Middle East Studies

Excellence in Scholarship and Learning


The Political Transformation of Gulf Tribal States

Elitism and the Social Contract in Kuwait, Bahrain and Dubai, 1918–1970s

Shaul Yanai teaches Middle East history at the Haifa and Hebrew Universities. His research focuses on political and societies history of the Persian Gulf states. He holds a PhD of Tel Aviv University. He is co-editor of the book Persian Gulf and the Arab Peninsula: Societies and States in Transition (in Hebrew).

The reform movements and attempts to establish parliamentary institutions in the Persian Gulf states of Kuwait, Bahrain and Dubai between the First World War and the independent era of the 1970s were not inspired by western example or by any tradition of civil representation. The move to a parliamentary system not only represented a milestone in the history of the region, creating a legacy for future generations, but was a unique transition in the Arab world. The transformation of these states from loose chiefdoms of minimal coherence and centralization, into centralizing and institutionalized monarchies, involved the setting up of primary institutions of government, the demarcation of borders, and establishment of a monarchical order. As this new political and social order evolved, ideas of national struggle and national rights penetrated Gulf societies. Gulf citizens who had spent time in Arab states, mostly in Egypt and Iraq, took part in the genesis of a public Arab–Gulf national discourse, enabling the Gulf population to become acquainted with national struggles for independence. As a result merchants of notable families, newly educated elements, and even workers, began to oppose the dominance of the rulers.

Both the rulers and the commercial elites (including members of the ruling families) tried to formulate a new and different social contract with the rulers seeking to entrench their political power by using new administrative means and financial power. Opposition against this current crystallized in 1938 among the ranks of the commercial oligarchy as well as within the ruling families. In spite of its failure to create its own political institutions, the oligarchy remained the foremost social and economic class. But the ruling families could no longer treat national oil revenues as their private income, and they began to channel part of these funds to public needs. The most important consequence of the '1938' movement was the formation of a new social contract between the two traditional power centers: the governing structures were fitted into the political and economic reality brought about by the oil wealth, but remained essentially tribal and committed to the power division between the major Gulf families.

Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84519-615-8
Hardback Price: £85.00 / $115.00
Release Date: November 2014
Paperback ISBN: 978-1-84519-751-3
Paperback Price: £35 / $55
Release Date: August 2015
Page Extent / Format: 352 pp. / 246 x 171 mm
Illustrated: Yes


Foreword by Prof. Uzi Rabi
List of Illustrations


Part I From Chiefdoms to Tribal States: Kuwait, Bahrain, and Dubai
until 1930

Introduction to Part I

1 Foundations of the Tribal State
Tribal Society in Transition
Kuwait: The Essence of a Tribal Merchant State
Bahrain: Tribal–State Relations
Dubai: Chiefdom and State

2 Relations between Merchant Elites and Ruling Families:
From the late Nineteenth Century to the Early 1920s

The Roots of Political Rivalry between the Elites and Ruling Families
Kuwait: Sources of Utub Elite Power
Undermining the Status of the Utub Elite
Bahrain: Tribal Elite–State Conflict
Dubai: The al-Maktoum Family and the Tribal Elite

3 The Rise of the Tribal State in the 1920s
Kuwait: The 1921 Majlis
The Elite between Crisis and Reform
Bahrain: Institutionalization of the Tribal State
Uprising of the Tribal Elite
Dubai: Preservation of the Tribal State
Schism and Crisis in the al-Maktoum Family
Summary of Part I

Part II The Change in Tribal Policy: The Period of Centralism
and Parliamentarianism, 1930–1938

Introduction to Part II

4 Modernization, Tradition and the Utub Elite in Kuwait
The Concentration of Power: Sheikh Ahmad al-Sabah
The Demand for Reform in the Second Half of the 1930s
Sheikh Ahmad al-Sabah's Foreign Policy
The Reform Movement of 1938

5 Dubai: Tradition and Modernization
Attempts at Regime Change
The Weakening of the Tribal Elite
Dubai's Reform Movement of 1938

6 Bahrain: Modernization of the Tribal State in the 1930s
Building State Institutions
The Shiite Reform Movement in 1935
The Reform Movement of 1938
Britain and the Reform Movement of 1938
The Failure of the 1938 Reform Movement
Summary of Part II

Part III Parliamentarianism and Tribalism: The Crisis Years, 1938–1940

Introduction to Part III

7 Kuwait's Legislative Council, 1938–1939
The Struggle over the Legislative Council's Powers
Modernization of the Tribal State
Opposition to the Legislative Council
Dissolution of the Legislative Council
Election of the Second Legislative Council and Debate
over its Powers
The Failure of the Kuwaiti Constitutional Council

8 Dubai's Legislative Council, 1938–1940
Institutionalization of the Tribal State
The Power Struggle between the Legislative Council
and Sheikh Said al-Maktoum
The Violent Dissolution of Dubai's Legislative Council
Explaining the Legislative Council's Failure

Part IV Parliamentarianism in the Period of Independence

Introduction to Part IV

 9 The Development of a New Political Culture
Conflicts within the Kuwaiti al-Sabah Family Prior to Independence
A New Political Culture in the al-Sabah family
The Integration of the Merchant Families in State-building
Parliamentarianism in the Period of Independence

10 The Evolution of Tribal Autocracy in Bahrain
Demands for Political Reforms
Failure of the Opposition
Autocracy Put to the Test



Review Quotes to Follow

Books can be ordered by phone or online

Ordering in the UK, Europe, Asia, Australasia, South America and Rest of the World

Gazelle Book Services
Direct sales tel.: +44 (0)1524 528500; email:
Web ordering:

Ordering in the United States and Canada
Independent Publishers Group (IPG)
Direct sales tel.: (800) 888-4741
Web ordering:

Bookseller Ordering
Information is provided under the Resources tab.

eBook Ordering
e-Book type availability can be sourced via by book title. Kindle availability is via Amazon .com and sites.