The author of Reinventing the Sheikhdom: Clan, Power and Patronage in Mohammed bin Zayed’s UAE had his own brush with the security apparatus in the sheikhdom when he was arrested in 2018 while doing research for his PhD. Matthew Hedges was falsely accused of spying for the British government and given a life sentence, only to be pardoned on the UAE’s national day that same year. The experience gave him a unique insight into the tensions within the United Arab Emirates as he sets out to untangle the nature of power in one of the Middle East’s richest and most powerful states.
The book is not about his personal experience, but his detention is present throughout. Moreover, he contends that, “The principal threat to the UAE originates from domestic rather than foreign sources.” The UAE responded to the 2011 Arab Spring by, “Increasing centralisation of the state’s power, rising bureaucracy” and “a move towards a unitary state.” The future of the UAE, he writes, has been bound to the survival of the Abu Dhabi ruling family; in particular to Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and his own family.
According to Hedges, fear of domestic unrest is fuelled by the UAE’s history. In the 1970s and 1980s, internal rivalry led to constant infighting, power seizures and killings. “Numerous reports suggest that because of the series of assassinations, the mother of Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan Al-Nayhan and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan, Sheikha Salama bint Butti, demanded her sons pledge an oath ‘to refrain from any conspiracy.’”
In addition to such rivalry, the end of British imperial control in the Gulf and Iran’s takeover of islands that the UAE claimed for itself created the need for some kind of unitary authority. By the 1980s, under Abu Dhabi’s leadership, the inter-royal rivalry ceased, publicly at least, and political and economic stability came to the united Gulf state.
The Arab Spring posed a serious challenge to the UAE. With its closed authoritarian system the ruling family were particularly vulnerable to the winds of change sweeping the region. The UAE’s wealth gave it an advantage over countries hit by protests such as Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, but did not make it immune from revolutionary fervour.
The Emirates faced challenges from two sources: the native population and the migrant community, which were interacting to pose a security threat to the regime. Abu Dhabi responded by reformulating its security strategy to manipulate citizens and migrants alike. The book outlines how the UAE staved off an Arab Spring uprising in the sheikhdom with the consolidation of military power, economic relations and industrial control. Perhaps the most interesting aspect was its digital strategy. “The UAE’s approach to electronic surveillance has accelerated since the Arab Spring… Due to the small expatriate population, however, the UAE has been able to effectively manage rights concerns within its borders. As a result of the speed of technological development, it has been nearly impossible for any state to pre-empt cyber vulnerabilities and, instead, many (including the UAE) initially look to institutional forms of control or the architecture of control.”
Aside from bolstering the capabilities of the intelligence services, the UAE responded to the Arab Spring through state control over the ICT sector as well as the media and telecommunications. Surveillance was expanded, justified by appeals to cultural sensibilities such as the protection of children, fighting extremism and preventing immoral sexual conduct. However, digital security goes beyond surveillance and includes online propaganda. “Technological platforms are being used to elicit support from the Emirati population and are often fused with cultural symbols and messages to maximise strategic messaging campaigns.”
Reinventing the Sheikhdom… is a necessary addition to a growing body of work seeking to make sense of how power functions and the internal tensions it creates. The UAE is an authoritarian regime and has much in common with other dictatorships. The fear of domestic rivalry among the elites as well as the population at large is at the core of security thinking; external threats are of secondary importance.
The Arab Spring thus created a legitimacy crisis and the UAE responded by becoming more authoritarian. Owing to the fact that there was no organised protest movement and the UAE is a wealthy state, by and large it did not opt for a violent crackdown as was seen elsewhere. Instead, the government sniffed out and crushed dissent through expanded surveillance.
Matthew Hedges sets out the different levers of power at the UAE’s disposal, as well as their limits. His book is an important contribution that will enable better research and informed commentary on a vital Middle Eastern power with a growing global reach.