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  • Book Reviews
  • Nadia H. Barsoum

FROM SHEIKHS TO SULTANISM: Statecraft and Authority in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Publishers C. Hurst Limited, Feb 25, 2021, 432 pages.

Muhammad bin Salman Al-Saud and Muhammad bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, the respective princely strongmen of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have torn up the old rules. They have spurred game-changing economic master plans, presided over vast anti-corruption crackdowns, tackled entrenched religious forces, and overseen the mass arrest of critics. In parallel, they also appear to have replaced the old ‘sheikhly’ consensus systems of their predecessors with something more autocratic, more personalistic, and perhaps even analytically distinct.These are the two wealthiest and most populous Gulf monarchies, and increasingly important global powers--Saudi Arabia is a G20 member, and the UAE will be the host of the World Expo in 2021–2022. Such sweeping changes to their statecraft and authority structures could well end up having a direct impact, for better or worse, on policies, economies and individual lives all around the world. Christopher M. Davidson tests the hypothesis that Saudi Arabia and the UAE are now effectively contemporary or even ‘advanced’ sultanates, and situates these influential states within an international model of autocratic authoritarianism. Drawing on a range of primary sources, including new interviews and surveys, ‘From Sheikhs to Sultanism’ puts forward an original, empirically grounded interpretation of the rise of both MBS and MBZ. [End Page 82]

SYRIAN REQUIEM: The Civil War and Its Aftermath, by Itamar Rabinovich, Carmit Valensi 2021, 288 pages, Publisher NJ Princeton University Pres- 288 pages.

“The Syrian crisis is not over yet but the period of full-fledged civil war in that country appears to be drawing to a close, and it is now possible to view this calamity with some perspective. This short book will address the following questions about the conflict: How and why did quiet demonstrations in Southern Syria develop into a brutal civil war? Why did the political opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad remain weak and divided? How did radical Jihadi Islamists take over the main military opposition to the Syrian regime? How did the Syrian conflict become a main arena of the Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry? What explains the ambivalent Western attitude towards the Syrian rebellion? How did US policy under the Obama administration evolve and why did both Obama and Trump decide not to make a major investment in it? How stable is the status quo? And how could the conflict re-erupt in a different form? According to Rabinovitch, the Syrian regime and its supporters (including the Russians and the Iranians) have indeed emerged as victors, but it’s a limited victory at best. The Syrian state under Assad controls only about 60 percent of the national territory and the potential for renewed violence is considerable. Assad’s continued survival has come at the cost of deep dependency on Iran and Russia; his is now, arguably, a vassal state. This means that the country will remain in crisis for the foreseeable future, even if the full-scale civil war phase has come to an end. In his last chapter, Rabinovich recommends policy options for the U.S.” [End Page 83]

IRAN RISING: The Survival and Future of the Islamic Republic by Amin Saika, Publisher NJ Princeton University Press, 344 pages.

When Iranians overthrew their monarchy, rejecting a pro-Western shah in favor of an Islamic regime, many observers predicted that revolutionary turmoil would paralyze the country for decades to come. Yet forty years after the 1978–79 revolution, Iran has emerged as a critical player in the Middle East and the wider world, as demonstrated in part by the 2015 international nuclear agreement. In Iran Rising, renowned Iran specialist Amin Saikal describes how the country has managed to survive despite ongoing domestic struggles, Western sanctions, and countless other serious challenges. Saikal explores Iran’s recent history, beginning with the revolution, which set in motion a number of developments, including war with Iraq, precarious relations with Arab neighbors, and hostilities with Israel and the United States. He highlights the regime’s agility as it navigated a complex relationship with Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion, survived...


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