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  • Desert Kingdoms to Global Powers: The Rise of the Arab Gulf by Rory Miller
  • David Roberts (bio)
Desert Kingdoms to Global Powers: The Rise of the Arab Gulf, by Rory Miller. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016. 368pages. $32.50.

From the outset, Rory Miller notes that this book is not aimed at academic audiences, but at a wider interested public. As such, the author does a good job offering a comprehensive overview of the emergence of the Gulf monarchies and, with a witty turn of phrase, proves to be an engaging book to read. But the eagerness to throw off academic stuffiness for the wider audience perhaps goes a bit far. Though nowhere near as mortifying as Niall Ferguson’s zeitgeist-chasing title Civilization: The Six Killer Apps of Western Power (Penguin Group, 2012), Miller’s chapter titles are of the esoteric variety and some are simply neither useful nor clear. “Tax Americana” and “Self-Defence” convey their content adequately, but “Bloc Party” and “Sheikh Down” do not. Also presumably because it is not aimed at an academic audience, the referencing is light. This is particularly acute in chapters involving statistics, such as Chapter 8 (“Oil Change”), but I found myself wanting to note the source of various interesting anecdotes and arguments throughout.

Miller offers a curiously positive view of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the regional organization of the six Gulf monarchies founded in 1981 that was inspired by the rise of an aggressive, revolutionary Iran. There have certainly been some procedural successes for the GCC, typically centered around unifying taxes and tariffs (sensibly discussed in Chapter 5), but Miller extends the point arguing that “at crucial moments, when their sovereignty has been threatened … the GCC states have closed ranks, put their grievances and national ambitions on hold, and chiselled out a united response in the political, economic and military realms” (p. 10). However, the record, especially in the military arena, is not that impressive. A few hundred Saudi Arabian National Guard vehicles trundling into Bahrain in 2011 was an important political statement, but says little as to the efficacy of the GCC’s Peninsula Shield Force. And the fact that the largest and most aggressive military intervention in the history of the Gulf monarchies — the 2015 military action in Yemen — was more led by individual nations (predominantly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) than a united Peninsula Shield Force does not engender confidence either.

Indeed, this is the fundamental curiosity of the GCC: its quixotic inability to come together seriously as a security organization. Though the monarchies have plenty of niggles among themselves, they are united by far more than divides them. Ranged against them is Iran, a state that is set up as an archetypal “Other”: Shi‘i, not Sunni; Persian, not Arab; a young revolutionary state, not conservative and monarchical — all suffused within centuries of redolent historical antagonism. Yet, ranged against what the GCC states are convinced is a clear and present danger posed by Iran, for 35 years the group has broadly failed to stand up a capable military defensive force. This paradox [End Page 326] was best addressed by Matteo Legrenzi,1 whereas Miller vacillates. He argues that the GCC remains “one of the most reliable and resilient groupings in the world” (p. 195) and that it “developed the most comprehensive unified operational procedures and joint training programmes” (p. 212) comprising 40,000 men (p. 213). But he concludes that “a truly integrated, autonomous regional security and defence capability is very difficult to implement” (p. 273). Though this last point is well made, and Miller’s wider point about how GCC states “think nationally and short term, and not regionally and long term” (p. 273) is a nice aphoristic notion, the reader may find this overall argument confusing.

Nevertheless, there is certainly utility in Miller’s approach. One advantage of not footnoting at length is that the prose can flow all the easier. Miller’s historical overview of the evolution of the regional oil bargain, its interrelation with world powers, and then the growth of US relations as the 1980s progressed is well handled and informative. Furthermore, this book...


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pp. 326-327
Launched on MUSE
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