Abu Dhabi: Oil and Beyond

October 15, 2009

Christopher Davidson's new book on Abu Dhabi is certainly not one to be placed in the category of "do we really need another one of these"? It is a timely and thoughtful contribution to the thus-far scanty literature on the emirate, discussing its "dramatic trajectory" over the past two centuries. It does this well.

Evocative of powerful sovereign wealth funds, major oil reserves, glittering malls, academic hubs and an awareness of art and environment, Davidson's book rightly begins by listing the economic, material and cultural riches that are fast turning Abu Dhabi into a worldwide household name. Yet the emirate's meteoric rise into global public consciousness does not have its roots in shooting stardom. Carefully and in great detail, the author traces its history from the emergence of a viable desert sheikhdom in the beginning of the 19th century to the emirate's current position as the dominant centralising and wealth-creating force of the United Arab Emirates. Specialists and non-specialists will be treated to a critical yet deeply sympathetic account of the raison d'etre and very identity of the emirate, past and present.

The challenges to Abu Dhabi's existence have been manifold, as Davidson's historical narrative in the first three sections of the book shows. The creation of an island capital in the late 18th century and the consolidation of the Al-Nahyan sheikhdom's influence over strategic hinterland oases and bountiful pearling grounds gave cause for external threats from both Eastern and Western neighbours, with repeated interventions by representatives of the British Empire. There were also internal threats of secessionism, coups and economic downturns to contend with.

The response of the Al-Nahyan leadership was admirably Machiavellian, a mix of "military might, artful diplomacy, and good fortune". Basing the legitimacy of the sheikhdom on love, fear and respect, as well as the co-optation of friendly tribes, appears to be one of the most stable continuities of politics in Abu Dhabi. Even the "great decline" of the mid-20th century, characterised by fratricidal factionalism and poor economic management despite the discovery of oil, did not halt the emirate's progress. Under the leadership of Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahyan (1971-2004), the backwater capital of dwindling fortunes and outward emigration was transformed into a centre of major socio-economic development and a new federal union of independent emirates.

Realising the emirate's vision of collective security and wealth creation was, however, only possible through concessions to modernisation - the hallmark of growing internationalism and globalisation. Davidson cleverly summons up the idea of a tribal capitalism that allows for continuities of old alliances and monarchic authority while balancing the demands of the citizenship for welfare and representation in a modernising state.

Yet despite the success the allocative state has had in distributing great wealth generated by oil and more, and despite the loyalty the ruling family commands through its support for socially vital causes ranging from religion to history, culture and the environment, old and new problems remain. Davidson flags the issues of unresolved territorial disputes with neighbours, gross wealth inequalities within the federation, low local education levels and standards, lack of integration of nationals into the new economy, indecisive political reform, violations of human rights and media censorship.

While the overall account is compelling and at times concerning, readers may want to know more about which issues are projections of the world to the west of Abu Dhabi and which are key national priorities. As this highly enjoyable book demonstrates, with the world watching and its people asking questions, Abu Dhabi has everything to play for.

Abu Dhabi: Oil and Beyond

By Christopher M. Davidson. C. Hurst & Company, 6pp, £30.00. ISBN 9781850659785. Published 16 July 2009

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