In the Arab capitals of the Gulf, ruling classes are quietly emerging beside rulers, boosted by economic diversification. Power and politics continue, traditionally, to be centralized and personalized. “Dynasticism”, driven by oil revenues, still represents the core of politics in the Gulf. In other words, it’s always a (royal) family affaire with a trend of power concentration in the hands of a single branch of royal families. However, ruling dynasties are no longer the only place of policy-making while the role of religious establishments, as Kristin Smith-Diwan analyses in her article, has also waned.
Since the 2010s, the presence of foreign experts, national technocrats, non-royal elites, and diplomats has grown closer to younger rulers and ministers. These are different from the royal circles and state bureaucracies that used to surround kings, emirs, and sultans. In an era marked by domestic and global transformation, effective governments are no longer sufficient to achieve national goals: the monarchies also need a governance-oriented political class to handle — and adjust when necessary — the “Visions” timelines and reform packages. In this context, national education plays a fundamental role. From a European perspective, time is ripe for a thorough analysis of the evolution of Gulf policy-making and trends, since the European Commission has just adopted a Strategic partnership with the Gulf document. The Gulf’s post-oil horizon not only drives the ascendance of a new generation of rulers, but also shapes broader ruling classes.
Nascent ruling classes: national technocrats and non-royal elites
The Gulf monarchies’ rising international role and their post-oil trajectory are fostering the formation of new ruling classes. This trend also fits into the top-down nation-building effort that leaderships have been promoting for a decade as well as the goal of nationalizing the workforce.
The emerging ruling classes who support new leaders share common features. Generally, they are younger than traditional state bureaucrats. There’s an increasing presence of women in high political and diplomatic positions although this doesn’t overlap, in most cases, with real power positions, as Eman Alhussein elucidates in this Dossier. These nascent ruling classes have received an international education, usually at Western universities. This isn’t necessarily a novelty: older state bureaucrats also pursued their degrees and PhDs at American and English universities; however, the difference is the ′internationalized’ and ′globalized’ mindset rulers now expect from national technocrats in order to deal with extensive reform programmes and diversified foreign alliances.
In the medium- to long-term, Gulf rulers’ goal is to forge a comprehensive class of national experts and officials with an excellent education obtained at home combined with international experience. Not by chance, the national education sector is burgeoning: top-down programmes, institutions, and colleges have been proliferating in the Gulf, including in areas that have traditionally relied upon foreign institutions such as military education.
In Saudi Arabia, a new generation of mostly national technocrats supports “Vision 2030” through policy-design and implementation. This middle class is both an enabler and beneficiary of the post-oil transformation process, states Sanam Vakil in her article. For this purpose, expanding national skills is a real priority. For instance, the Saudi National Academy of Military Industries launched in Riyadh aims to educate national personnel with high-level expertise in the defence industry —one of the “Vision 2030” assets. The goal is to shape specialists in technological, engineering, and scientific fields as well as to forge national experts across the military, defence, and security industries.
Diplomacy also mirrors how ruling classes are gradually taking shape in the Gulf monarchies. New Gulf ambassadors in Western capitals are often young, female, and skilfully play the “brand ambassadors” role for their countries, Emma Soubrier underlines in her article. Top diplomats still mostly come from royal families: however, beyond princes and princesses, there is also a new generation of mid-level diplomats and officials. On top of acquiring unprecedented global leverage, the Gulf’s Arab capitals have also enlarged — or opened— delegations abroad, including in international institutions. In the United Arab Emirates, the Anwar Gargash Diplomatic Academy (AGDA) received a record number of applications by aspiring diplomats for the “Diplomats of the Future” campaign in 2021. Furthermore, over 245 students have graduated from the Post-Graduate Diploma Programme since 2014.
Foreign experts’ new role
Since the 2010s, the role of Gulf foreign experts has also changed. When oil fields were discovered in the 1930s, foreign experts were primarily ad hoc advisors hired to develop the energy industry. Nowadays, they have turned into de facto strategists, tasked with designing and implementing post-hydrocarbons “Visions” with their planning and technical skills. As recent research highlights, expert advisers in the Gulf are still mainly English-speaking foreigners, though they also come from Arab (e.g., Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan) and Asian (e.g., India, Singapore) countries. Experts are usually enlisted by royal families from top universities and global consultancy firms: the most notorious case is McKinsey, which has helped draft the Saudi “Vision 2030” and assisted the ministry of planning, as revealed by the crown prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud.
In the Gulf, a practical rationale currently drives experts’ and technocrats’ ascendance: the need to quickly achieve the “Visions” intermediate goals to avoid administrative obstructions. In many cases, teams of professionals work outside — and parallel to — ministries to implement reform packages instead of relying, on in-house bureaucrats alone. This is the case of the “Invest in Oman” programme supporting “Vision 2040” and of the Abu Dhabi Education Council (ADEC), which convened fifty subject experts to design a plan (from the brainstorming stage all the way through to the implementation stage) to improve public education in line with the “Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030”.
Policy-making trends: sub-power and centralization
The Gulf’s nascent ruling classes are driven from above but can be defined as sub-powers. New leaders are promoting the rise of a national class of technocrats, experts, and diplomats to pursue, beside rulers and ministers, the fulfilment of national goals in economic, foreign, and defence affairs. This adds to another trend in Gulf’s policy-making. In Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman, power has grown centralized in the hands of a single branch of the royal family, to whom “Visions” and nascent ruling classes are directly tied. This ends a tradition of balancing — and careful counter-balancing — among members of the same royal dynasty, especially in Saudi Arabia.
The examples are telling. The Sudairi clan of King Salman and his son Mohammed has monopolized key positions in the Saudi government. This similarly occurs in the UAE with the Bani Fatima clan of whom the Abu Dhabi emir and Emirati president Mohammed bin Zayed belongs. In Oman, the heir apparent title was introduced — via a Constitutional amendment — in 2021, when Sultan Haitham ascended to power before appointing his son Theyazin in line to succeed him.
Implications: redefining intra-elite power dynamics
In the Gulf’s Arab capitals, nascent ruling classes comprising technocrats, experts, non-royal elites, and diplomats are developing beside rulers and ministers. This phenomenon, driven by a demanding economic diversification requiring technical expertise, is boosting national education programmes and institutions. Regardless the extremely limited impact on policy-making, the proliferation of think tanks in the Gulf also supports the elaboration of national perspectives and interests, although in settings still constrained from above. Ruling dynasties are the central — yet no longer sole — locus of politics: sub-powers, embodied by the ruling classes, have grown as a result of top-down phenomena due to their technical expertise. This combines with acentralization trend within dynasties: power growingly stands in the hands of a single branch of a royal family, from Saudi Arabia through the UAE to Oman. These branches support — and are responsible for — the “Visions”, directly boosting the formation of ruling classes.
In the Gulf, the main challenge for the post-hydrocarbons programmes is pushing economic and social change while maintaining the political status quo. However, policy-making and, consequently, policy-makers aren’t insulated from transformation. The emergence of national ruling classes —who are broader than royal families — discloses a subtle change within power and its political habits. Redefining the perimeter for those who participate in policy-making represents a political change, even if it occurs as a top-down process aimed, as its ultimate goal, at strengthening the rulers’ power through effective reforms.
 See Michael Herb, All in the family: Absolutism, Revolution, and Democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies, Albany, State University of New York Press, 1999.
 Calvert W. Jones, “Adviser to the king. Experts, Rationalization, and Legitimacy”, World Politics 71, n°1, January 2019, pp. 1-43.