Matthew Hedges, Reinventing the Sheikhdom: Clan, Power and Patronage in Mohammed bin Zayed’s UAE (Hurst&Co, London / Oxford University Press, London, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Matthew Hedges (MH): Reinventing the Sheikdom is the culmination of my doctorate at Durham University in the UK. I completed this research over five years and the published version is a near total copy of my research. I simply condensed some theoretical chapters to ease the reading.

The UAE is a strategically important global partner for most states. It has increasingly shown its capability and interest in global affairs, yet its internal dynamics are hardly known or spoken about. I was driven by several years working in the country to shine a light on shifts in power that had been going on. I believe Reinventing the Sheikdom is the most nuanced analysis into how power has been centralized within the UAE. This support observations into the UAE’s foreign policy and shows what motivates its international engagements.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

MH: Fundamentally, Reinventing the Sheikdom examines how Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ) has risen to power. The UAE is a federal state. Constitutionally, there is supposed to be a “democracy” or sorts that share power across the seven emirates. Due to the oil reserves residing nearly entirely in the capital emirate, it has been able to shape the state in its image. When the UAE is analyzed, this fact is barely mentioned and as a result observations are often limited and do not highlight the reality.

Reinventing the Sheikdom is oriented around the Arab Spring and uses this as a departure for the increased consolidation of power that occurred. MBZ is the driver of this change, and while until this year he was the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, he had in effect been the head of state. He has used his position to develop his own independent power base and construct a powerful network that has gradually consumed the state. This is a patrimonial network that is directly coupled to him. His allies and agents share personal ties but also show inherent social qualities that evidence an appreciation for social ties, such as tribalism, which underpin the social political architecture of the state.

There are five main sections to the book. This is built around my framework of neo-corporate praetorianism that splits power between its enforcement and maintenance. The first is a historical exploration of how previous ruling elites managed power. The subsequent four sections analyze developments within the military, surveillance, economy, and industry.

The first section is a historical examination of regime security within the UAE. This crucially provides a foundation from which to understand why internal threats have always held the most prominent focus for rulers. Since 1761, eleven rulers have been deposed or murdered by a family member and four have died from natural causes. Supported by comparative examples, the UAE shows that the most prominent threats to elites come from other elite family members. It is for this reason that the founder of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, and his sons Khalifa and Mohammed have delicately balanced the array of social factors to manage elite personnel and enhance the stability of their rule.

The second section analyses changes to the UAE armed forces and traditional security architecture. This process has been one of evolution, from establishing military bases within the city of Abu Dhabi to protect the ruling family from external threats, through to redeploying facilities further away to reduce the potential of a coup d’état. Militaries and their soldiers represent a traditional bastion of power for political elites, and given MBZ’s professional experience within the institution, he has used this as a vehicle for national unity and to ensure his central position in the future of the UAE.

The third section identifies surveillance practices and internal security measures. This takes a structuralist approach due to the difficulty in sourcing material. It shows that in step with technological developments, life within the UAE is persistently observed and attributable. When strengthened by broad legal remits, surveillance is prevalent.

The fourth section examines how economic organs have been strategically managed around MBZ and his allies. This shows a direct connection to him and acknowledges the requirement for the recruitment of tribal allies so that they are not only loyal, but loyal to him. The development of economic assets is to provide increased revenue and to bind this success to the state building project undertaken by MBZ.

The fifth and last section analyzes industrial development. While economic assets are largely political in nature, industry is by comparison tangible. This builds upon the strength of the UAE’s oil reserves and helps to exploit its current progress to build for a more resilient future. This is, however, tightly controlled by MBZ and his allies, so that ownership and credit can be taken for any successful investments.

It is important to note that the book is an objective and analytical examination of the UAE’s consolidation of power and its subsequent strengthening. The UAE does not profess to be a democracy and can therefore not be judged by its liberal equivalents. For this reason, the book aims to illustrate how these changes have occurred and why. It contributes to knowledge to help readers understand how the UAE has become so powerful. The book is, however, particularly sensitive, due to the fact that the UAE is a federal state, and that my analysis of primary source information shows this to be a fallacy.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

MH: Reinventing the Sheikdom represents my first major research endeavor. I have previously examined the foreign policy of the UAE and how it takes a networked approach to its international engagement. In this way, many of the same observations about domestic politics are seen in their foreign operations. The book builds upon my observation of the UAE being driven by security interests, with my papers on The Future of the Muslim Brotherhood in the GCC a clear example of how claims of security/insecurity drive its endeavors.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

MH: I hope that Reinventing the Sheikdom will be read by anyone interested in the Middle East and authoritarian governance practices. As I mentioned, there is little knowledge on the UAE’s domestic political scene. I would like to see it as recommended reading for anyone, from an undergraduate student through to a foreign diplomat. While the political scene in the UAE has direct comparison with many of its neighbors in the GCC, there is still little academic focus on it. The impact of my work shows a clear centralization of state power. This means that nothing can be undertaken without the knowledge or authority of the highest levels of power within Abu Dhabi. This not only helps readers understand the UAE today, but also its future. 

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

MH: My future work will examine state security organizations. These do not have a democratic equivalent due to their political direction and legal freedoms. Due to the growing adaptation of authoritarian governance, I hypothesize a growing utilization of state security organs, which—if history has anything to say—is a dangerous signal. My exact focus is on the commercial engagement of state security authorities, and my case studies are China, Iran, and Russia. They all share multiple factors and possess self-defined state security organs. Historically, these have all been involved in commercial enterprises, but this has become more prevalent due to the influence of neo-liberalism. As a result, while the activities of these organs were largely secret, they have been exposed through their involvement in commerce.

J: What happened to you in the UAE when you were undertaking fieldwork research, and did it affect your doctorate? 

MH: I was abducted by the UAE’s State Security Authority when attempting to leave to return to the UK. I was held for nearly seven months in solitary confinement and subjected to torture. I was forced to sign a confession and subsequently sentenced to life imprisonment under the charge of espionage on behalf of the UK Government as an alleged member of the UK’s Secret Intelligence Service, “MI6”.

This, of course, impacted me mentally and set my research back, due to my inability to concentrate and lack of confidence to continue my work. I am proud to say that this experience did not, however, impact my ability to objectively analyze the UAE. It was my priority to ensure the legitimacy of my research. In my foreword I show that following my return to the UAE, the UAE changed its legal definitions and interpretations of secretive information to incorporate anything as far as “news and other media.”


Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 6, pp. 71-74)

Due to the speed of technical innovation, information is more readily accessible than it has ever been. This has provided avenues for empowerment but also for control. The Iranian Green Movement of 2009 and the Arab Spring have shown how groups have used technological innovation for political gain. The backlash from the Iranian regime and other regional states to these movements illustrate how the state has wrestled back power in times of instability. In an authoritarian state, the regime seeks to maintain control of forces that can potentially threaten its ‘absolute authority’; in this sense, surveillance can be interpreted as a modern and updated expression of sultanism.

While the regime’s control of the military was previously examined, this chapter will explore how surveillance capabilities have developed to maximise the regime’s control of surveillance since the outbreak of the Arab Spring. This will therefore illustrate the importance of surveillance for a successful regime security strategy.

Initially, the recording of information was, according to Anthony Giddens, a mode of administration notation’. The single direction of information and its control by the recording administration empowered governors to solidify their authoritative positions. Anthony Giddens further clarifies that ‘the concentrated focusing of surveillance as “governmental” power is largely, if not completely, a phenomenon of the modern state’. With the advent of the internet and mobile technology, people’s access to information and international social interaction has served as a medium of empowerment, liberation, and control. The global proliferation of information has even prompted scholars such as John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt to claim that alongside the political, economic, and military elements of power, information is emerging as an equal within the field of national security. This book agrees with this postulation.

In step with technological developments and the increased scope of information ownership, is the concept of surveillance. The field of surveillance is vast, incorporating issues ranging from state led mass surveillance, through to the collection of individual data required to process institutional requests (e.g. individuals health records). As a result, surveillance can be viewed negatively, positively, or neutrally.

Negative concepts such as those hypothesised by Jeremy Bentham, Max Horkheimer, and Michel Foucault are often defined through the perceived relationship between information collection, societal discipline, and coercion. At the forefront of this debate is the orthodox perception of panopticon – and its modern reinterpretation superpanopticon -, and it is through this lens that Michel Foucault defines surveillance: ‘a person that is under surveillance “is seen, but he does not see; he is the object of information, never a subject in communication” ’. Within the modern context, Michel Foucault’s definition is inaccurate, and the negative connotations of surveillance are an oversimplification of the potential benefits generated by surveillance. Furthermore, the limitation presented by Michel Foucault in this instance critically underplays the understanding that surveillance can be a multifaceted notion; due to technological developments hypothesised by Web 2.0, it is claimed that surveillance now consists of the collection and control of information, and the potentially unintentional behaviour of the individual who owns and distributes such information.

Stuart Armstrong counters and explores the ways and means by which society directly benefits from forms of surveillance. His contextual examples showcase how crime, medicine, research, and even human behaviour can benefit from heightened forms of surveillance. The results of surveillance help humanity to progress, as patterns and relationships captured from large data sets empower researchers to identify causal factors and linkages which can advance human society. Furthermore, with more access to more information subjects can counter and neutralize perceived violations and elicit greater accountability e.g. citizen journalism. Surveillance is therefore understood to have both positive and negative values dependent upon context and relative strength of civil society and commercial sectors.

Anthony Giddens builds upon this field of literature to illustrate both negative and positive aspects of surveillance and does so by defining the concept neutrally; surveillance is the ‘control of information and the superintendence of the activities of some group by others’. The neutral notion hypothesised by Anthony Giddens firmly adheres to the wide concept of surveillance and ensures that there are both positive and neutral aspects within its capability. The neutral definition postulated by Anthony Giddens allows the research to acknowledge both the coercive and constructive dimensions of surveillance, and thus provides a framework which provides a nonaligned observation of the concept.

A further dimension identified within the field of literature pertaining to surveillance is the influence of modernity upon its conception. In contrast to traditional surveillance Gary Marx defines new surveillance as the ‘scrutiny of individuals, groups and contexts through the use of technical means to extract or create information’. This chapter embraces the modern and predominantly electronic mediums of surveillance that have focused contemporary research into its current forms.

The digitisation of society has prompted the mass collection of personal data and, accordingly, the speed to which it can be accessed by an increasing number of actors; from state security agencies to local council institutions, through to a wide array of commercial entities who have directly, or indirectly accumulated information upon a user or users. This has provoked a split in academic approaches towards surveillance whereby several approaches have emerged; legal and ethical aspects, technological development, employment tactics, and the perceived motivation for the level of surveillance undertaken.

While it is important to understand the applications and approaches of surveillance, it is equally important to highlight the means and restrictions for the collection, access, and use of surveillance data. In practice, this means the degree to which said information can be collected, accessed and used varies dramatically depending on laws and regulations within each state.

Acknowledging the intrinsic limitations within the field of surveillance, this chapter will explore the UAE’s surveillance capabilities from the three major academic perspectives of the field: legal, technological, and engagement strategy.