As the history of the ruling dynasties of the Gulf monarchies seemingly begins its final chapter, or -- in Bahrain's case -- final weeks, it's worth pausing to consider where these families came from, how they ruled, and who's who. So here's a short guide to keeping your al-Khalifas straight from your al-Sauds, and avoid mixing up your al-Maktoums and your al-Thanis.
Of the current rulers, most had ancestors who were British creations. The 19th-century empire had been grappling with expensive far-flung colonies and preferred to make its new Persian Gulf dominions low-cost protectorates by signing peace treaties with whichever clan happened to be on top at the time. Britain provided signatory sheikhs with protection from all threats (including internal insurrection) in return for pledges to keep vital shipping lanes to India free from pirates. By the end of 1971, Britain had left the Gulf, but not before putting a new sultan on the Omani throne the year before, swapping Abu Dhabi's ruler in 1966, and extricating Kuwait from Iraqi annexation in 1961. The al-Saud dynasty of the Arabian interior -- a fierce Bedouin tribe from the unforgiving Nejd region -- were, as an exception, largely disconnected from British interests. But by 1933, with the founding of the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), their fortunes became increasingly tied to Western interests as they filled out the political vacuum of the oil-rich peninsula.
Prospering in the post-imperial, latter part of the 20th century, the various dynasties of the Gulf consolidated their grips on power by establishing extensive social contracts or "ruling bargains" with their citizenry. By receiving a portion of the oil wealth in the form of subsidies, housing, welfare, and easy public-sector employment, the bulk of the indigenous population forwent political participation, while the masses of imported foreign workers enjoyed better salaries than at home, could be deported at any time, and could never aspire to citizenship. With this setup, the dynasties were able to shift quietly from their former role as time-honored tribal leaders to their present-day role as autocrats presiding over closed, censorious societies and police states with appalling human rights records and few structural differences from dictators elsewhere in the pre-2011 Arab world.
In many ways, with political parties mostly forbidden in the Gulf, the ever-expanding dynasties have become akin to large parties in a single-party system. With hundreds of members, and in Saudi Arabia's case many thousands, they occupy most key government and business positions and are able -- through shell companies -- to take cuts in most substantial domestic enterprises and joint ventures with foreign companies. All receive annual "stipends" from the ruler himself, ranging from about $140,000 for lowly members of the Bahraini ruling family to far more substantial sums for members of the more affluent Abu Dhabi and Qatar dynasties. Much of this wealth -- which future governments should try to recover given that it was derived from the region's oil -- has been secreted abroad, funding substantial properties in Western capitals and other destinations, both for leisure use and for setting up bolt-holes should the Gulf become unstable. Moreover, as proved time and again, the dynasties are often above the law, with it proving all but impossible to prosecute successfully senior members of ruling families in their home countries.