The abdication of Sheikh Hamad in favour of his son Tamim will be felt far beyond the Gulf’s richest state – not least in Britain, where its vast sovereign wealth fund has been active
Qatari Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani arrives in the Bahraini capital of Manama, to attend the annual Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summit. Photo: GETTY
By Damien McElroy
The Shard, Western Europe’s tallest skyscraper, and fleets of tankers carrying natural gas to the rest of the world will rank among the Emir of Qatar’s lasting achievements, but yesterday his legacy was being assessed in the light of his abdication.
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani stepped aside after exactly 18 years of reformist rule to make way for his 33-year-old Sherborne- and Sandhurst-educated son in a swiftly executed handover. As power moved from father to son, the ruling family celebrated the first peaceful transition within its ranks in a century of shifting fortunes for the Gulf’s richest state.
A very different atmosphere existed in 1995 when Sheikh Hamad, then the crown prince, moved to seize power from his elderly father. The bloodless coup was achieved by moving an army detachment to Rayyan Palace in Doha and another to the airport. The deposed emir dismissed the development as the behaviour of an “ignorant man”, but was forced to accept his fate as the ruling al-Thani tribe closed ranks behind its new leader.
Yesterday, Sheikh Hamad looked on while the white-robed tribal elders reassembled to pledge allegiance to the new emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad. With just 200,000 of its own citizens – less than the population of Derby – and a land surface that is uniformly barren, Qatar is an unlikely global giant. But fuelled by revenues generated from its natural gas reserves, the worldwide reach of the tiny Gulf peninsula is virtually unbounded.
Qatar has bankrolled the Arab Spring, bailed out some of the world’s biggest banks and built or bought some of the world’s most prestigious addresses. By providing an office base and diplomatic cover for the Taliban, it has positioned itself as a key arbiter in Nato’s withdrawal from the Afghan war. The long-standing arrangement under which Qatar hosts the headquarters of the American military’s Central Command at al-Udeid airbase also means the state is a gatekeeper for any future action to deal with Iran’s nuclear threat.
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Beyond the realms of such hard power attributes, Qatar is also remarkable for bucking the hierarchical conservatism that has dominated the Arab heartland. Al Jazeera, the Arab broadcaster founded by Sheikh Hamad, has been a revolutionary force through the region for almost as long as he has reigned. Qatar made a successful bid to stage the 2022 World Cup, a project so audacious that air-conditioned football stadiums are having to be built to cope with the 100F heat.
Under the emir’s powerful wife, Sheikha Mozah, Qatar has been a notably progressive champion of women’s rights. The Qatar Foundation controlled by the former first lady is a powerful force for the emancipation and education of Arab women. The emirate is also shaking the art world as it pushes forward with plans for the best endowed museums and galleries to be built anywhere in a generation.
Sources close to the ruling family predict changes of emphasis as a new generation takes over. “The whole orientation of what Qatar has been doing is to develop the country for the next generation,” says one representative of the al-Thani family. “Now they are ready to take the country forward with new ideas, in a region where the power of youth has become very important.”
How quickly the new team will impose a fresh approach on government policy is open to question. In a country braced for change, any backsliding from the relatively liberal measures championed by the previous leadership, such as building colleges for women or encouraging upmarket tourism by sanctioning resorts where alcohol is available, is bound to provoke domestic and international criticism.
Sheikh Tamim has been the designated heir for almost a decade and has already put his stamp on some of the state’s signature policies, including the national development plan to make Qatar a global hub in the Middle East. While he has worked closely on Qatar’s bids for global events, including the World Cup and the Olympics, he has also taken a greater interest in political Islam. The new emir is said to be more religious than his father, and pressures have been growing on the government to do more to preserve Qatar’s Arab identity and conservative ideals.
A personable public schoolboy with impeccable English and two accomplished wives, Sheikh Tamim enjoys close ties with Western military officials and is seen as open and hard-working by foreign diplomats. He is also the prime mover behind Qatar’s close alliance with the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which has risen to power in Egypt and acted as the linchpin of the uprisings in Libya and Syria against the secular dictatorships.
“He has definitely been involved in making Qatar a more active force on behalf of the rebels in the Arab Spring but he will know that he cannot fall into adventurism in that regard,” says one former British official close to the Qataris. “The new leadership, like the old, knows their support of such movements should not come at too high a price.”
Chatham House, the London-based think tank, circulated a note this week explaining that Sheikh Tamim has already positioned close allies to take on a greater role. When his cabinet is announced, it is expected to be dominated by new faces but there will also be figures well versed in the strategic and economic issues facing Qatar. It will also include women in front-line ministries for the first time.
However, it seems certain that one man missing will be the outgoing prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, who is likely to move to London to concentrate on day-to-day management of the country’s vast sovereign wealth fund.
Known to power brokers as HBJ, the Anglophile prime minister has been one of the most important figures in recent British economic history, with the Qatar Investment Authority acquiring substantial stakes in Barclays, the London Stock Exchange, the Chelsea Barracks site and Sainsbury’s. As the effective owner of Harrods and a future resident of the plush penthouse at One Hyde Park, the world’s most expensive residential block, the 53-year-old won’t fade into an insignificant career twilight.
For Britain, there are bigger questions about the emirate, principally concerning our dependence on Qatar’s gas to supply the national grid. Analysts issued warnings earlier this year that all but two of the ships carrying liquefied natural gas to Britain originated in Qatar. Concerns have been further compounded by the fact that only a quarter of this gas supply has been secured through long-term contracts. Amid rising competition for Qatar’s supplies, Britain could find itself facing ever higher prices and a new leadership less inclined to make concessions.
But while the Western world has grown increasingly dependent on Qatar’s deep fuel reserves and diplomatic heft, the new leadership also needs its Western allies to maintain its regional role. How the 33-year-old emir will measure up to Saudi Arabia’s 88-year-old King Abdullah in the councils of the Gulf will be watched closely. Saudi concerns about Qatar’s foreign policy independence centre on the new emir’s closeness to the Muslim Brotherhood. The new team are, however, said to have privately warned that any concessions to the Saudis on this issue would represent a “regression” for Qatar.
Sheikh Tamim will face these challenges in the global spotlight, not least because the awarding of the 2022 World Cup is so controversial, with allegations of corruption having been made against Fifa committee members. Hordes of beer-swilling football fans descending on a pious Muslim society could trigger a conservative backlash at home, while Qatar will have to prove to audiences around the world that it can deliver on all its promises, both technological and cultural.
Sheikh Tamim will be hoping his father’s gamble on youth is as far-sighted as the decisions that put once-sleepy Qatar on the world stage.
Small state, big spender
Qatar has been ruled as an absolute and hereditary emirate by the al-Thani family since the mid-19th century. It was a British protectorate until becoming independent in 1971.
At 4,415 sq miles, it is slightly larger than Gambia, slightly smaller than the Falkland Islands.
Its population is 1.9 million — 1.4 million males, 500,000 females. The population has tripled since 2000, largely due to an influx of male workers.
Thanks to its gas and oil reserves, Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world, at approx $100,000 (£65,000). The UK figure is $35,000 (£22,600).
Qatari assets include:
Sainsbury’s (26 per cent)
Valentino, the Italian fashion house
Tiffany & Co, New York-based jewellers (12.8 per cent)
The Chelsea Barracks site
Heathrow airport owner BAA (20 per cent)
Paris Saint-Germain football club
Al Jazeera, the satellite TV network