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.