Cities of Gold
“King of kings” has been a popular – if hyperbolic – title for rulers since the time of the Assyrian Empire. But in the case of the emir (king) of Abu Dhabi, it’s actually true. Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is the head of state of the UAE, which is a federation of seven emirates, each with its own hereditary emir.
The UAE is a particularly curious case. The state was only created in 1971, and yet whereas other newly independent states opted for modern, democratic forms of government, doing away with the vestiges of hereditary rule, the sheikhs chose an autocracy. This reinforced traditional tribal hierarchies and allegiances, but created a can of worms for the future.
The challenges of an absolutely monarchy for the UAE are two-fold. Firstly, there’s the issue of rivalry between the emirates and between princes. Sheikh Zayed, founder of the nation, had 30 children. Love is not lost between them, and they wrestle for power behind palace walls. Allegations of attempted coups are frequent, although the country’s security apparatus works hard to keep them quiet.
Secondly, this absolute monarchy has no means for dealing with protest or opposition. Corruption is endemic, and human rights abuses – especially of vulnerable migrant workers – frequent. The UAE ranks poorly for civil liberties and political rights. Amnesty International has accused the UAE of an “unprecedented clampdown” on dissent. Those who question the emirs are imprisoned, exiled, silenced.
But no ruler can keep his people down forever. If history has anything to teach us, it is that one day they will rise up and take back power. For an absolute monarchy, ultimately, it’s a case of reform, or die. ag
“The ruler, any ruler, is only there to serve his people and secure for them prosperity and progress” – Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan (1918–2004)