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on 17 September 2011
The Gulf Arab countries have been riding high for the past decade. High oil prices have driven hyper growth on several levels: economically, and in terms of population (and the sheer size of cities like Dubai) and in consumption of energy. To most of us, these metrics make the Gulf look like a consumer's paradise, an emerging market worth investing in.

Ulrichsen takes a contrarian look at the Gulf's progress and, rather than heralding it as the next big thing, warns that the convergence of several worrying trends means the Gulf monarchs are painting themselves into the corner.

As the title implies, the Gulf countries have serious security issues. The region's main protector, the US, is a fickle ally; the Gulf militaries themselves, ineffectual. And with Iran just 90 miles across the sea, and a serially unstable Iraq right next door, it's a rough neighbourhood. Worse, neighboring Yemen is imploding, with a huge potential population of refugees.

But most troubling are the internal security worries in these ostensibly safe and stable countries. Gulf rulers are generous to a fault. Because they deny their citizens the opportunity to vote, they must seek legitimacy through gifts. Ruling families give their citizens far more lucrative packages of benefits than any westerner could imagine. This, says Ulrichsen, is unsustainable. Cheap - or free - water, electricity, gasoline, education, housing, land, food and an overpaid government job for nearly every citizen. It just can't go on.

Ulrichsen says the rulers understand they need to reform, but fear they will be ousted in the furore that would result. But if they don't reel in these giveaways, they undermine the basis of their economies - energy exports - and set up a scenario of violent conflict. It's a touchy situation, and Ulrichsen lays it bare.

Those who should read this book are investors and financial analysts, policymakers in the Gulf and outside, those involved in intelligence and the military, diplomats, and anyone with an interest in the endgame of the rentier state.

My only regret is that Ulrichsen's book wasn't available as a reference when I was researching my own book on the region Dubai: The Story of the World's Fastest City
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