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  • Abu Dhabi: Oil and Beyond
  • Herman Franssen (bio)
Abu Dhabi: Oil and Beyond, by Christopher Davidson. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. ix + 175 pages. Notes to p. 230. Bibl. to p. 232. Index to p. 244. $35.

While most of Abu Dhabi: Oil and Beyond is concentrated on modern Abu Dhabi, Davidson provides very interesting insights into the historical development of Abu Dhabi from the early 18th century until modern times and the crucial role that the Nahyan family played in shaping the destiny of the shaykhdom. The early economic history of Abu Dhabi, the author points out, was tied to the fortunes of the pearl industry, which began to blossom in the early 18th century and grew steadily, due to high demand for pearls in Europe. Taxes on pearls provided the income for the shaykhdom to expand its power in the region, improve Abu Dhabi's infrastructure, and renovate the vital irrigation system. High income from the pearl industry and the strong leadership of Shaykh Zayid bin Khalifa Al Nahyan, who ruled around the turn of the 20th century, were largely responsible for the emergence of Abu Dhabi as a regional power in the lower Gulf region.

Following Shaykh Zayid bin Khalifa, the weak leadership of an internally divided family and the collapse of the pearl industry during the First World War turned Abu Dhabi into a marginalized backwater in the Gulf for half a century. In contrast, Dubai and Sharjah had forward-looking leaderships who took advantage of the new economic opportunities offered by the region's emerging oil industry. Abu Dhabi reached a new depth under the role of Shaykh Shakh-but in the 1950s. Shaykh Shakhbut, like his neighbor, the Sultan of Oman, kept all the oil revenue earned in the 1950s and early 1960s from the international oil companies in his treasury and refused to develop economic policies to lift his people out of their economic misery. His social policies were equally backward. He strongly resisted modern educational efforts and healthcare, causing many Abu Dhabi residents to leave the country. With the quiet acquiescence of most of the Al Nahyan family and the British government, Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan helped remove the rule of his ineffective older brother Shaykh Shakhbut.

The ascendance of Shaykh Zayid bin Sultan was the beginning of the most modern and prosperous era in the history of Abu Dhabi. Shaykh Zayid put other senior members of his family in important jobs, thus consolidating his political power. He surrounded himself with a new team of advisors; began to spend previously saved and new oil income on infrastructure projects, education, and healthcare; and distributed a portion of the oil revenues to the entire population, which had endured decades of recession and poverty under his predecessor.

There is a remarkable similarity between the ascendance of Shaykh Zayid and that of Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman, who overthrew his father with the help of the British and embarked on a similar development program. However, there is very little reference to Oman in Dr. Davidson's otherwise excellent book, even in the chapter dealing with the important history of the movement towards a federation of shaykhdoms in the lower Gulf. The reasons for the withdrawal of Bahrain and Qatar from the British-supported for the federation are discussed, but Oman is not mentioned even though the British made a major effort to convince the Sultanate to become part of the new federation. Ultimately, the federation consisted of the shaykhdoms of what became the United Arab Emirates with Shaykh Zayid as the President and Abu Dhabi as the main financier of the new federation.

The chapter on Abu Dhabi's economy, "Oil and Beyond," describes well how Abu Dhabi has developed its oil and gas industry and has used its low-cost fuels to build a petrochemical industry and other energy-intensive manufacturing industries. More recently, Abu Dhabi also has invested in high technology industries and services. The author is rather optimistic about the future of Abu Dhabi's economy, and indeed there are good reasons for such optimism. Abu Dhabi still has very large oil reserves and is developing...


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