The Secret of the Sheikhs

Why Are the Gulf Monarchies So Stable?

The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah, at a summit in Oman, December 2008 Xinhua / eyevine / Redux

Wander through an old city on the Persian Gulf and you might see markets, a mosque, a clock tower, a palace. You might see the front doors of private residences. Far off in the distance, you might catch a glimpse of oil rigs and tankers anchored offshore. But even a seasoned expatriate may miss what is perhaps the city’s most important space: up on the second floor of many homes, even in the modern villas that dot the newer neighborhoods, is a long room, often decorated with arched windows, intricate ornaments, and fine pillows and cushions. This room is the majlis, or tribal council chamber. It fits all the men and women—they meet separately—of an extended family or tribe. Almost every tribe in the Gulf, rich or poor, has one.

The omnipresence of the majlis helps explain one of the most puzzling features of political life in the Gulf: the fact that most of the region is still ruled by kings and emirs. In theory, Gulf monarchs should fear for their jobs. Their economies suffer from corruption and oil dependency. Vast inequalities divide citizens from immigrant populations. Islamist political currents, together with cultural modernization and a flow of information that increasingly escapes state control, could easily fuel political instability. And the Gulf monarchs have less religious legitimacy to fall back on in times of trouble than the regents do in nearby Jordan and Morocco, because none claims a blood link to the Prophet Muhammad. Scholars of the region accordingly like to predict the monarchs’ imminent downfall. And yet from Kuwait to the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, no such collapse has taken place. Even the convulsions of the Arab Spring did little to shake up political structures in the Gulf. 

The longevity of the Gulf monarchies is not solely the product of oil or of the power and charisma of specific rulers. Much of it stems instead from the majlis, which plays a largely unexamined

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