The quickly declining health of Ras Al Khaimah’s ruler is precipitating a round of intrigue and succession stories in the northernmost Emirate of the UAE. Sheikh Saqr Al Qasimi, 92, one of the longest ruling leaders in the world having ascended to the throne in 1948, has been in hospital for at least the past month.
His son and Crown Prince, Sheikh Saud, has been in charge of the Emirate for some time but his official assumption of the throne faces a serious challenge from the former Crown Prince Sheikh Khalid who was deposed in 2003. The reasons for his removal from power are not wholly clear. It is believed that Khalid was forced into exile by his half-brother Saud for his staunch anti-Iranian rhetoric in addition to leading anti-Iraq war protests during which an American flag was apparently burned. It is even alleged that his ‘pro-woman’ attitude in the conservative emirate contributed to his downfall. Either which way, when he was deposed the UAE central government needed to send tanks to RAK to restore order after protests erupted. Saud has lived in exile since in Oman and London.
None of this, however, is anything new. Succession challenges are the norm in Gulf States. Overall, the majority of transitions of power in the past two centuries have involved some violence in the form of a coup or, at the very least, the successor has been challenged for the title.
What is different in this case is the 21st century manner in which Khalid has gone about resuming his place in line to the throne. Much like the Emirates’ economy is described as a ‘rentier’ in nature with their income (or rent) largely derived from oil and gas with an exceedingly heavy reliance of foreign workers, this appears to be a rentier coup. Specifically, Khalid hired Californian Strategies, an American public relations firm to devise a plan to return him to power. Some members of the PR staff even reportedly get a $250,000 bonus if they succeed.
Cognisant of exactly what will grab the attention of America and the world at large, the PR agency — paid some $3.7 million to date according to The Guardian — began to formulate an image of Khalid as a Western-orientated, modern, pragmatic, facebook and twitter-friendly leader. They even arranged meetings and photo opportunities with, for example, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Saud, in stark contrast, was depicted as either fostering or at least harbouring terrorist elements including Al Qaeda. The decision of the America’s Cup yachting team not to stop off in RAK due to alleged terrorist concerns was one strand of this ploy. Moreover, RAK’s close links to Iran and their Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) were highlighted. RAK was portrayed as an offshore sanctions-busting Mecca for Iran; a ‘rogue state’ within the UAE.
The PR agency collated these charges into a report (with similar visual similarities to official US Congressional Research Service reports) which opens with the line “Closest to Iran and furthest from UAE central authority is the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah, which lies some 60 miles from the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas and enjoys excellent deep-water ports.” From the very beginning, therefore, insinuation and nefarious implications abound.
The true extent of these charges is not clear. Certainly, RAK is a conservative Emirate but evidence of their harbouring terrorists is sparse and unconvincing. There was an alleged plot against the Khalifah Tower in Dubai, but this centred more on the Emirate of Ajman not RAK. As for their Iran links, these must be understood in the Emirati context. Dubai, for example, according to a recent Bloomberg article, has 8,000 Iranian businesses, at least 1,200 trading companies, 400,000 Iranians living there and trade rose to $12 billion in 2009. In short, it would be miraculous if RAK, the closest Emirate to Iran, did not have significant trade with Iran.
The success of this quasi-coup depends on Abu Dhabi. The most powerful of the Emirates, their ruler and Emirati President, Khalifah bin Zayad Al Nayhan, will have a significant say in the decision. He has a vested interest in assuring stability in RAK; any security concerns could quickly end up 80km down the road in Dubai or 120km further on in Abu Dhabi. Installing the (now) clearly pro-American Khalid in power would not only please the Americans but fit in more with Abu Dhabi’s harsher anti-Iranian stance as compared to, for example, Dubai. Nevertheless, interfering in succession issues is always a dangerous business, even more so if there is the suggestion that it was done under foreign (American) pressure. Lastly, if Saud is ousted and Iranian trade does consequently dip, as it surely would under Khalid’s premiership, then the Iranian sized hold in RAK’s economy will have to be filled — quickly — by Abu Dhabi lest they wreck the fragile rentier bargain.
David B. Roberts is a researcher at Durham University, UK focusing on Persian Gulf international relations. His blog can be found at www.thegulfblog.com.