From Sheikhs to Sultanism

Statecraft and Authority in Saudi Arabia and the UAE

Christopher M. Davidson

An expert analysis of how the Saudi and Abu Dhabi crown princes, MBS and MBZ, have ushered in a new era of governance defined by personal, authoritarian rule.

Bibliographic Details
From Sheikhs to Sultanism Hardback
February 2021£35
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Muhammad bin Salman Al-Saud and Muhammad bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the respective princely strongmen of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have torn up the old rules. They have spurred game-changing economic master plans, presided over vast anti-corruption crackdowns, tackled entrenched religious forces, and overseen the mass arrest of critics. In parallel, they also appear to have replaced the old ‘sheikhly’ consensus systems of their predecessors with something more autocratic, more personalistic, and perhaps even analytically distinct.

These are the two wealthiest and most populous Gulf monarchies, and increasingly important global powers—Saudi Arabia is a G20 member, and the UAE is the 2020 World Expo host. Such sweeping changes to their statecraft and authority structures could well end up having a direct impact, for better or worse, on policies, economies and individual lives all around the world.

Christopher M. Davidson tests the hypothesis that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now effectively contemporary or even ‘advanced’ sultanates, and situates these influential states within an international model of autocratic authoritarianism. Drawing on a range of primary sources, including new interviews and surveys, From Sheikhs to Sultanism puts forward an original, empirically grounded interpretation of the rise of both MBS and MBZ.


Christopher M. Davidson has long-standing research interests in the comparative politics of the Gulf states, and was previously a reader at Durham University and an assistant professor at Zayed University, UAE. His publications include Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success; After the Sheikhs; and Shadow Wars.


‘A remarkable volume from one of the most provocative and original scholars of Gulf Arab politics. Davidson fuses a sweeping and critical literature survey with detailed empirical research and fresh theoretical insights. This is a must-read for all those concerned with authoritarianism’s dynamism around the globe.’ — Frederic Wehrey, Senior Fellow, Middle East Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

‘In this impressively written and meticulously detailed book, Davidson provides rich and comparative insight into the two men who, between them, have reshaped—and look set to dominate—regional politics in the Gulf for the foreseeable future.’ — Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Fellow for the Middle East, Baker Institute for Public Policy, Rice University, and author of Qatar and the Gulf Crisis

‘Davidson’s newest book offers detailed, nuanced and theoretically refreshing insight on current political dynamics in the Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Rich in empirical detail and engaging to read, this book will appeal to all those with an interest in contemporary Emirati and Saudi politics.’ — Zahra Babar, Associate Director for Research, CIRS, Georgetown University in Qatar

‘With this new book, Davidson continues his tradition of posing provocative questions about Gulf politics. Examining technologies of power and political authority, he provides absorbing insight into the evolution of two of the most influential states in regional politics. A must-read.’ — Simon Mabon, Professor of Politics, Philosophy and Religion, Lancaster University