Digital dictatorship: a brutal examination of the UAE

Review: This brave investigation paints a pessimistic picture of how the Abu Dhabi regime has increased control since the Arab Spring.
sheikdom
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (right), crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, meets with visiting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz in Abu Dhabi. Credit: Xinhua / Alamy Stock Photo.
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Reinventing the Sheikhdom: Clan, Power and Patronage in Mohammed bin Zayed’s UAE by Matthew Hedges. Hurst, 2021, 280 pages, hardback £25

It is no secret that Matthew Hedges suffered an awful ordeal when writing the thesis from which Reinventing the Sheikhdom evolved. The foreword matter-of-factly states: ‘The UAE’s State Security Department used this document to detain and torture me, and to sentence me to life in prison on the charge of espionage on behalf of the UK Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), also known as MI6

Given the severity of the charge against him, readers now might be expecting some dramatic expose of classified information – a tale of uncovering spies, subterfuge, and secret statecraft. This, of course, is not the case; for Hedges, of course, was not spying on state secrets. What we get instead is a masterclass in forensic open-source research. Everything in this book is immaculately referenced and publicly available. Reinventing the Sheikhdom is undoubtedly an academic read: rigorous, robust, and impressively encyclopaedic. Indeed, the tables, appendices and lists of laws alone amount to quite the resource. Hedges ably demonstrates the power of open-source material and how, when researched properly and presented coherently, it can make for uncomfortable reading for those in power. Clearly, states do not always realise just how much material is out there waiting to be collected, collated, and analysed by tireless academics (and other investigative researchers). When their officials see the finished products — which draw together fragmented snippets into a coherent whole — they cry espionage. The UAE is certainly not the first and will not be the last. 

Reinventing the Sheikhdom argues that the UAE leadership, namely Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, responded to the Arab Spring by exploiting networks, centralising power, and increasing control. According to Hedges, ‘The UAE presents a nested dictatorship, like a Russian doll, where each subordinate is closely aligned to his own predecessor, but all mimic the ultimate leader’. He argues that security extends far beyond the traditional realms of military might and ubiquitous surveillance into citizens’ daily lives. Rather, Hedges has developed a framework, the Neo-Corporate Praetorianism model, that extends to five pillars of control: military power, surveillance, industry, economy, and religious establishment.

Control of armed force — the military — is the first line when defending the regime. History tells us, however, that militaries are no strangers to launching coups of their own. Leaders, therefore, face a balancing act between creating powerful armed forces able to quash rebellions, but not so powerful as to be able to overthrow the government. 

Hedges shows how UAE’s leaders consolidated the military in order to defend the regime, including a careful courting of military elites so as to ensure loyalty. It was a pragmatic approach, though, whereby ‘operationally effective entities are being managed by personnel with intimate links to Mohamad bin Zayed, and those deemed less of an immediate threat are being led by technocrats’. The regime offset risk further by developing strong counter-intelligence capabilities, provided by a Presidential Guard, again closely aligned to the Abu Dhabi ruling family. Hedges’ section on counter-intelligence demonstrates a decidedly militaristic set-up — less MI5, more special forces. Importantly, units such as the Presidential Guard exist to ‘counterbalance and watch over the professional armed forces’, keeping them in line. 

This alone does not prevent internal regime change. Coup proofing presents a particular dilemma for leaders, widely established in the literature. Patronage, family ties and counterbalancing institutions reduce the risk of a coup, but come at the expense of creating wider popular unrest. Those lacking patronage or kinship become excluded from elite positions and can become alienated and angry, perhaps whipping up the masses in protest. On the other hand, a fairer, more inclusive approach risks promoting disloyal plotters into positions of power. 

Hedges’ second pillar, therefore, addresses the wider population. The UAE, he tells us, is ‘one of the vanguards of digital authoritarianism globally’. The regime exercises control through state ownership of the ICT sector, including media and telecommunications organisation; through a particularly advanced e-government system; and through an extensive surveillance apparatus. In non-democracies, information security is less about protecting users and more about monitoring communications. Strikingly, in the UAE all electronic forms of communication pass through its Signals Intelligence Agency. Once again, as is the theme of the book, Hedges argues that the ruling family has carefully inserted trusted kin and other loyal personnel throughout a multi-tiered system with overlapping responsibilities.

Digital authoritarianism is more than simply passive surveillance. Control of information allows a more active approach in influencing media narratives. The development of social media has undoubtedly created a challenge on this front; fragmentation of platforms and blurring lines between content producers and consumers make it difficult for elites to control a single narrative. While acknowledging the challenge, the book might have gone further in addressing how the UAE is navigating it. Hedges argues that the UAE is ‘effectively combating narratives deemed false or contrary to that of the UAE regime’. Information management, he continues, ‘becomes an effective tool of manipulation’. Reinventing the Sheikhdom is excellent when analysing capability but occasionally leaves the reader wondering about impact — although defining and measuring what constitutes an ‘effective’ tool of propaganda is, of course, fiendishly difficult

Hedges then turns to pillars beyond military, surveillance, and information security. He argues that the ‘the Abu Dhabi ruling family has significantly enhanced the UAE’s regime security strategy through effective manipulation of the state’s economy’. This is all about regime security rather than any more grandiose ideological driver. Once again, Hedges argues that it has been captured by the state. The Supreme Petroleum Council, for example, is ‘primarily comprised of the Abu Dhabi ruling family and their close kin’. Concentration of power in just a handful entities, another being the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, allows them to be managed by a small team of carefully selected personnel. The same goes for commercial consolidation more widely, which, according to Hedges, aims to create a ‘more coherent structure to remain under the direct observation of state elites’. There are important implications here for those studying intelligence and security. Hedges’ model demonstrates the breadth of the UAE’s security tentacles, and challenges us to move beyond the narrower, often US-centric, prism through which to analyse intelligence. 

It all adds up to an eye-opening, concerning, and pessimistic picture of rapid state capture legitimised as a response to supposed domestic threats (as manifested in the Arab Spring). The book bravely cuts through the glossy image incessantly promoted by such regimes. Maintaining control in this manner can only ever be a balancing act though. Going too far to proof against coups can unleash other factors which might threaten the regime. Centralisation of power makes coups more likely compared to states where power is dispersed more evenly across regions or entities. State capitalism risks creating a backlash against perceived corruption or inequality. Still, it seems, according to Hedges at least, as though Mohamad bin Zayed is walking this tightrope effectively.

More broadly, this book is testament to the difficulties — and in some cases real danger — faced by academics writing about non-democracies. In 2018, the same year Hedges was arrested, Iran sentenced a British-Australian lecturer in Islamic Studies, Kylie Moore-Gilbert, to ten years in prison for spying. This year, Russia has banned prominent academics Mark Galeotti and Sir Lawrence Freedman, both experts on conflict, from visiting, while plenty of academics researching Chinese power now think carefully about the consequences of their writings. There is a reason — beyond source inaccessibility (which Hedges has ably demonstrated can be overcome) — why research on contemporary authoritarian security is far slimmer than comparable studies on democracies. Hedges deserves great credit not only for his bravery and resilience, but also for his intellectual achievements. This is an excellent contribution.

Rory Cormac

Rory Cormac is a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham. His research specialises in covert action and secret intelligence. He appears regularly on television and radio, and has written four books, most recently Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy.

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