In the planet of the Sheikhs

Kinship and bonds of blood are firmly at the center of Sheikhs’ social life.


In the planet of the Sheikhs, history is also a family affair

From Riyadh to Doha to Abu Dhabi, the diplomacy between geopolitics and dynastic interests

August 26, 2019 (La Stampa, Italy) – In museums and foundations that sprout like mushrooms in Doha, Abu Dhabi and other Gulf capitals, hit the inevitable genealogical trees on the walls, intertwining lineages and lineages that lead from ancestors to current rulers. It is like a stamp, a way of marking the territory. But it is also a clue to how things work in this region of the world, where family, Arab identity and a sense of belonging are firmly at the center of social life. There is also Islam, obviously, a unifying and sometimes rivalry factor. But to count, especially in the rooms of the buttons, are first of all kinship and bonds of blood.

In the Arab world, history has always been a family affair, starting with the schism between Shiites and Sunnis: an unresolved inheritance question par excellence between those who claim that the leadership of Islam belongs to the direct descendants of the Prophet and who claims a role for the community of the faithful.

In the Gulf, it was a family epic since pre-Islamic times, for example with the fabulous migration of the Azds to the origin of Oman. And the birth of the largest kingdom, the Saudi one, was also a family saga, with the Ibn Saud clan who, in a night of 1902, managed to wrest from the rival fort the Riyadh Al Masmak.

The nineteenth-century ancestors of the other Gulf monarchies are also family and tribal. It began with the pirate raids against foreign ships; and it continued with the truces and the maritime agreements that London found itself negotiating with the tribes, becoming its guarantor until the independence of 1971.

Emirates, Qatar and Bahrain entered history like this, escaping a bulky neighbor. Kuwait, on the other hand, is a preexisting, commercial wager of the ancestors of the current Emir who built the harbor in the eighteenth century.

Gas and oil have changed everything, in the six Gulf countries and in their relations with the rest of the world. Yet families and tribes have been able to perpetuate themselves, just scroll through the family trees from which we started. And even emirs, sultans and sheikhs have changed their skin, although on top of their thoughts there is as always the longevity of the dynasty: which helps to understand the cautions about reforms, modernizing and internationalist impulses, internal rivalries and endless mixing of cards in the game of alliances.

They are inscrutable dynamics, more than anything else to imagine. Why Mohamed bin Salman, Mohamed bin Zayed, and Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (strong men in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Doha), enchant audiences with amazing works such as Vision 2030, Expo 2020 and the World Cup in 2022? But then it is behind the scenes of regional diplomacy that they try to weld between geopolitics and dynastic interest: at stake are Hormuz, Aden and Bab el Mandeb, the ways to export gas and oil, the future of Yemen, Sudan and Libya, the role of Iran, that of Turkey which aspires to lead the Sunnis, areas of influence between the Indian Ocean, the Horn of Africa, the Sahel… It is the speed with which the Sheikhs know how to make decisions, make and break alliances, affect the most difficult theaters. And the fact that they do it together, from antithetical positions or within opposing international camps, reveals the tribal calculation, tactical and rarely long-term behind their respective moves.

It is however another planet with respect to the West, where democratic control can only reduce space and expand time. The sheikh diplomacy is different, one might say reckless. In the sense that their skilfull, tentacular and super-technological courts are able to do everything and the opposite of everything in real time.

It is argued that monarchies are capable of staying close to their citizens more than a republic. And that their secret, apart from oil and foreign support, is all in the ability to co-opt and create consensus through donations of privileges and re-distributive measures. Certainly the decision-making processes in the hands of a few guarantee speed, confidentiality and freedom of action. But they also explain the hesitations, where more or less, in involving women, civil society and minorities, without which it is not possible to produce something that resembles a long-term strategy based on the general interest.

All this evokes the other side of the Gulf by force. Because beyond political, military and religious, the competition between Iran and the Gulf monarchies is also between two different cultural, social and governance models. Iran has been an Islamic republic since 1979, dynasties and royal families have disappeared with the revolution, and power belongs to religious, civil and military institutions, where the Persian myth of power coexists with the Shiite one of the vocation to resistance. The future will reveal the fate of the two models. But of course, judging by the tensions of these months and the risks in terms of collective security, neither of them seems really up to the times.

By Fernando Gentilini

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