Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Christopher M. Davidson's "After the Sheikhs"

Christopher Davidson is reader in Government and International Affairs at Durham University, a former visiting associate professor at Kyoto University, and a former assistant professor at Zayed University in the UAE. He is the author of several books on the politics and international affairs of the Gulf states, including Abu Dhabi: Oil and Beyond, Dubai: The Vulnerability of Success, and The Persian Gulf and Pacific Asia: From Indifference to Interdependence.

Davidson applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, and reported the following:
Page 99:
…competitive research grants—it is likely that it will hope to get more from the same pot in the future. In these circumstances junior members of staff or postgraduate students tend to feel uncomfortable discussing either the source of the funding or pursuing sensitive topics relating to the donor country. It is almost inconceivable, for example, to imagine an aca­demic with no alternative source of income researching and writing a serious critique of a regime that has either paid for his or her salary, schol­arship, or the building that houses his or her office. In many leading uni­versities this is now no longer a possible scenario, but instead a likely one.

In addition to promoting self-censorship, the donations also tend to encourage the steering of academic debate away from the Gulf monar­chies themselves—and especially studies on their domestic politics or societies—by instead promoting research on ‘safer topics’ in the broader region or on Arabic language or Islamic Studies. Indeed, the latter two fields are particularly palatable as they provide further support for the monarchies’ attempts to build up cultural and religious legitimacy resources. In Saudi Arabia’s case the funding of leading Islamic Studies centres also seems to be part of an effort to make the Saudi state’s highly controversial interpretation of Islam more ‘mainstream’ and acceptable, at least in scholarly and government circles. What all of this will soon lead to (and in some cases already has led to) is an academic discipline that carefully skirts around the key ‘red line’ subjects such as political reform, corruption, human rights, and the prospects of revolution—as these are usually perceived by university fundraisers and executives as likely to anger or antagonise their Gulf patrons. As such, this particu­lar stream of funding is in some ways an even more powerful and sen­sitive soft power strategy for the Gulf monarchies, as it is not primarily aimed at influencing public or even government-level opinion in the West. Rather its more subtle objective is to sway academic opinion in the West, or at the very least foster a ‘chilling atmosphere’ of apologetic behaviour or avoidance when it comes to intellectual discussion of the Gulf monarchies.

The historic links between Britain and the region have meant that the Gulf monarchies have been particularly attracted to funding British uni­versities, and these currently represent the best examples of the strategy. Indeed, it is now difficult to find any leading British institution focusing on the Middle East that has not received all of the varieties of gifts. Exeter University, home to Britain’s only centre for Gulf Studies…
Page 99 of After the Sheikhs is the beginning of a section on how ruling family members and their affiliated foundations have sought to channel huge donations into those departments of leading western universities that have historically taught on or done research on Middle East politics or Islamic studies. The Gulf monarchies’ aim, as part of a broader oil-financed soft power campaign in the opinion-making centres of their Western military protectors, is to encourage self-censorship among potentially critical academics and in general to steer debates away from controversial topics such as domestic Gulf politics, human rights, or civil society, while also normalizing the controversial Saudi interpretation of Islam within elevated intellectual circles.
Visit Christopher M. Davidson's website.

The Page 99 Test: Abu Dhabi: Oil and Beyond.

Writers Read: Christopher M. Davidson.

--Marshal Zeringue