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Oil and troubled waters

Spring is dawning in the Gulf and the UK academy’s links with the region’s repressive, anachronistic autocracies look increasingly questionable, says Christopher Davidson


Oil and troubled waters
Credit: GettyThey are legion: hundreds of political prisoners, among them these Shia protesters, have been taken in Bahrain in the past year, and the ruling family has kept journalists and other observers out of the state


“We have a duty to protect this country through advice, and when a son commits a mistake, you advise him … If the state has taken measures, it is out of interest to protect those sons. Even those who are in jail - they are dear to us. Hence, every mother whose son was arrested, she should excuse me personally.” These words, which could have easily come from the mouths of Bashar al-Assad or the late Mu’ammer Gaddafi, were actually part of the justification offered by Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, for a string of 64 arrests - including academics, lawyers, human rights activists and even a judge - that have taken place this year in the United Arab Emirates.

Most of those arrested are being held in unknown locations, have not yet been charged and in some cases have been on hunger strike. One was even stripped of his citizenship and deported to Thailand - a country he had never visited before. They are unlikely to receive a fair trial and more arrests will certainly follow as calls for greater freedom and reform intensify.

Meanwhile, in the other five Gulf monarchies there have been similar crackdowns since the Arab Spring dawned in January 2011. Saudi security forces are killing protesters and activists with increasing frequency - especially in the kingdom’s poorer Eastern Province. Bloggers, journalists and opposition MPs have been seized in Kuwait in the wake of mass protests against the ruling clique. In Bahrain, with the help of mercenaries and Saudi troops, the much-maligned ruling family continues to suppress a full-blown revolution, having taken hundreds of political prisoners over the past year and keeping most journalists and non-governmental organisations out of the country.

But weren’t the Gulf monarchies supposed to be different from the Arab dictatorships? After all, even though the sheikhs and their governments are among the most absolute autocracies in the world and deny their citizens many basic rights, most Western entities have usually found ways to do business with them. With their exotic mode of rule often excused by reference to religion, “tribal democracy” or other orientalist justifications, the monarchies, it has been reasoned, are much better than the neighbouring republics and are the only line of defence against al-Qaeda and mysterious theocracies led by long-bearded men. The inconvenient lack of human rights, women’s rights and civil liberties have thus been deemed a necessary evil to ensure stability in a dangerous, resource-rich region.

With this mindset in place, many Western institutions - including universities - that should have been placing greater value on freedom, democracy and human rights have wittingly aided the survival of these regimes. Gulf monarchies have been sponsoring universities, museums and other cultural centres in the West in order to remind their superpower protectors of their existence and accumulate “soft power” with influential governments (see box below). But the current waves of repression and revolution sweeping through the Gulf have clearly left these institutions wrong-footed, especially those actively trying to strengthen their links with such regimes. The “Gulf Spring” that now seems to be breaking out will undoubtedly cause serious reputational damage in the West, particularly for universities that the public will reason “should have known better”. Unfortunately, as with the London School of Economics-Libya funding drama of 2011, it is likely that the penny will not drop until it is too late, as the promise of lucrative sponsorship will continue to reinforce the old justifications that the Gulf rulers are both stable and legitimate.

There are three core assumptions made about monarchical stability in the Gulf region: first, there are enough resources there for governments to keep distributing wealth to their citizens in exchange for political acquiescence; second, the bulk of the citizenry are apolitical or view the tribal system as the only authentic system of governance; and third, the rulers themselves are pious, peaceful and generally well meaning. All three have now been firmly and permanently exposed as untrue. The reality is that there are now large numbers of involuntarily unemployed Gulf nationals, large pockets of poverty, and declining resources in economies that have largely failed to diversify away from hydrocarbon exports.

Moreover, there is now a modern, well-connected and increasingly well-educated population of younger citizens no longer willing to live by the old rules who are openly expressing their contempt for the status quo and - in many cases - their solidarity with Arab Spring movements.

Finally and most importantly, the vicious crackdowns and arbitrary detentions that have been taking place as the regimes have sought to silence dissenting voices have firmly dispelled the illusion that these unelected, unaccountable rulers have anything in common with the benevolent tribal rulers of the pre-oil era.

While most of the earlier opposition groups that challenged the Gulf monarchies were successfully contained, new pro-reform and pro-democracy figures and movements are emerging, and they cannot be placed in the old categories. In particular, the impact of “greater” modernising forces on the Gulf monarchies is becoming vitally important, especially those relating to improved education and more advanced communication technologies - in particular social media and other peer-to-peer networks. Despite their best efforts, the regimes seem unable to co-opt these forces effectively, with an increasing number of Gulf nationals now able to share information freely among themselves.

The Arab Spring revolutions elsewhere in the Middle East seem to be serving as catalysts for the new movements in the Gulf: at the very least they have emboldened hitherto frightened opposition voices.

And many of the Gulf monarchies have erred in their foreign policy since the onset of the Arab Spring, which has further eroded their stability. Having openly positioned themselves on the side of other authoritarian Arab regimes (the rebels of Syria notwithstanding, given their resistance to Iran, an even greater threat to the Gulf monarchies) they have thus presented themselves as “status quo powers”, especially when trying to counter the pro-reform momentum that has been building in the region.

Of the six monarchies, Bahrain has by far the bleakest future, with little hope that its ruling family, the Al-Khalifas, can restore enough legitimacy to ever govern again without resorting to martial law and extensive repression. The regime is currently being kept afloat by its regional allies - namely Saudi Arabia and the UAE - which continue to commit troops and financial assistance to their beleaguered ally. Although - unlike the other regimes that have faced Arab Spring revolutions - the Al-Khalifas are not yet under significant pressure from the international community to reform, this will change within the next year or so as the weight of evidence against them grows. For the time being, the US and other Western powers are still reluctant to treat the revolution in Bahrain as part of the Arab Spring, mainly because of the presence of a US Navy base there and its potential front-line role in any conflict with Iran. The temporary block on US arms to Bahrain has been lifted, and senior British and American police advisers have now been appointed by King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa.

Although the Omani ruling family’s outlook is less bleak than Bahrain’s, with the state not suffering from the same levels of sectarian strife or discrimination, there are nonetheless serious concerns about the country’s political stability. As with Bahrain, Oman has only limited resources and cannot rely indefinitely on creating public sector opportunities for its citizens in order to appease protesters. It already relies on external assistance, mostly from Saudi Arabia, and over the next year or two this will serve to delegitimise Sultan Qaboos bin Said, the country’s ageing, heirless ruler, and his government.

In many ways the kingpin of the Gulf monarchies, the House of Saud, Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, may appear more stable given that its government still has the wherewithal to keep distributing wealth to appease its citizens. However, in reality the Saudi system is equally unsustainable and may well implode within the next couple of years. With demonstrations continuing regardless of the new subsidies and job creation schemes that have been introduced, and with increasingly repressive tactics being used to prevent freedom of expression, the kingdom is now looking increasingly brittle. If unemployment, the wealth gap and other socio-economic problems remain unsolved, as seems likely, it is probable that insurgency will spread further across Sunni communities, thus helping the reform movement gain much broader support beyond the Shia population.

The most recent Saudi protests and demands have already been quite varied and have occurred all over the country. They have ranged from men being arrested for filming and then uploading to YouTube a video about widespread poverty among Saudi nationals in Riyadh - footage that has been watched by more than 1 million people - to women in Jeddah, Riyadh and the Eastern Province filming themselves driving on the motorway, in a flagrant act of civil disobedience, given the prevailing ban on women driving.

Facebook and Twitter are playing a key role in the protests, with leading activists such as Muhammad Fahad Al-Qahtani claiming that “they can now speak to thousands across the world…without the strict censorship they live under in the off-line world”, adding: “we’re so thirsty for freedom of expression and a forum for expression that [we] are far more involved [in social media] than our neighbours”.

Frequent “resistance salons” are being held in the villas of known activists, despite some of the participants having already been threatened with the death penalty. Writing in The Washington Post in April, one of these embattled figures, Waleed Abu Alkhair, related that such events are giving him “the pleasing epiphany that religious hard-liners have begun to lose control of a young generation that is hungry for freedom”.

At protests held by unemployed graduates outside ministries in Jeddah and Riyadh, participants lamented that “after seven years of unemployment we have no other choice”. Worryingly for the government, others stated that “we expect to hear promises to calm us down and disperse us but we will be back. We will be back until they find a solution.” More seriously, in January, after the police shot dead a young Shia protester, Issam Muhammad Abu Abdallah, a reported crowd of thousands or even tens of thousands took to the streets of Al-Awamiya to commemorate his death. Along with several other dead activists he is now being hailed as a martyr in the Eastern Province, and the opposition movement is increasingly being referred to as the “Intifada of Dignity”. A total of 11 protesters are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the uprising, and in July one of the regime’s strongest critics, Nimr al-Nimr, was badly wounded by security forces.

In Kuwait’s case, after the storming of the parliament in November 2011, the subsequent resignation of its unelected prime minister and fresh elections in February 2012, the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, chose to dissolve parliament in June 2012 rather than allow anti-corruption investigations to continue. He has also asserted that the result of the most recent elections was “illegal”. Most of the cases of dissent since then have been dealt with in a heavy-handed manner. Opposition MPs who took part in a massive 50,000-strong demonstration in October were arrested, while in July a member of the ruling family, Meshaal al-Malik al-Sabah, was taken into custody after he tweeted that he wanted to stand in the next parliamentary elections and “expose corruption among top officials”. While Kuwait may not yet have witnessed the violent confrontations that have occurred in Bahrain, Oman and Saudi Arabia, the outlook for its ruling family is perhaps just as bleak.

The UAE’s rulers appear to be in a stronger position, as most citizens currently seem content with the state’s ability to continue distributing wealth. But, as with the Saudi and Kuwaiti spending programmes, it is questionable how long such generosity can be sustained. A decree was circulated in Abu Dhabi government departments in March stating that a number of the big salary increases that had been promised to civil servants could not, after all, be delivered. UAE monarchies have also faced a serious (and likely permanent) loss of legitimacy over the past year, largely because of the alacrity with which they have resorted to repression. Although the bulk of the population has certainly been scared by the large number of arrests, especially as prominent and educated nationals have been imprisoned, the strategy seems to have backfired: total acquiescence has not been achieved and the UAE’s international reputation - very important given its economic model and emphasis on soft-power strategies, especially in the West - will undoubtedly be tarnished.

In a development reminiscent of the collapse of North African regimes in 2011, a number of the recent UAE arrests have been accompanied by official government press releases claiming that there is an “international plot” and that the opposition has connections to “foreign organisations and outside agendas”. Even Sharjah’s Sultan Al-Qasimi - a published author and key benefactor to several UK universities - joined the chorus of paranoia, explaining that “these people were held at airports, or at border crossings with Oman or Qatar … they were running away to establish an outside organisation”.

Most worryingly, in a sort of twisted paternalism, he claimed that the arrests were part of a measure to “help those who deviated”, hence the state’s measures “to protect its sons”.

As the only outlier, the future of the House of Thani, Qatari rulers, is a little rosier than that of the other Gulf monarchies: the state can actually sustain high spending and wealth distribution. As Allen James Fromherz, associate professor in history at Georgia State University, puts it in his book Qatar: A Modern History (2012), “it seems at first glance Qatar has bought itself out of the possible ill effects of modernity”. Its ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, also seems to be more sympathetic than his regional counterparts towards his citizenry’s cultural and religious practices, and it is possible, though not probable, that he may follow the route towards constitutional monarchy in the next few years. Nonetheless there are a number of causes for concern, and if mismanaged these could still derail his ambitions. A Qatari poet, Muhammad al-Ajami, for example, who wrote about the illegitimacy of all Arab governments in the wake of the Arab Spring, has just been sentenced to life imprisonment for insulting the emir and inciting overthrow through his poetry.

As the situation continues to escalate, the Gulf monarchies seem set to push ahead with repression and censorship. Sophisticated police states have been put in place; foreign soldiers have been brought in (in Abu Dhabi’s case from as far afield as Colombia and South Africa), and almost all genuine civil-society organisations have been closed down. Banking on international silence or indifference in the face of human rights abuses in return for guaranteeing regional stability, the rulers are preparing to tackle the Gulf Spring head-on, probably with no stones left unturned. In this already developing scenario of regime survival, it is unrealistic to expect the protection of international reputations to be of paramount concern. However, reputational damage is a more serious affair for external partners. With the Gulf monarchies faltering, those high-profile Western and other international institutions with active links to the autocracies will suffer heavy collateral damage over the next few years.

Royal approval: cash, buildings, chairs and self-censorship

For years, the Gulf monarchies have thought it a worthwhile investment to sponsor leading UK universities as well as individual academics and research programmes.

Of special interest have been those universities and departments that have historically focused on Middle Eastern studies, Islamic studies and especially Persian Gulf studies.

While the money does not usually come with strings attached per se, a culture of self-censorship often takes hold. It is not hard to see why: in a world of so much competition for research funding, a rich benefactor may be seen as someone to be kept onside in the hope that more money may be forthcoming.

In such circumstances, junior researchers or postgraduate students can find themselves in a particularly difficult position, tending to feel uncomfortable discussing the source of the funding or pursuing sensitive topics relating to the donor country.

The donations tend to have the effect of steering academic debate away from the Gulf monarchies themselves - in particular their domestic politics and societies - and towards “safer topics” such as the broader region, the Arabic language or Islamic studies.

It is now difficult to find any leading British institution focusing on the Middle East that has not received every variety of gift from the sheikhs. The University of Exeter, home to the Centre for Gulf Studies, presently lauds the ruler of Sharjah - Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi - as its most generous donor, having installed him as the founding member of its College of Benefactors in 2006. This is unsurprising as he paid for a building that houses its Institute for Arabic and Islamic Studies and funds two endowed professorships. At Durham University the sheikh has paid for the Al-Qasimi Building and funds an endowed professorship - the Sharjah chair in Islamic law and finance.

Elsewhere in the UAE, the Abu Dhabi-funded Emirates Foundation for Philanthropy gave some $15 million (£9.5 million) to launch the London School of Economics’ Middle East Centre, which opened in October 2010, and a further $3 million to name the main lecture theatre in the LSE’s New Academic Building after the late Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan. It has also funded an endowed professorship - the Emirates chair of the contemporary Middle East - the holder of which does not focus on the Gulf states.

On a smaller scale, before becoming Abu Dhabi’s current ruler, Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan had already paid in 1997 for the Sheikh Khalifa Building at University of Wales Trinity Saint David, which houses a small mosque.

Dubai has also been active, with members of its ruling family having funded the Al-Maktoum College of Higher Education in Dundee, which is currently accredited by the University of Aberdeen and focuses on niche fields including Muslim communities in the UK and Islamic Jerusalem studies.

Kuwait has been a similarly generous donor to British academia, with the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies’ annual book prize being funded for many years by a member of the ruling family, Mubarak Abdullah Al-Sabah. Since 2010 the British-Kuwait Friendship Society Book Prize has been administered by the University of Cambridge, with the sheikh remaining as one of the five judges.

More substantially, since 2007 the government-backed Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences has been funding a $15 million, 10-year research programme at the LSE on “development, governance, and globalisation in the Gulf states”, and has funded the Kuwait endowed professorship of economics and political science. Despite the foundation stating that the incumbent professor should “take a first-hand interest in key issues affecting the economic development of resource-rich economies, particularly the Gulf states, as well as bringing recognition of Kuwait to prestigious academic and policy-making circles around the world”, it appears that neither of the two postholders since 2007 has specialised in the Gulf.

In May 2011, Sheikh Nasser Bin Muhammad Al-Sabah, at that time the prime minister of Kuwait and a key member of the ruling family, began sponsoring Durham, funding an eponymous $3.5 million research programme and an endowed professorship in international relations, regional politics and security. In November that year, he was ousted following popular protests and allegations of corruption, but Durham has opted to retain the gift.

There are now many examples of substantial donations from other Gulf monarchies in the academy - again mostly from government-backed entities or influential ruling family members. In 2008, Qatar’s ruler paid the University of Oxford about $3.5 million to endow an eponymous professorship - the His Highness Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani chair in contemporary Islamic studies. Meanwhile, Oman’s ruler has paid for two endowed professorships at the University of Cambridge, which seem to be safely distanced from any discussion of Gulf politics: the His Majesty Sultan Qaboos Bin Said professor of modern Arabic studies (endowed in 2005) and the His Majesty Sultan Qaboos chair for Abrahamic faiths and common values (2011).

Not to be outdone, in 2008 Saudi Arabia’s influential Al-Waleed bin Talal Al-Saud, the prince, business tycoon and investor, paid for a $13 million Centre of Islamic Studies, also at Cambridge, and provided comparable funding to set up the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Centre for the Study of Islam in the Contemporary World at the University of Edinburgh.

Most symbolic, perhaps, is the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, a “recognised independent centre” at the ancient university. Founded in 1985, it has a substantial new building nearing completion and many endowed fellowships. Although some of its funding has come from the UK, the US and various parts of the Islamic world, the bulk of it is believed to originate in the Gulf monarchies.

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