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Past and Present Leaderships in the Arabian Peninsula: Historical and Conceptual Approaches

Panel XI-9, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
The Arabian Peninsula is witnessing a period of generational change in its leadership. From Oman to Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates, new leaders have taken over after the decades-long rule of their predecessors. Examples of this trend include Haitham bin Tariq, who became the Sultan of Oman in 2020 after the 50-year rule of Sultan Qaboos; Mohammed bin Salman, de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia since 2015 and the first to gather such power beyond the sons of the late King Abdulaziz; or Tamim of Qatar, who took over in 2013 after his father, Hamad, stepped down. What does this generational change mean for the Arabian Peninsula? Is it affecting its politics? This timely moment provides exceptional grounds for academic research about notions of leadership in the Arabian Peninsula, past and present. Such research addresses topics that range from the classic research question about the stability of the monarchies in the Middle East to studies on heritage and nation building, touching topics like civil society, opposition or lack of thereof, political parties, elite formation, domestic and foreign policy as related to leadership, and questions regarding frameworks like rentier state theory or tribalism. How do all these notions relate to the development or change in leadership in the Arabian Peninsula? Does the new generation of leaders inform these research questions and topics in any different way? By focusing on a series of case studies across disciplines, this panel sheds light on narratives and performances of leadership in the Arabian Peninsula during the twentieth and twenty-first century. These studies include (i) a paper about social and political changes in Oman under Sultan Haitham, (ii) a historical account on the formation of a new social contract also in Qatar during the Global Sixties, (iii) a paper that asks about the role of tribal vs. ideological affinities in party politics in Kuwait, (iv) an empirical examination about the implications of the general election in Qatar, and (v) a study about elite dynamics and foreign policy, also in Qatar. Bringing innovative and empirical research, but also building up on the existing literature, this panel contributes to the discussion on leadership across disciplines and establishes new dialogues within Middle East studies, in particular regarding the Arabian Peninsula, engaging with debates in Political Science, Sociology, History, International Relations, and other allied fields.
International Relations/Affairs
Political Science
  • Dr. Michael Herb -- Discussant
  • Javier Guirado -- Organizer, Presenter, Chair
  • Courtney Freer -- Presenter
  • Leticia Rodriguez -- Presenter
  • Luciano Zaccara -- Presenter
  • Luciano Zaccara
    The first ever Qatar Shura Council elections held in October 2021 were seen as a significant step towards increasing citizens’ inclusion in the political process. However, the electoral process faced numerous challenges, such as the legal framework’s limitations regarding voting rights and the distribution of voters among tribally determined electoral districts. Many Qatari citizens complained about the lack of inclusiveness of the electoral law that affected particular tribal groups, as well as it made clear that women’s chances of winning a seat were almost impossible. Despite these challenges, the elections presented an opportunity for Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani’s new leadership to increase citizens’ awareness and engagement with the political process, even boosted by the ongoing blockade. The elections aimed at providing citizens with some capacity to elect at least their tribal representatives to the legislative chamber, but without fully complying with all the requirements for an electoral process to be considered as democratic, according to the international standards. Therefore, Sheikh Tamim sought to implement the political reforms that his father, Sheikh Hamad Al Thani, set in the 2003 constitution, and that were postponed since then until 2021 due to several reasons, including the succession to his son Tamim in 2013. The research will attempt to determine whether these elections represent a real change in the political process in terms of citizen inclusion in the decision-making process. The paper will also examine the opportunities and challenges these elections may present for Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani's new leadership political agenda and how they affected Qatar’s governance.
  • Javier Guirado
    On February 22nd, 1972, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani appeared on TV promising a new era of prosperity for Qatar, linking “the glorious present with an ancient past”. Sheikh Khalifa’s accession speech embodied Qatar’s independence, which had been declared on September 1st 1971 after two decades of monumental social, cultural, and economic changes that had started in the 1950s. This proposal focuses on the development of a Qatari political consciousness during the 1950s in light of regional events like the nationalization of the oil industry in Iran by Mohammad Mossadegh in 1951, the seizure of the Suez Canal by Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Six Day War, or the Dhofar rebellion. Many of these affairs had specific resonances in Qatar, particularly in terms of strikes and protests. Domestically, the 1950s saw the electrification of Kahraba Street in Doha, the development of oil camps in Dukhan, and significant internal migrations across the country, mostly to Doha. An important outtake is that the urban and social changes that took place in Qatar were a process of co-creation of the oil camp, coastal cities, the country, and the capital, expanding urban studies in Qatar beyond Doha. The memoirs of Ali Khalifa Al Kuwari or Lotfi Sumi, a member of various political groups in Qatar during these years and a Palestinian preceptor and later advisor to sheikh Khalifa serve as the sources for this account, besides British documentation and newspaper archives mostly from Cairo and Beirut. All in all, this work is a social history that focuses on the connections between Qatar, the Middle East, and the rest of the world, explaining the context that enabled the political and social outcome of the country. While most works on this topic focus on either the role of the British and the ruling family, this project incorporates the Qatari population as a key agent in the global combination of factors that led to the stable creation of the Qatari monarchy as it functions today. It is also an urban history that studies the built environment in Qatar and its relation to the social fabric.
  • Leticia Rodriguez
    Qatar's foreign policy poses a challenge to the study of international relations, breaking the moulds of realist theory. Qatar's regional projection, the result of the restructuring of its foreign policy, has led the small emirate to become a relevant actor in the international system. Foreign policy restructuring is understood as a change in the state's behaviour in the international arena. Holsti (1982) and Hermman (1990) present changing patterns of foreign policy behaviour as a category of study to identify and compare changes in state-to-state relations. The accession to the throne of Hamad bin Khalifa in 1995 marked a turning point in Qatar's domestic and foreign policy. The Qatari elite has been able to minimise the state's structural weaknesses and maximise its strengths by developing a soft power that has led the country to become a benchmark in diplomacy, with the development of a mediating role. The role and resources available to the Qatari elite have been essential in the process of restructuring the country's foreign policy. Capital, identity, national interest and information are some of the resources that explain Qatar's success at the regional and international levels and the rivalries and challenges it has faced in recent years. Through the sociology of power, this paper analyses the role of the Qatari elite and the power resources at their disposal in the foreign policy restructuring process and its leadership, as well as the consequences with the Saudi and Emirati elites for leadership, power and hegemony in the Gulf Cooperation Council.
  • Courtney Freer
    Political science literature has acknowledged that Kuwait’s tribes have since the 1970s become powerful political actors. Using informal institutions of diwaniyyat and tribal primaries, tribes, most of which are now concentrated in Kuwait’s outlying fourth and fifth districts, have become experts at mobilizing votes, tending to win around two-fifths of seats in parliament. What, then, are the limits on tribes as political parties in Kuwait? In what ways do tribal voters and tribal parliamentary candidates interact with ideologically inspired political movements like Sunni Islamists who have also historically made gains in their areas? This paper seeks to understand the limits of ascriptive identity as a political mobilizer and what advantages / disadvantages it has compared to ideologically driven movements. To answer these questions, I will use electoral data beginning in 2006 when electoral districting changed, until the latest election in 2022. These data will help to show how changes to electoral law, such as the introduction of the single non-transferrable vote (SNTV) system, and the start of a broad-based reform movement inspired by the Arab Spring, made tribes more or less attractive to voters. Further, these data will help us understand the extent to which tribal composition in parliament has changed or remained constant. This study as a result will enhance our knowledge of what drives Kuwaiti voters, as well as help us understand the political capacity of tribes in electoral systems throughout the Middle East.