Foreign Policy Essay

The New Rules of Monarchy in the Gulf

By Kristin Smith Diwan
Sunday, September 3, 2017, 10:00 AM

Editor’s Note: Political and policy change in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states used to proceed at a glacial pace. No more. Gulf states are quarreling with each other and intervening right and left in the Arab world. Kristin Diwan of the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington argues that the new media environment and a new generation of leaders mean that the old assumptions about what Gulf leaders want have fundamentally changed. As a result, policymakers will need a fresh playbook to handle today's Gulf leaders.


This summer has seen significant developments in the Arabian Peninsula, from the embargo placed on Qatar by four Arab countries, to the change in succession in Saudi Arabia. These actions represent an extraordinary break with tradition. The ongoing crisis over Qatar is the most serious rupture in the history of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). And 31-year-old Muhammed bin Salman’s (MBS) rapid ascendance as heir to the throne represents an unprecedented consolidation of power, unseen since the founding of the Kingdom.

The assertiveness of both the Gulf states leading the standoff with Qatar and MBS seizing the mantle of the Kingdom’s founder from his elders is informed by the high stakes of the current moment. The chaos in the Arab world is breeding a zero-sum competition for regional influence, not only with Iran, but between differing political visions championed by Gulf rivals as well. Meanwhile the difficult socioeconomic transformation being undertaken by Gulf states is eliminating tolerance for dissent, especially from a presumed Gulf brother like Qatar. These events reflect a fundamental change in the nature of Gulf monarchies: a generational shift with implications that will reverberate across the region and beyond.

This generational transition is creating new rules of monarchy. Collective deliberation within ruling houses is being replaced by individual—and national—ambition. The high stakes of guiding policy in the Gulf are increasing the temptation to intervene in neighboring royal houses, an act once deterred by self-preservation. This has been further complicated by a generational technological shift. The agendas and rivalries of aspiring monarchs are now playing out within a new media environment that has upended the traditional discretion with which royal dealings are usually conducted.

New Generation Competition

Gulf monarchies have followed certain norms which are intended to bring stability to an inherently competitive process of succession and to provide continuity to the state policies pursued by ruling families. Gulf dynastic monarchies are built upon a commitment to power sharing that encourages deliberation and a deference to age that supports incremental change. However, the current transition from the founding generation to one shaped by a new information age is challenging those long-standing traditions and practices.

The younger monarchs that have come to power in the last decade or so are ambitious. They have sought to centralize power at home and to extend influence abroad. Each one of them has changed the strategic direction of his country in fundamental ways, and has not been reticent to intervene abroad through media, mediation, and even military campaigns. This ambition has led to rivalries among the new generation of monarchs. The competition between the small but influential sheikhdoms of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are instructive: Both have dramatically increased their domestic and regional ambitions, initially funded by the historic petroleum surpluses of the 2000s.

The younger monarchs that have come to power in the last decade or so are ambitious. They have sought to centralize power at home and to extend influence abroad.

After overthrowing his father in 1995, Sheikh Hamad al-Thani embarked on the rapid modernization of Qatar, investing heavily in the liquid natural gas production which would fuel the small country’s economic development and foreign outreach. Regionally the emirate is best known for the establishment of Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite television network that revolutionized Arab media. With Al-Jazeera as a platform, Qatar has embarked on a policy of influence abroad capitalizing on its connection to Arab publics. This media outreach, reinforced with diplomatic engagement, has brought Qatar in touch with popular movements, from the Muslim Brotherhood to new Arab nationalists and youthful reformers. Its championing of Arab revolutions also bought it serious accusations of ties to Salafi jihadists in Syria and Libya.

Simultaneously, UAE Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, working in consultation with the ruler of Dubai, Muhammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, has set his country on a path of modernization, economic diversification, and regional influence. Under his guidance, the UAE has been brought under the centralizing authority of Abu Dhabi and a new nationalism. He has pursued Emirati interests—marked by a sharp disdain for political Islam, among other things—through both military interventions and political alliances, including in Egypt and Libya. The UAE’s power projection has been magnified by its close ties and ideological alignment with the new authority in Saudi Arabia, King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, whose rapid rise to power has shredded the incrementalism and power-sharing that characterized earlier Saudi rulers. Their partnership, despite some differentiation in national interests, has driven the Gulf intervention to counter the Houthi alliance in Yemen, and now the current power move against Qatar.

The conflicting political visions and international commitments of the two Gulf littoral states has led to increasing friction, especially since the outbreak of the Arab Spring. Qatar and the UAE have backed rival factions in Egypt and Libya, and assembled competing transnational associations of Muslim clerics at home. Frustration with Qatar’s willingness to provoke through its media and its welcoming embrace of regional dissidents—including from other Gulf countries—led Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain to temporarily withdraw their ambassadors in 2014.

Today’s crisis marks a notable escalation from that stand off. The severing of diplomatic ties, accompanied by the blocking of Qatari access to land crossings and airspace, are meant to exert maximum pressure to compel the Qatari leadership to fall in line behind a Saudi and Emirati-led policy of escalation with Iran and curtailment of independent Islamic movements. These actions mark an abrupt break not only with the principles of free movement of people and capital realized through GCC agreements, but also with the implicit protection provided for fellow monarchs.

Foreign Temptation

The GCC was formed for mutual defense, notably from Iran, and for mutual enrichment through ease of movement and financial investment. However, especially since the 2011 uprising, analysts have regarded it primarily as a monarch’s club—providing support to maintain the ruling royal order across the Gulf. The drive for royal preservation was so strong that in 2011 the GCC considered adding Jordan and Morocco, geographically far from the Gulf, to its membership. Yet the current Qatar conflict pits a coalition of Gulf monarchs against a fellow ruling family, and even hints at its overthrow, with media and social media attacks against the current emir, Sheikh Tameem, and his father phrased in shockingly personal terms.

It is certainly the case that distrust has hindered Gulf unity and the effectiveness of the GCC. In particular, the smaller Gulf states have always justifiably been wary of dominance from their much larger Saudi brother. Still, the current state of competition and confrontation goes beyond earlier rivalries and looks very different from the days of relative contentment focused on state building and mutual enrichment under the U.S. security umbrella and GCC framework.

The initial declaration of the embargo in June by the quartet of countries (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt) included an appeal intended to distinguish the Qatari people from their rulers, alluding to the “full respect and appreciation for the brotherly Qatari people.”*

This was followed in the ensuing weeks by the Saudi, Emirati, and even Egyptian press promoting alternative princes from the ruling al-Thani family who openly condemned the current Emir and his father, Sheikh Hamad. The Saudi press amplified the point by publishing articles tracing the history of coups in Qatar and the Emirati ambassador to Russia told the Guardian, “Qatar has a fine history of regime change on its own. It is up to the Qatari people and the royal family to decide if that is the right approach or not.”

More recently, Saudi Arabia intensified speculation of a royal coup by welcoming the unauthorized mediation of a Qatari prince from a rival line to settle a dispute over Qatari participation in the hajj. The Saudi media praised Abdullah bin Ali al-Thani’s mediation and touted his royal precursors as the “builders of modern Qatar,” while a prominent columnist openly encouraged the creation of a government in exile. An advisor to the Saudi royal court active on social media courted the idea of popular rebellion in Qatar, commenting on reports of demonstrations within Qatar—denied by a representative of the Qatari government—and claiming the popular Arab Spring chant “Irhal!” or “Leave, Tamim!” was trending in Qatari social media.

The reaction within Qatar, at least publicly, has been to rally around the emir. Early in the crisis a Qatari artist created a stencil profile of Sheikh Tamim which became ubiquitous as an instrument to display loyalty and solidarity; it appeared on huge billboards, personal bumper stickers, and social media accounts. The preferred Saudi honorific of Muhammed bin Salman and his father, King Salman, as “decisive” was countered by the introduction of a new honorific for Sheikh Tamim as “glorious,” which has now been adopted not only on social media but also by state-owned companies. The personalization of the conflict, and the seriousness of the accusations being made, make it difficult to conceive how the GCC can go back to facilitating cooperation amongst Gulf countries, at least not under the current leadership.

The New Media Environment

Gulf ruling families are known for discretion, and for good reason. The preservation of the monarchy dictates keeping family feuds contained within the family. But today’s crises and transitions are playing out in a vastly expanded information landscape, with social media a ubiquitous medium for information sharing and power projection. The Qatar standoff has been accompanied by a ferocious media war with alleged hacks, media leaks, hyperbolic accusations, and personal threats. Indeed, much of the battle itself is over media coverage, namely the transnational outreach of Al-Jazeera and the many new media platforms sponsored by Qatar and popular with Islamists and Arab youth.

[T]oday’s crises and transitions are playing out in a vastly expanded information landscape, with social media a ubiquitous medium for information sharing and power projection.

It is striking that there is so little restraint; state media outlets in the anti-Qatar coalition are seeking to rile up injured pride and new nationalism within the public, in contrast with traditional Gulf stances that have sought to distance the public from involvement in foreign policy. While some eagerly participate in the confrontation via social media, others watch in astonishment. One Kuwaiti observer noted the new dynamic in a highly circulated tweet: “The strangest crisis in the history of the Gulf and worthy of study. While the media wails, the people are calm.” This courtship of public engagement is only directed toward promoting the government’s line. The embargoing countries have deployed blunt tactics to prevent their citizens from expressing any sympathy for Qatar via social media, declaring it to be a crime subject to jail terms of up to 15 years and recently publicizing the adoption of a unified “black list” of both terrorists and detractors who attack the anti-Qatar quartet and spread lies among their people.

The use of social media to express public support was also mobilized during the ascension of MBS as heir to the Saudi throne, as Saudi public personalities and social media influencers recited the bayah, or oath of loyalty, once expressed in the royal court. The elaborate orchestration of both the shift in Saudi power and the Qatar confrontation speak to the importance of media messaging and the massaging of public opinion in what were once elite domains of succession and foreign policy.

Adapting to the New Rules

A new generation of Gulf monarchs are dealing with a new set of international and domestic challenges that include greater uncertainty about the extent of America’s commitment to their security and publics empowered by much greater access to information and education. They are responding with more assertive foreign policies and a more nationalist frame to accommodate public engagement. But these solutions bring their own challenges. Foreign interventions and rivalries have replaced the traditional Gulf caution in foreign policy. And while greater consolidation of power under dominant personalities may streamline decision-making, it may amplify errors and leave ruling houses more isolated. In some ways, the new ruling dynamics are bringing the Gulf monarchies closer to the Arab republics, where strongmen rally publics behind a nationalist ethos.

The reaction of government officials in the United States and the United Kingdom, which have traditionally acted as power brokers among the Gulf states, betray a genuine surprise at the new Gulf assertiveness and some bewilderment over how to manage the new rivalries. The new rules of monarchy under the next generation of Gulf leaders may require a fresh playbook.

*Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the embargo targeting Qatar began in May. The policy was implemented in early June.