Book Review: After the Sheikhs

The past two and a half years have seen a surfeit of literary works and academic articles attempting to dissect the Arab uprisings. Yet few have focused on some of the region’s most autocratic regimes in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) who have combined their vast wealth with an iron-fist to largely sidestep calls for reform and democratization.

Christopher Davidson’s latest book After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies is an attempt to explain the complacency of the Gulf States in a time when their region clamors for democratic reform. At first glance, the work is a courageous addition to the debate about whether these notoriously opaque autocracies will ever succumb to demands for wider representation.

Despite its lack of any convincing arguments that portend the eventual downfall of the GCC monarchs, Foreign Policy named the book as one of it top ten for 2012, and major Western news outlets from The Independent, The Guardian, and The Huffington Post have given it a pass. The book has now been republished in a 2013 US edition.

Davidson sets out to paint an alternate picture of these sheikhdoms to the inclusive, progressive and benevolent projects they espouse. Much in the same way Howard Zinn’s seminal work on American history seeks to challenge the dominant narrative, he manages to use historical context to elucidate the intricacy of these regimes’ power structures. The author picks away at the use of both domestic and external soft power underpinned by the protection of Western nations and demonization of subversive influences, especially that of Iran.

His descriptions of economic diversification and the co-optation of Western academia and finance through strategic sovereign investments is a useful reminder of how these petro powerhouses have hedged their bets in seemingly every direction.

Yet, in trying to convince readers that any sort of regime collapse is imminent, or even eventual, Davidson’s case is flimsy, at best. For an academic, there is little empirical evidence of the heralded collapse of the poorer Gulf states, something the author believes could occur in as little as two years.

His main contention is that these undoubtedly authoritarian and oppressive regimes will be unable to support generous social spending programs and lose support from the majority of their population. This is based largely on a regurgitation of historical fact and press reports from the last five or so years, which reads like a rapid fire account of press clippings rather than a deep and accurate analysis of the GCC monarchs’ impending demise.

An empirical model explaining how and when the breaking point is supposedly reached as resources decline and the demands of local populations rise never emerges. Throughout, the reader continually feels as if the narrative will lead to one, but it does not deliver.

The only concrete scenario Davidson proposes is that the death of the current GCC monarchs will lead to the downfall of their regimes. Yet, while succession is an issue amongst these authoritarian regimes, the processes have historically been rather smooth, with the exception of Qatar with its feud amongst the Al Thanis.

The first two chapters (around half the book) are a historical overview with a few tidbits that could be interesting for those who have no previous knowledge of the region. But it will ultimately bore anyone who has ever lived or visited the Gulf for anything more than a holiday.

In the chapter titled “The Coming Collapse” he takes the reader through the pressures that regimes have faced since the uprisings spread throughout the region. One anticipates that he will at least offer some kind of scenario as to how all the inherent internal and external weaknesses will culminate in a systemic collapse, but it never occurs. Instead, Davidson tells of how the regimes largely weathered the storm through their usual combination of repression and largesse. Indeed, by the end of the chapter, and the book, Qatar even looks to be the outlier that will most likely survive his doomsday predictions.

The conclusion, where Davidson anticipates that the poorer states will fall, is only nine pages long and goes through another last gasp of recent incidents rather than any final structural analysis.

Even though Davidson has lived and taught in the Gulf, it’s suspect that he never considers the amount of actual vocal and vibrant support that many locals have for their rulers, much unlike the apathy and eventual anger of Arabs who eventually overthrew their autocrats. Like many other Western writers, he falls into Western ethnocentrism, overemphasizing social media as the factor that “crucially” drives subversive change amongst all Arabs, who he also seems to perceive as some kind of monolith instead of the fractured people they have proven to be.

Almost as a force of habit, the Western publications that heralded Davidson, as well as the work itself, take on an orientalist approach devoid of any critical analysis around the idea that all peoples will automatically prefer the uncertainties of democratic life to a comfortable state subsidized existence.

What they continue to miss is that one cannot expect to produce the kind of society-wide phenomena needed to effect a true transition resembling those from Tunisia to Yemen without a prolonged period of wide inequalities and discrimination between rich and poor, not the middle class and the uber-rich. Because, ultimately, people do not revolt when they are in a mall with a ski lift and can’t afford to buy the next iPhone. They rise up when they tire of loitering on the curb hungry and jobless as fancy cars with government plates pass by them by like the days of their lives.

First published in Al Akhbar English on June 21, 2013.

Coughin it up

Smoking law lebanon
An all too familiar sight (Photo: The Daily Star)

Every year Lebanon loses the population of a small village, about 3,500 people, not to emigration but to needless death from smoking-related diseases.

For all the furor around Lebanon’s current smoking ban, little is said about the simple policy instrument that has proven the most effective in reducing tobacco consumption and raising government revenue around the world: higher tobacco taxes. When you ask a Lebanese politician why our state does not apply this instrument and each year fails to raise excise taxes on tobacco, the immutable answer is smuggling. At first it seems a logical retort, and there is an historical precedence to back it up. 

Lebanon once increased tobacco taxes as a proportion to pack price from the current 51 percent to 113 percent in 1999. Back then, the revenues of the Regie Libanaise du Tabac et Tombacs (Regie), Lebanon’s tobacco monopoly under the Ministry of Finance, fell by around half. The tax increase was rescinded when an “unstoppable” increase in smuggling jeopardized the Regie’s ability to pay subsidies to farmers who held onto land that was on the frontline of the war with Israel.

The “patriotic” argument for tobacco subsidies appears slim if one notes a recent Gallup survey whereby 88 percent of Lebanese would support dropping these subsidies in favor of a more equitable social safety net. More importantly, it is questionable if the Regie, which maintains a barter agreement with “Big Tobacco”, actually saw revenue drop because of smuggling when taxes rose.    

What likely happened was that Big Tobacco intentionally lowered imports in response to the hike in tobacco taxes. Subsequently, the Regie, being close to tobacco firms, blamed smuggling as the sole cause of its troubles and succeeded in lobbying the government to overturn the tax rise. What’s more, Big Tobacco has a long and documented history of battling tobacco taxes in Lebanon as well as encouraging illicit trade. 

It is telling that tobacco taxes have not risen since 1999 despite all the evidence that it would benefit everyone but those with vested interests. According to a recent study from the American University of Beirut, raising the average price of a packet of imported cigarettes from LL2,500 ($1.67) to LL8,250 ($5.47) would bring down consumption by 22 percent, even if smuggling increased by 200 percent. Indeed, the government as a whole would have gained 55 percent more revenue — $188 million for 2012 sales — from tobacco excise taxes by raising average prices to just LL4,750 ($3.21). This drop in consumption would result in 770 fewer Lebanese citizens dying from smoking-related diseases per year. 

Given that cancer treatment makes up anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of the Ministry of Health’s annual spending, the effect it would have on its ability to address other public health issues cannot be understated. 

The notion that nothing can be done about smuggling should also be stubbed out. Part of the tobacco tax revenue stream could easily be allocated to combat smuggling through better information and identification systems of tobacco products — unique barcodes, invisible ink, radio frequency identification and high-tech tax stamps.

In fact, smuggling has much more to do with corruption — whether it be petty bribes at borders or political involvement in illicit trade — than with prices. Egypt and Morocco are countries that faced similar problems of smuggling and corruption and also have tobacco monopolies. They increased taxation on tobacco with good success, witnessing substantial falls in consumption, rises in government revenue and positive public health outcomes.

In addition to the number of lives saved and money to be made, there is an added urgency to introduce higher tobacco taxes because the relevance of the indoor smoking ban introduced last year is waning. According to the Tobacco Free Initiative, a civil society organization, less than 50 percent of bars and restaurants were applying the smoking ban last month, down from 90 percent at the end of last year. Consumption is also on the rise, as state revenue from tobacco excise taxes in 2012 increased by a whopping 26 percent year-on-year from higher imports. 

But, just like a cancer, Big Tobacco’s unfaithful arguments against tobacco smuggling still permeate the Lebanese body politic. Unless we start to treat it now, that cancer will eventually kill any policy reform, and many more Lebanese.

First published in Executive’s June 2013 print edition