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The bright, shiny tinderboxes of the Persian Gulf

Touring the luxurious campus of the American University of Sharjah last week, I was yet again struck by what money, especially petrodollars, can buy. Sharjah is an emirate of the United Arab Emirates, located adjacent to Abu Dhabi. Designed by the ruler of Sharjah, Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qassimi, one of the more enlightened of the region’s many autocrats, the university’s grand buildings self-consciously invoke the glory days of Islamic architecture.

They are also part of a larger regional trend of patriarchy-supervised modernization. Gulf rulers, from the sober sultan of Oman, Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said, the oldest serving ruler in the Arab world, to Dubai’s flashy Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, deploy a range of self-descriptions — philosopher-king, philosopher-poet, chief executive officer — as they present themselves ushering, with cautious gradualism, their wards into the modern world.

The American University is one of many imposing institutions in Sharjah’s University City. A few miles away, Dubai has been equipped with its own educational Valhalla. Abu Dhabi will soon have its own Louvre and Guggenheim branch museums.

Down the coast, the emir of Qatar is experimenting, more ambitiously, with artificial clouds, each worth half a million dollars, that can be conjured during the 2022 FIFA World Cup to provide shade to teams exposed to the intolerable summer heat of the Gulf.

Cash infusion

Wealth, so colossal and concentrated, attracts more wealth. Struggling with debt and a real estate implosion since 2008, Dubai has been partially reprieved by an infusion of panicky cash rushing out of the countries transformed by the Arab Spring; the warlords, mafia dons and new plutocrats of Afghanistan also find Dubai the safest place in which to store their loot.

Local citizens have seemed content to receive their share of the largesse of oil and gas revenues — Qatar’s per-capita income is the highest in the world. Wealthy expatriates don’t seem to mind their unalterably temporary and vulnerable position so long as they can earn and splurge, tax-free.

Of course, no such trade-offs are available to the vast, though disturbingly invisible, menial labor force from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Along with Russian prostitutes and Filipino maids, these toilers in the Gulf netherworld embody a particularly wretched form of neo-slavery.

Visiting the Gulf monarchies over the years, I have heard numerous tales of merciless exploitation, denunciations of the overpaid and idle native citizens and grievances about the near-total absence of anything resembling the rule of law.

In some ways, the Gulf seems to combine the worst of the last century’s dominant ideologies, capitalism and socialism. Here, you can find both a small minority accumulating wealth without responsibility and an absurdly generous welfare system that breeds unmotivated and unproductive citizens.

The fragile balance is maintained by the earliest beneficiaries of the world’s dependence on fossil fuels: the tribes and sheikhs, who under Ottoman and then British suzerainty carved out spheres of influence for themselves and then found new patrons, protectors and clients in the American Century.

Christopher Davidson, an astute observer of politics in the Gulf, describes in his important new book, “After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies,” the various ways in which the Gulf monarchies have continued to buy respite from internal and external pressures. These range from endowing Western universities and donating $100 million to the victims of Hurricane Katrina to buying up Harrods and the Chrysler Building and sending UAE soldiers to assist NATO troops in Afghanistan.

Bellicose posture

Though no formidable enemy is in sight, the Gulf states indulge in extravagant arms-buying sprees designed to keep American and European politicians and armament manufacturers happy — Britain’s David Cameron just concluded a visit to the UAE ostensibly meant to hawk British weaponry. As part of a strategy to secure U.S. support, the Gulf rulers often assume a more bellicose posture toward Iran than even Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

The singular exception here is the emir of Qatar, Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani. Hosting an American base and deploying his bombers over Libya one moment and visiting Hamas in Gaza the next, Al Thani displays a fascinating geopolitical nimbleness — and a desire to stay on whatever seems, at any given moment, the winning side of history.

Nevertheless, the hectic maneuvering reveals an anxiety about the future of autocratic regimes in an increasingly interconnected and politicized neighborhood. Unlike Chinese communists, another unelected ruling class in search of legitimacy, the Gulf’s sheikhs cannot draw upon a galvanizing national narrative or a glorious history of collective fall and rise. Repressive police don’t quite compensate for the lack of a party structure that reaches into the smallest village and absorbs likely dissenters.

Certainly, the Arab Spring found the Gulf rulers wholly unprepared; their first impulse was to circle the wagons. Bahrain’s ruling Al Khalifa family faced the loudest expression of political disaffection and promptly cracked down on it, assisted by Saudi Arabia. The crown prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, betrayed a widely shared panic in recruiting foreign mercenaries through Blackwater (renamed Xe) in order to crush “internal revolt.”

The police chief of Dubai, Dahi Khalfan, notoriously garrulous on Twitter, has accused the Muslim Brotherhood of plotting the overthrow of Gulf monarchies. The hysteria indicates a growing fear among the potentates of the Persian Gulf. Davidson, generally cautious, is confident that “most of these regimes — at least in their present form — will be gone within the next two to five years.”

Uprising ingredients

He warns of a domino effect “if an especially brittle monarchy succumbed to popular revolution.” And he thinks that the ingredients for a mass uprising are already present in the Gulf’s current crisis: declining natural resources, over-spending, a young population confronted with rising unemployment and widening inequalities. Though far from embracing U.S.-style democracy, few of the bright, outspoken students I met at the university are likely to settle for the status quo.

The Gulf regimes, as we know them, may still be around in 2017. But the social contract underpinning them — in which governments bought political acquiescence through redistribution of wealth — is in danger. And their main response to a changing world seems to be panicky repression: As of last week, anyone in the UAE critical of the government and heads of state, or calling for “unlicensed protests” online, will face imprisonment.

No doubt the Gulf’s rulers will buy some extra time for themselves through such tactics. No one should be surprised as they drum up alarmist scenarios of an Iran-led Shia takeover of the region and al-Qaeda’s resurgence, sink more money into struggling European and American economies or purchase more military hardware from the West they can’t possibly use.

But the Gulf’s autocrats would do well to learn from the example of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. Neither large-scale bribery of the masses nor renewed business and security links with the West finally saved the longest-serving ruler in the Arab world. There are some things — political stability, above all — that money can’t buy, especially in the age of global capitalism.

Mishra, the author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia,” is a Bloomberg View columnist, based in London and Mashobra, India.

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