30 June 2013 — Strategic Culture Foundation
On 25 June, following «consultations with his closest relatives and leading members of society», the ruling Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, announced his abdication in favour of his son, 33-year old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Local analysts believe that the decision is a result of gathering problems with the policy the emirate has been carrying out over the last 3-4 years, especially regarding the Syria issue. The Emir does have problems with his health (he had a kidney transplant in 1997 and needs constant dialysis), but he is perfectly competent and his state of health has nothing to do with his departure.
According to experts, the Emir’s abdication was prompted by the keenly-felt defeat suffered by the Syrian armed opposition in Al-Qusayr, which Qatar had invested a lot of resources in the seizure of and which, as a fortified point, is also an anchor point along the route of the planned gas pipeline from Qatar to Europe or, as an alternative, from Iran to the Mediterranean. (1)
Qatar’s outlay on its ventures into Syria has already reached nearly 3 billion dollars, according to some estimates. (2) Qatar’s support of the opposition in Syria and its leadership in the «Arab Spring» as a whole is increasingly turning into a fiasco. The reason is simple – Doha was filled with a sense of its own importance and began to believe in its infinite powers to the accompaniment of flattering reviews from the West about this «leading centre of influence in the Arab world», whereas in reality, Qatar is just a tool to fulfil the objectives of Western policy. Although Qatar has a lot of money, its human and organisational potential is rather modest. In recent years, the country has wasted vast resources. This is especially true in Syria, where the help sent by the emirate has given rise to feelings of hostility in Salafis toward Qatar itself. In order to correct the mistakes, a new manager is needed who will have to repair the situation without washing its dirty linen in public or offending powerful patrons.
Prince Tamim will be the first of three Qatar rulers from the Al-Thani dynasty who has come to power without a coup, as was the case with both his grandfather and father. In 1995, for example, the outgoing Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani seized the throne in Qatar following a «bloodless» coup, having taken advantage of his father’s absence from the country. The current peaceful transfer of power is perhaps the only democratic achievement in the life of this absolute monarchy which somehow miraculously claims to be «the avant garde of democracy» in the Middle East. The change in power is not just going to be limited to the Emir. In order to avoid any unnecessary rivalry with the new ruler, one more member of the dynasty is also expected to leave his post – the rather influential Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani who is currently the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, as well as Tamim’s cousin.
Information regarding the transfer of power to the Emir’s successor was received by the United States and Great Britain beforehand and was in fact in agreement with them. The figure of the new ruler of Qatar suits both Washington and London perfectly. The young Qatar monarch studied in prestigious public schools in England and successfully graduated from the same academy as the ruler of Jordan, Abdullah II – the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in Great Britain. He can speak English and French fluently and read Old Persian. On 5 August 2005, his older brother Sheikh Jassim abdicated his right to the throne in favour of Tamim. (3) If one takes into account that the new Emir is well-known for his strong bonds with the «Muslim Brotherhood», as well as the fact that up to this point he has been in charge of providing aid to Syrian rebels as First Deputy Commander-in-Chief of Qatar’s armed forces (4) in Doha, then it is easy to suppose that Qatar’s activities with regard to Syria are only going to increase under the new Emir. This is also indicated by the outcome of the «Friends of Syria» meeting held in Qatar recently, at which the country’s prime minister declared that «it is only possible to safeguard peace and justice there by supplying arms to the opposition». (5)
There are nearly two million people living in Qatar, only 12 percent of whom are regarded as indigenous citizens and receive all privileges. The country has the third largest natural gas reserves in the world with 20 trillion cubic metres, and is the largest supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG) to the world’s markets (around 80 million tonnes per year). It has a GDP of 183 billion dollars, or nearly 100,000 dollars per capita – the highest in the world. Private enterprise is limited; everything belongs to the Emir and is managed by him. The Emir officially owns all of the country’s land and distributes it to all of his subjects to rent rather than own – any sidestepping and the contract is terminated, with those out of favour losing everything. Many of the country’s inhabitants are proud of the role Qatar is playing in the Middle East, but at the same time are increasingly wondering where such huge amounts of their national wealth are going to. After all, whatever you may say, the wealth is not infinite. What will be left for their descendants over the next few decades? Giant skyscrapers? Stadiums covered with sand? In an interview with a correspondent from The Economist, an unnamed Qatari official lamented: «What have billions bought us in Syria? We’ve failed to bring down Mr Assad and left 4m Syrians homeless». (6) Total spending on the 2022 FIFA World Cup has already been declared as reaching 100 billion dollars which, according to experts, is at least double the actual cost of planned facilities. It is nearly 60 percent of the country’s GDP. Even taking into account Qatar’s enormous sovereign fund of 100 billion dollars, the forthcoming championship could simply bury its economy.
The first ever municipal elections are only just beginning to take shape in Qatar while parliamentary elections are unheard of; unlike, for example, republican Syria. Political parties, trade unions, associations, marches and demonstrations are all forbidden. Elections to the «advisory council», which does not have any kind of legislative authority, were promised back in 2004 but have still not taken place, while in Qatar itself, there is no evidence of the freedom of speech so often publicised to the world by Qatar’s state TV channel Al Jazeera. And in fact upon closer inspection this allegedly «independent» TV channel turns out to be dependent. The American diplomatic correspondence published on Wikileaks shows that Qatar frequently used Al Jazeera as an «intimidation tool» with regard to other countries. So, for example, the coverage of events in Syria changed dramatically in April 2011 on orders from above. (7)
Timid speeches within the country criticising the Emir are being firmly suppressed. A book by local academic Ali Khalifa al-Kuwari entitled «The people want reform… in Qatar, too», for example, has been banned. In 2011, the poet and freethinker Muhammad al-Ajami was given a life sentence, graciously reduced by the Emir to 15 years, for a poem eulogising the «Arab Spring» and hinting that it would not be a bad thing if something similar also took place in Qatar. According to the Law on the Press, «insulting the Emir or his family» or «harming state interests» is punishable by a fine of 1 million rials (275,000 dollars) (8). This is where the international human rights defenders should be, but they are fighting «for freedom and democracy» in Syria alongside the Emir!
Researchers from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) are paying attention to the fact that Qatar, the «avant garde of revolution», is protecting the monarchy in Bahrain and destroying the republic in Syria. It is surprising that Doha itself does not feel this contradiction and is not worried that supporting change outside of Qatar while preserving the status quo within it may undermine the foundations of the regime in this country (9).
Doha’s intentions are still unclear not just towards its neighbours, but its closest allies as well. Some of these have not hesitated to point out the Napoleon complex of the outgoing ruler, while others believe his particular understanding of Islam is the key to his behaviour. Monarchs from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Oman think that their Qatari colleague is a hypocrite – «the same kind of despot as them, but pretending to be a democrat». (10) In April 2012, there was an attempted coup d’etat in Qatar instigated by Riyadh. The TV channel Al Arabiya reported that a number of high-ranking military officials came out against the Emir. The result was a fierce battle between some 30 officers and US-backed royal guards outside the Emir’s palace. The coup failed following the arrest of the officers involved in the plan. (11)
Relations between Qatar and Saudi Arabia remain tense, despite the fact that these two countries are working together in Syria. For example, the Saudis, who are committed to Wahhabism, condemn the closeness of the Emir of Qatar with populists like the «Muslim Brotherhood», especially since the spiritual leader of the «Muslim Brotherhood» throughout the world, the highly-influential Egyptian Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, chose Qatar as his headquarters. Riyadh is also displeased with the criticism being levelled at it by Al Jazeera.
Qatar is an extremely important link in America’s chain of strategic interests in the Middle East. The two US military bases in Qatar are home to 13,000 American servicemen. The United States Air Force’s 609th Air and Space Operations Center is located at Al Udeid airbase close to Abu Nakhlah Airport (one of four such centres the US army has abroad). At the same time, Qatar and the US are effectively becoming major competitors on the wave of the «shale revolution» and in view of the anticipated expansion of American companies into the global LNG market after 2016. Washington could «suddenly» open its eyes to the fact that «the emir has nothing on at all» when it comes to democracy, a «national protest» having already been organised against his government. Then may Doha not be surprised at the variability of the sympathy shown by the great ones of this Earth and forget the former achievements of the current ruling dynasty in the fight for freedom…