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The Bright, Shiny Tinderboxes of the Persian Gulf

Nov. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Touring the luxurious campus of the American University of Sharjah last week, I was yet again struck by what money, especially petrodollars, can buy. Sharjah is an emirate of the United Arab Emirates, located adjacent to Abu Dhabi. Designed by the ruler of Sharjah, Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qassimi, one of the more enlightened of the region’s many autocrats, the university’s grand buildings self-consciously invoke the glory days of Islamic architecture.

They are also part of a larger regional trend of patriarchy-supervised modernization. Gulf rulers, from the sober sultan of Oman, Qaboos Bin Said Al-Said, the oldest serving ruler in the Arab world, to Dubai’s flashy Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, deploy a range of self-descriptions -- philosopher-king, philosopher-poet, chief executive officer -- as they present themselves ushering, with cautious gradualism, their wards into the modern world.