Christopher Davidson has chosen an ideal time to publish his history and contemporary political analysis of the capital of the United Arab Emirates. His book is likely to see significant sales as academics, journalists, nervous investors or even curious ordinary citizens seek to understand the recent economic drama in the UAE. Yet, while all will find Davidson’s text to be both engaging and useful, it is clear that this was not a hastily penned attempt to cash in on high public interest. Davidson’s Abu Dhabi is instead a meticulously researched account of the emirate that provides both a solid historical and social background of the UAE capital and a detailed snapshot of its current economic and political situation.
The author’s track record is worth mentioning. His 2008 book Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success was published at the height of the Dubai investment bubble. As investors and journalists rushed to extol what was seen as the sheikhdom’s sound growth model and limitless potential, Davidson offered a more lukewarm analysis. He dared to mention significant structural cracks in the Dubai system, including the economy’s dependence on the whims of the global market. This flaw, combined with the “unknown long-term consequences of the spiraling real-estate speculation industry” that he quietly mentioned, soon caused the economic chaos that continues in Dubai today. Davidson rejected the appeal of easy, superficial analysis, and his unique foresight vindicated this methodical, research-based approach.
With this success under his belt, Davidson applied the same scrupulous attention to Abu Dhabi. As in Dubai, the past is prologue. Abu Dhabi’s conservative leadership, resource wealth and regional dominance influence it today in much the same way that a laissez-faire economy and heterogeneous society shaped its free-wheeling smaller neighbor. The first chapter is a thorough account of the region’s tribal politics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Abu Dhabi’s rulers harnessed their pearling wealth, relations with the powerful British Navy, and a constantly shifting system of local alliances to extend the emirate’s regional influence. Sheikh Zayed bin Khalifa al-Nahyan, who ruled the emirate for the second half of the nineteenth century, eventually quelled his family’s rampant fratricide, while the decline of neighboring tribes allowed Zayed and Abu Dhabi to assume a regional leadership role.
Yet, as Davidson’s second chapter explains, this strong authority splintered under Zayed’s heirs. Fratricide and political instability returned, combined with economic difficulties caused by competition from cheaper, cultured pearls. Sheikh Shakhbut bin Sultan al-Nahyan assumed control in 1928, beginning a long lapse into further stagnation and isolationism. Shakhbut was hesitant to tap the emirate’s oil wealth and refused to use the eventual revenue from such activities to establish basic social services. His resolutely antibusiness policies drove away many citizens and aggravated potential foreign investors.
This frustration culminates in Davidson’s third chapter. By 1966, Shakhbut’s deficiencies drove the British to quietly replace him with his brother, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This move had immediate benefits for the emirate. Zayed encouraged the investment and development that his brother had prevented, and he used the revenues from such activities to create the tax-free welfare systems that still exist for every national. Zayed’s visionary leadership quickly restored Abu Dhabi’s reputation as a natural place for investment and reclaimed its former position of influence. Zayed used this wealth and leverage to weld the disparate and often quarrelsome entities of the lower Gulf together into a confederation of united emirates. Following the British withdrawal in
1971, the UAE was born, and Zayed was a natural choice for its first president. Zayed steered the UAE through its early days, as tensions between centralization and independence threatened the union. While the poorer emirates could be kept in line through frequent infusions of Abu Dhabi’s cash, wealthy Dubai could forgo these bribes and opt for a more independent path, challenging the system. Attempts to federally regulate financial industries, to centrally plan transport facilities, or even to coordinate a unified foreign policy were stymied by these tensions. Only in 1996 did Dubai’s dwindling oil reserves compel it to submit its own defense force to central control, accepting Abu Dhabi’s authority over the UAE.
With his fourth chapter, Davidson leaves behind chronological history and instead examines current conditions, devoting a chapter each to the topics of Abu Dhabi’s economic system, ruling family, governmental structures and lingering problems. By employing the same meticulous research that characterized his historical narrative, Davidson constructs a snapshot of the emirate today that is sure to be the most interesting section of the book for those who seek insight into Abu Dhabi’s current standing.
The fourth chapter highlights major industrial sectors in Abu Dhabi, beginning with oil and gas. Davidson then analyzes two related industries, briefly mentioning the petroleum-products sector before beginning a lengthy section on international investment activities funded by Abu Dhabi’s oil wealth. The influential Abu Dhabi Investment Authority is likely the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, and its investments in foreign manufacturers and financial institutions have so far been prudent. But Davidson devotes the majority of the chapter to the growing non-oil sectors of the economy. The emirate has pushed to become internationally competitive in aerospace, hi-tech, munitions, shipbuilding and other sectors, often using the aforementioned sovereign wealth funds to invest in established companies that can lend expertise. Tourism and real estate are part of this diversification, but Davidson mentions that these fickle industries are complements to Abu Dhabi’s expansion and not, as in Dubai, the foundations for it. As he moves to contemporary analysis, Davidson often notes such important distinctions from Dubai, in an attempt to illustrate the stronger financial foundations of the UAE capital. Yet some rather obvious criticisms of the Abu Dhabi economic system go unmentioned. For example, the aerospace and other sectors all cater mostly to public-sector clients in the UAE, threatening to turn these industries into lazy recipients of government subsidies rather than globally competitive manufacturers. Criticisms in this section seem far less pointed than in Dubai, though it remains to be seen if this indicates unwarranted optimism by Davidson or simply the existence of a superior system.
Davidson’s book stalls somewhat in his fifth chapter, as he pauses to describe the current family structures of the Al Nahyan, to briefly mention related ruling clans and to estimate the standing of current political actors. Given Abu Dhabi’s legacy of familial strife, such an examination is perhaps necessary. Yet this chapter too often reads like a mere list of names and credentials. It indeed provides a “who’s who” of Abu Dhabi politics, and would be a useful reference for those seeking detailed biographical or ancestral information on power brokers currently in government. But Davidson’s fifth chapter is mostly raw information and provides little useful analysis of the many important figures he mentions. Meticulous details are plentiful, but Davidson suggests few meaningful trends to interpret the facts he provides.
Abu Dhabi’s final two chapters, which discuss governmental systems and unresolved structural problems, are Davidson’s best. He highlights trends and possible problems that only his meticulous research could have exposed. Abu Dhabi’s rulers, as leaders of both the emirate and the entire union, preside over a dizzying array of local and federal governmental bodies. Some of these institutions, which claim to represent citizens and other constituents, are powerless or include only hand-picked members. The monarchy has instead employed welfare services, Islamic identity and international aid as tools to boost its legitimacy.
The book closes with an extensive chapter on lingering problems. Abu Dhabi’s security concerns are analyzed first, but the focus is on internal UAE problems. The complacency engendered by a generous welfare system and the emirate’s failing educational system both threaten Abu Dhabi’s global competitiveness. Governmental and economic secrecy, including media censorship, will continue to worry investors still reeling from the opaque arrangements that worsened Dubai’s crash. Continued reports of human-rights abuses and the emirate’s ongoing boycott of Israel also remain blemishes that threaten its international reputation. Davidson’s measured analysis and well-chosen examples illustrate that, while these problems are contained today, they might threaten the emirate in the future.
Disappointingly, Davidson offers no conclusion to tie together the various aspects of his study. It is of course difficult to offer meaningful closure on a topic that is still shifting and evolving as rapidly as Abu Dhabi. But the absence of any concluding remarks is a missed opportunity for Davidson, and provides for a rather abrupt transition from the specific details of his final paragraph to his pages of copious notes and sources.
Abu Dhabi would also benefit from occasional images. Maps of the emirate or of the capital city would make his references to geographical features and borders more effective. Charts explaining the complex ties of the Al Nahyan family tree, or the overlapping emirate-wide and federal governmental structures, would be of immense help; those readers without encyclopedic familiarity with the UAE might appreciate a diagram or two.
Yet these criticisms should not detract from what is overall a very successful study. Davidson states his goal clearly in his introduction: to provide a “comprehensive overview” of Abu Dhabi’s historical trajectory and “current pre-eminence.” In this, he succeeds admirably, producing a useful and accessible study. His arguments are limited; Davidson prefers to provide impartial information and context rather than support for his own opinions. Some may be disappointed by Davidson’s avoidance of firm predictions of the emirate’s future, yet this was never his intention. Instead, by cataloguing the historical, political and cultural forces at work in the emirate, he enables his audience to better understand contemporary Abu Dhabi and thus to make their own forecasts.
If Davidson’s book is to be measured by its predictive power, it is perhaps already a success. Abu Dhabi’s $10 billion bailout of Dubai last year was hailed as “surprising” and “unexpected,” yet Abu Dhabi shows it to be anything but that. The wealthy UAE capital has always sought to unify the federation, and Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan was unlikely to let Dubai’s negative publicity continue to harm the UAE’s reputation forever. Instead, Khalifa forced Dubai to suffer temporarily, reminding its leaders of the dire consequences that awaited them without Abu Dhabi’s protection. With the lesson learned, Khalifa supplied the needed loan, drawing the once-independent Dubai closer under his control while rescuing the UAE’s financial reputation. Davidson’s book appeared months before these developments but still describes the long legacy of intertribal politics and Abu Dhabi’s historical desires for closer union that are both clearly at work in these and other deals. Investment bankers and real-estate tycoons may not care much for nineteenth-century genealogies or detailed accounts of shifting tribal alliances. Yet Davidson’s historically grounded method of analysis has now proven itself valuable for Abu Dhabi as well as Dubai. This should certainly convince them that these topics are indeed worthy of their attention.