Since their modern formation in the mid-twentieth century, Saudi Arabia and the five smaller Gulf monarchies -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) -- have been governed by highly autocratic and seemingly anachronistic regimes. Nevertheless, their rulers have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of bloody conflicts on their doorsteps, fast-growing populations at home, and modernizing forces from abroad.

One of the monarchies’ most visible survival strategies has been to strengthen security ties with Western powers, in part by allowing the United States, France, and Britain to build massive bases on their soil and by spending lavishly on Western arms. In turn, this expensive militarization has aided a new generation of rulers that appears more prone than ever to antagonizing Iran and even other Gulf states. In some cases, grievances among them have grown strong enough to cause diplomatic crises, incite violence, or prompt one monarchy to interfere in the domestic politics of another.

It would thus be a mistake to think that the Gulf monarchies are somehow invincible. Notwithstanding existing internal threats, these regimes are also facing mounting external ones -- from Western governments, from Iran, and each other. And these are only exacerbating their longstanding conflicts and inherent contradictions.


The existence of substantial Western military bases on the Arabian Peninsula has always been problematic for the Gulf monarchies. To their critics, the hosting of non-Arab, non-Muslim armies is an affront to Islam and to national sovereignty. Their proliferation will likely draw further criticism, and perhaps serve as yet another flashpoint for the region’s opposition movements.

Among the largest Western installations in the Gulf is al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which owes its existence to the country’s former ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani. In 1999, al-Thani told the United States that he would like to see 10,000 American servicemen permanently based in the emirate, and over the next few years, the United States duly began shifting personnel there from Saudi Arabia. Today, al-Udeid houses several thousand U.S. servicemen at a time and has also served as a forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), a U.S. Air Force expeditionary air wing, a CIA base, and an array of U.S. Special Forces teams. Nearby Bahrain hosts the U.S. Naval Forces Central Command and the entire U.S. Fifth Fleet, which includes some 6,000 U.S. personnel. The United States recently downsized its force in Kuwait, but four U.S. infantry bases remain, including Camp Patriot, which is believed to house about 3,000 U.S. soldiers and two air bases.

The United States plans to further expand its regional military presence in the near future. As CENTCOM recently announced, the country will be sending the latest U.S. antimissile systems to at least four Gulf states. These are new versions of the Patriot anti-missile batteries that the United States already sent to the region and are meant to assuage the Gulf rulers’ fears of Iranian missile attacks. Tellingly, the announcement did not reveal exactly which states had agreed to take the U.S. weapons. Yet analysts widely assume that the unnamed states are Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE.

Equally, if not more, problematic than hosting so many foreign military bases has been the Gulf monarchies’ ever-rising spending on Western arms. Although much of the equipment is inappropriate for bolstering defensive capabilities or is superfluous to peacekeeping operations -- the kinds of missions Gulf soldiers are likely to find themselves undertaking -- Gulf leaders regarded the trade as necessary for their protection.

By most measures, such spending has gotten out of hand. As a proportion of GDP, the Gulf monarchies’ purchases make them the biggest arms buyers in the world. Even the poorer Gulf states, which are grappling with declining resources and serious socioeconomic pressures, spend far beyond their means.

Of all of the monarchies’ purchases, Saudi and UAE procurements have attracted the most attention. In 2009 alone, the UAE purchased nearly $8 billion in U.S. military equipment, making it the United States’ biggest arms customer that year. Saudi Arabia, for its part, purchased about $3.3 billion in hardware. In December 2011, the United States announced that it had finalized a $30 billion sale of Boeing-manufactured F-15 fighter jets to the Saudi Royal Air Force. And a UAE firm has reportedly partnered with a U.S. company, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, to bring predator drones to the UAE. This venture makes the UAE the first foreign buyer to acquire U.S. drone technology.

In the West, the sales have not been without criticism. The pro-Israel lobby, for example, has repeatedly argued that the sale of such high-grade equipment to the Gulf monarchies will erode Israel’s “qualitative edge” in the region. The programs will also prove troublesome inside the Arab kingdoms, as the region’s ruling families will find it increasingly difficult to justify such massive transactions to their beleaguered national populations. Given existing regional tensions, they are likely to continue increasing spending anyway -- be it on tanks, warplanes, or naval vessels.


The monarchies are also under pressure to deal with Iran, and some of them see posturing against Tehran as a convenient mechanism for containing domestic opposition, distracting from growing socio-economic pressures, and manipulating sectarian tensions. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the Gulf monarchs have gone to great lengths to highlight Shia membership in opposition movements, a tactic that has allowed them to delegitimize critics -- falsely -- as Iranian agents. 

Thus far, the strategy has enjoyed some limited success; members of the Gulf's Sunni populations have been quick to accuse Shia activists of being traitors. Many Western authorities continue to lend support to the monarchies on the grounds that the alternative would be Iran-style theocratic, revolutionary, and anti-Western governments.

Still, the risks of such rabid anti-Iran sentiments are serious and possibly existential. By acting on such attitudes, Gulf monarchs have undermined their longstanding position as neutral peace brokers and distributors of regional development aid, and made themselves into legitimate targets in any conflict in the Persian Gulf. It is unlikely that the fathers of today’s Gulf rulers would have allowed that to happen, no matter how deeply they distrusted their neighbor across the Gulf. This previous generation sidelined most confrontations with Iran -- including even the 1971 seizure of three UAE islands by the Shah -- in recognition of shared economic interests and the substantial Iranian expatriate populations that reside in many of the monarchies.

All that is now ancient history in states like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Saudi officials have taken a particularly aggressive stance. According to a leaked U.S. diplomatic cable from 2008, the Saudi king has “repeatedly exhorted the United States to cut off the head of the snake” -- Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Another cable from the same year quoted a veteran Saudi minister for foreign affairs suggesting a U.S. or NATO offensive in southern Lebanon to end Iran-backed Hezbollah’s grip on power there. And a former Saudi intelligence chief has said publicly that Saudi Arabia should “consider acquiring nuclear weapons to counter Iran.”

In early 2011, Bahrain’s rulers took full advantage of anti-Iranian sentiments to act against domestic opponents, announcing that they would deport all Shia residents who had “links to Hezbollah and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.” In practice, that meant expelling hundreds of Bahrain's Lebanese residents, suspending all flights between the capital Manama and Beirut, and warning Bahraini nationals not to travel to Lebanon due to “threats and interference by terrorists.”

Abu Dhabi’s attitude toward Iran originally appeared to have been more hesitant, perhaps because of its previous ruler’s more moderate policies. According to a 2006 cable from the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi, the UAE government told U.S. officials that “the threat from al-Qaeda would be minor compared to if Iran had nukes…but that it was reluctant to take any action that might provoke its neighbor.” Nevertheless, as Abu Dhabi’s forceful Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan and his five full brothers gained control over most of the country’s foreign policy, the emirate’s views have fallen in line with those of Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Since 2007, the crown prince’s circle has pushed Western officials to put more troops in the region to counter Iranian hegemony. In 2009, the crown prince forcefully warned the United States of appeasing Iran, reportedly saying that “Ahmadinejad is Hitler.” 

Qatar, which has sought a role as regional peace broker, has been more careful with its public statements on Iran. Even so, in a private meeting in 2009, Qatar’s then prime minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, characterized Qatar’s relationship with Iran as one in which “they lie to us and we lie to them.” Qatar’s calculated diplomacy perhaps owes to its precarious balancing act: the country hosts major U.S. military facilities while sharing its largest gas resource -- the offshore North Field -- with Iran.


Perhaps even riskier than their hawkishness toward Iran is the Gulf monarchies’ dovishness toward Israel. Since independence, the Gulf monarchies have upheld laws requiring government personnel, businesses, and even individual residents to boycott Israel. In the UAE, the federal government has always housed an Israel boycott office. One federal law, passed in 1971, stipulates that “any natural or legal person shall be prohibited from directly or indirectly concluding an agreement with organizations or persons either resident in Israel, connected therewith by virtue of their nationality of working on its behalf.”

For many years, however, the boycott extended well beyond such restrictions. The state-owned telecommunications company has barred telephone calls to Israel and blocked Web sites with an Israeli suffix. The government has not permitted Israeli nationals to enter the UAE, nor -- in theory -- any visitors that possess Israeli visa stamps in their passports. Yet trade opportunities have occasionally prompted the UAE to ignore its own boycott. After joining the World Trade Organization in 1996, UAE authorities were clearly under pressure to drop or at least relax their stance. When Dubai agreed to host the WTO's annual meeting in 2003, delegations from all of the organization's member states had to be invited; there was no way to prevent the arrival of an Israeli delegation or the flying of an Israeli flag on top of the Dubai World Trade Centre tower.

Concerns over Iran have further thawed relations between some of the Gulf monarchies and Israel. An open channel of communication now exists between Qatar and the Israeli security services. In late 2010, Qatar hosted a large delegation of senior Israeli policemen, among them the head of the Israeli police’s investigations and intelligence branch, ostensibly as part of an Interpol meeting. Thus far, there is little firm evidence of growing security ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel, or at least there have been no blatant admissions of them (as has been the case with Bahrain and Qatar). Nevertheless, rumors of significant Saudi-Israeli cooperation, prompted by the existence of a mutual enemy, have circulated in diplomatic circles for years. 

The monarchies’ new policies toward Israel are particularly dangerous given domestic political realities. The Gulf’s national populations are, for the most part, anti-Israeli and pro-Palestinian. Gulf nationals grew up watching the Palestinian intifada on television, and the liberation of Palestine remains a shared ideal among the region’s youth. There are also substantial communities of Palestinians in every monarchy; naturalized Gulf nationals who were born in Palestinian refugee camps are even known to hold powerful official posts in some rulers’ courts.


The pressures facing the Gulf states make for a very tense region, one in which disagreements over the United States, Iran, and Israel threaten to boil over. Quarrels between the kingdoms have at times grown so bitter that one monarchy has tried to alter the course of dynastic succession in another. Following the death of a ruler or a petty internal dispute in one monarchy, it is now commonplace for neighboring monarchs to interfere, either by discreetly backing a preferred candidate, or, in the more extreme cases, by sponsoring a coup d’état. The resulting power vacuums have often allowed foreign powers to interfere as well. 

The best example of a modern-day coup and subsequent foreign interference took place in the UAE’s northernmost emirate of Ras al-Khaimah. In 2003, after allegedly burning an American flag at an anti-Iraq war demonstration, Prince Sheikh Khalid bin Saqr al-Qasimi, the emirate’s long-serving crown prince, was replaced in the order of succession by a younger half-brother, Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi. Their very elderly father, Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammed al-Qasimi, later signed a decree in support of this change, but many analysts questioned the ruler’s decision-making abilities, given his advanced age and poor health. The new crown prince had the apparent backing of Abu Dhabi, which sent military tanks to take positions on the streets of Ras al-Khaimah. The ousted crown prince’s supporters still took the streets to show their support; security forces with water cannons disbursed them. The crown prince was then duly exiled, crossing the border to Oman before leaving for the United States.

As the emirate’s Dubai-like development program began to flounder in 2008, the new crown prince Saud became increasingly vulnerable to criticism, including widespread allegations that he accepted kickbacks from the construction industry. The deposed prince, who was still in exile, enlisted a U.S. public relations firm and a British lawyer to conduct an international media campaign to persuade Abu Dhabi and the international community that the incumbent crown prince was a liability. 

The campaign focused on Saud’s apparent connections to Tehran, claiming that his effective deputy -- a Shia Lebanese businessman -- had major commercial interests, including factories, in the Islamic Republic. In 2009, the campaign even claimed that Iranian customs officers had been visiting Ras al-Khaimah’s port and that the emirate was serving as a conduit for nuclear materials destined for Iran. Local media alleged that recent terror plots there, including a 2009 attempt to blow up Dubai’s incomplete Burj Khalifa skyscraper, had originated in Ras al-Khaimah. The exiled crown prince even courted Israeli support, reportedly meeting with Israel’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, who said that he was “working with certain people from his side” and “promised that the matter will be solved in his [the former crown prince’s] favor.”

In late 2010, the campaign appeared to be gaining traction. Abu Dhabi’s ruling family allowed Khalid to return from exile to visit his father Sheikh Saqr, who still held the throne but was undergoing treatment in an Abu Dhabi hospital. When Saqr died in October, Khalid quickly returned to Ras al-Khaimah and installed himself in his former palace with some 150 heavily armed guards and even more loyal tribesmen. He seemed confident that, having received Abu Dhabi’s blessing to attend his father’s funeral, he would be officially installed as ruler of Ras Khaimah later that day. But in the early evening, the UAE Ministry for Presidential Affairs in Abu Dhabi announced that his younger brother Saud had been named the new ruler of Ras al-Khaimah.

Abu Dhabi, which holds the presidency of the Emirates, deployed UAE tanks on the outskirts of the emirate and all of the deposed crown prince’s retainers -- including two of his cousins, several Omani citizens, and a Canadian military adviser -- were arrested and detained for questioning. Two months later, the emirate’s new ruler was invited to a banquet in Abu Dhabi held in his honor, where the ruler of Abu Dhabi congratulated him on his success. 

The Gulf’s immediate future is likely to be marked by many more such coup and countercoup attempts. Several current monarchs are very old, and powerful factions in growing royal families have coalesced around rival successors. In each of these cases, internecine contests will develop and, given the high stakes involved, the involvement of foreign powers is all but inevitable.

In the end, however, the monarchies may all suffer from such meddling, for these regimes are only as strong as the weakest links in their chain. An especially brittle monarchy succumbing to pressure over Western involvement, Iran, or Israel could easily be the first domino to fall, undoing the illusion of invincibility that the Gulf monarchies have so painstakingly built to distinguish themselves from the floundering Arab republics next door.

Reprinted from After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, by Christopher M. Davidson, with the permission of Oxford University Press. © Oxford University Press 2013.

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