, while reading the book’s primarily theoretical and conceptual parts, the author takes the reader to Central Asia or Latin America for long paragraphs of discussions. While this provides useful examples of Sultanism’s global nature, it perhaps also overly distracts the reader’s attention. Davidson’s nuanced articulation of the advanced sultanism of two GCC states offers a comprehensive and timely study. For scholars and students of the Gulf studies, this book is a masterpiece containing a short political history, economic analysis, and leadership of these states. Davidson concludes his remarks on the transformation of the Emirati and Saudi sultanistic regimes by hoping that the book’s discussions will give rise to “a number of higher theoretical and philosophical debates.” I personally have no doubt that in that regard From Sheikhs to Sultanism succeeded.