Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Another Coup for the Outgoing Emir of Qatar

In July 2010, the (now outgoing) Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, traveled to South Lebanon to bask in the gratitude for his country's largesse in supporting reconstruction following the Israeli bombardment just four years earlier. The $300 million (and beyond) committed by the Gulf state was very much appreciated by the Shiite armed movement Hezbollah, who ensured billboards in the South and on Airport Road in Beirut were decorated with notes of thanks to the Emir. It was a conspicuous visit because Qatar had stood out amongst the GCC in taking a strong if not controversial stand. Hand-in-hand with Hezbollah, the Emir, was not apparently one of the "half-men" that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad pointed to in the Gulf during the 2006 Hezbollah-Israel war. In fact, the Emir and Assad were quite close, if not close friends, and were frequently in touch.

In 2013, Qatar finds itself at the forefront on a number of regional issues, most notably the conflict in Syria, which had pitted the Emir in direct opposition to his old friend Bashar Al Assad. In fact, on the sectarian front, hosting firebrand spiritual figure, Yusuf al-Qaradawi who recently called for a Sunni-led jihad, and allying almost openly with Muslim Brotherhood movements in the region (which brought criticism from people as far afield as Egyptian satirist Bassem Youssef), has increasingly prompted the question: Has the politically adept Qatar lost its touch?

Once again, however, the Emir of Qatar (who I'll refer to by his initials HBK) shocked the region with another unprecedented move - this time the transfer of power to his 33-year old son Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (the 'new Emir'). In doing so, HBK put Qatar back on the political front-foot and raised the pressure on regional allies. And in typical style, he added another deft touch in his address to the nation with a quote (and the only quote outside from scripture) from Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Caliph in Islam and the first Imam of the Shi'a Muslims: 'Teach your children other than that what you were taught; as they are created for a time other than yours."

It was nearly 18 years to the day, on June 27, 1995 [although official Qatari sites list his 'start-date' as June 26] that the outgoing Emir, HBK, came to power in a bloodless coup with the aid of his current outgoing Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamid bin Jassim al-Thani (HBJ) and other figures. He dislodged his father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad, at the time, under largely benign circumstances but also as Qatar was starting to truly increase its economic base. When HBK took the reigns, the country was bit-player on the regional scene, with a GDP of $8bn. Today, the country is a regional powerhouse, punching far above its weight with a GDP in upwards of $170bn. The transformation, after HBK's rise, began in a number of areas:
  • In 1995 (August), the Emir alongside his wife, Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, launched what has become one of the largest foundations, Qatar Foundation, dedicated to 'knowledge' and social development in the country and wider region;
  • In 1996, the State of Qatar launched Al Jazeera, initially only in Arabic, which shocked the region by becoming literally the only widespread outlet of independent voices (from the 'regimes') in the region; 
  • And in 1997, Qatar Airways was relaunched and became a symbolic flagship for the country, although it is not clear whether the carrier will ever truly be profitable.
Economically, with growing revenues from natural gas over the last decade and a half, the departing Prime Minister, HBJ, effectively became the CEO of the country. In addition, to governing national investments through the Qatar Investment Authority, the sovereign wealth fund, HBJ also built up constituent vehicles like Qatari Diar, which looked to deploy billions of dollars in capital throughout the region, including in places that would traditionally be 'off-the-grid' like Libya, Syria and the Palestinian Territories.

Yet, while the transformation of Qatar happened on several levels - and Sheikha Moza led a number of key initiatives that have separately built up the profile of the country - the Prime Minister & Emir particularly forged a formidable political duo, implementing a plan for political leadership which led to alternating reactions of admiration and consternation in the region. HBK & HBJ became in recent years, the guiding and influencing force on a number of key regional files. It was a strategy of multi-faceted engagement and relevance, often replete with paradoxes, that even until now has confounded observers and analysts, who were always late to the party in understanding and engaging with Qatar.

For example, while condemning Al Jazeera Arabic for links to Al Qaeda, the U.S. government in September 2002 began moving its Central Command (CENTCOM) Headquarters in part to Doha. Qatar maintained an Israeli trade office since the late 1990s (closing intermittently during the Intifada and in 2009 during the Gaza War), while also building up relations with Hamas throughout the 2000s. The country maintained strong links within the GCC, and also with Sunni allies such as leader of the Future Party Saad Hariri, but in 2008 it was their ties with Hezbollah that allowed them to forge the Doha Agreement, averting what could have been a dark period of civil strife in Lebanon. There was no end to the political engagement: peace talks on Darfur, engagement with the Taliban, mediation between Chad and Sudan, and the list goes on.

On the political level, while the period prior to the Arab awakening was characterized by engaging with a wide variety of stakeholders, in early 2011, it seemed that Qatar was starting to play a much more partisan role. Previous allies such as Syria's Assad, and Libya's Gaddhafi fell by the wayside very quickly, with Qatar in fact leading efforts in the fight to topple both dictators. And in other 'revolutionary' environments such as Egypt and Tunisia, where the ruling parties are Islamist, Qatar has become the political football for its perceived support for Islamist movements. Critics ask why figures like Qaradawi (mentioned above) are based in Qatar? Why was the state mosque in Doha named after the founder of Wahhabism, the particularly conservative brand of Islam, in 2011? And why has a station like Al Jazeera portrayed only one side of the story, often with an 'Islamic' bent, the last two years especially?

Yet, the criticism has only grown commensurate with the prominence of Qatar in the region. On one hand, the policies of Qatar were simply part of its strategy of engagement in the region, to demonstrate leadership but also fundamentally relevance - important for a small country that previously lived in the shadow of Saudi Arabia and Iran. The Arab uprisings and subsequent rise of Islamist movements in the region was a tremendous opportunity for Qatar to provide indispensable leadership. Yet, leadership and unique prominence, has consequences, and it is likely that the inflection point of a transfer of power, provides a moment for reflection, especially as the region comes to terms with its new (and oft-changing) dynamics. What was immensely popular in late 2011 no longer is definitively so. For example, in Egypt, President Morsi's approval rating has notably dropped from 70% to 40%.

Thus, the transfer of power to a new ruler, in Sheikh Tamim, means that Qatar can assess its strategic position and alignment. Perhaps, the country could benefit from a broader engagement given rising divisions in the region, and once again capture the role of lead mediator? Domestically, Sheikh Tamim will play close attention to catalyzing the role of his generation in the country's leadership. After all, Qatar had yet to enact the legislative or Shura Council that HBK promised when he rose to power, and enshrined in the Constitution ratified 9 years ago. The first step will be the announcement of a new cabinet that will replace what is increasingly seen as a gentrified political elite with new or younger faces. It is also expected that there may be a rise in salaries of Qataris employed in the public sector, at a smaller scale, however, to a similar announcement in 2011. Most important, however, will be a new dialogue and series of consultations that the new Emir will have with Qatari citizens, whose expectations have risen with new-found wealth and prosperity. In particular, with 70% of Qataris under the age of 30, engaging youth will be a priority. Do they feel included in the governance of the country and its institutions? Are there sufficient opportunities for employment and growth? And do public services meet their expectations?

As Sheikh Tamim assesses the domestic situation, he does have a strong ally in his mother, Sheikha Moza, and the institutions she leads that address youth, health and education. And he will rely on  experienced hands like Sheikh Abdullah al-Thani to evaluate macro-projects like the Qatar World Cup preparations and the development of the national railways. Yet, both on the national and international fronts, the new Emir is not without experience or preparation. While observers were caught off-guard, it is thought HBK had planned for this day far ahead of time. The ascension of the Crown Prince to the leadership, began in earnest over the past two years. In fact, when significant announcements like the salary increase from 2011 were made, it was from Sheikh Tamim's office. He was also front and center, for example, when the move was made to shift Hamas headquarters out of Syria. And the then Crown Prince had been taking an increasing "foreign affairs role" amidst the Arab uprisings.

While the policies that Qatar will follow will likely be unchanged in the short-term, we will have to wait and see what path the new Emir forges in the long-term. Yet, his father has assured that he enters on the political front-foot. Even in his departure, the outgoing Emir left as he came in - with a coup. Upending traditions in the region, he ensured that he would leave the scene at the ripe (for the GCC) age of 61, leaving power to his son who is only 33. This is next to countries such as Saudi Arabia, where the King is 91 (if not older) and where power has never been transferred to the 'next generation', passed instead from brother-to-brother among the descendents of King Abdelaziz (since his death in 1953). Or take Bahrain, where the Prime Minister, Khalifa bin Salman, has helmed the government for over four decades without interruption.

Certainly, the move by HBK has not ushered in a democracy in Qatar; it is still an authoritarian state. And the ascension of Sheikh Tamim does not automatically assuage any of the concerns (real or perceived) ranging from migrant rights to nepotism to regional interference. Nevertheless, in its own way, Qatar has provided the region with a new revolutionary moment. Now we wait to see how the day-after, always the hard part, plays out.