An event of a type exotically rare in the contemporary Arab world took place
this week: namely, a bloodless transfer of power.
The ruling, ailing Emir
of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin-Khalifa al-Thani chose to step down. Power was
transferred to his 33-year-old son, Tamim bin-Hamad al-Thani.
the imminent abdication had been rife among Gulf-watchers for some months. Few
had expected that it would come so soon.
The young and inexperienced
Tamim is ascending to power at a time of historic upheaval in the region, in
which the tiny Emirate of Qatar is playing a central role.
power from his own father in a bloodless coup in 1995.
Over the last 18
years, he shrewdly parlayed the tiny emirate’s vast gas wealth into a position
of central diplomatic influence in the region.
The Qatari emir noted
earlier than others the dynamic potential of two emergent forces – satellite
media and Sunnism. He placed his bets on them, and the decision has proved
Indeed, it has brought the country hitherto unimaginable
levels of power and influence.
Founded in 1996, the Doha-based satellite
channel Al Jazeera emerged as the key opinion-forming force in Arabic media. Its
cocktail of populist anti- Western and anti-Israeli sentiment, and its
willingness to criticize existing Arab regimes (with the exception of Qatar
itself, of course) won it the hearts and minds of millions in the
Doha’s relations with the Muslim Brotherhood are
of an older vintage.
Qatar’s patronage of the Brotherhood dates back to
the 1960s. Like the Saudis, the Qataris offered refuge to movement’s activists
fleeing the persecution of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in Egypt.
case of the Saudis, the relationship went sour when Brotherhood ideas began to
infect and radicalize significant sections among the Saudis’ own population.
Qatar has never had to worry about domestic radicalization.
population of 1.9 million, around 1.7 million are noncitizens.
mainly guest workers from the Indian subcontinent, without political rights and
often kept in horrific conditions. Qatar’s 200,000 citizens are an immensely
privileged group. The emirate is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied
natural gas. This tiny citizenry is the beneficiary of the wealth, with the
highest income per capita of any state in the world.
Islamism seeking to turn them against the ruling Thani family thus has little
hope of making headway. Qatar, unlike Saudi Arabia, can patronize the
Brotherhood without fear.
The result has been a successful partnership.
Sheikh Yusuf al- Qaradawi, most influential of the Brotherhood’s preachers, made
his home in Doha. Al Jazeera provided the platform for Qaradawi’s hugely popular
and influential broadcasts, in which he issued fatwas and commented on regional
Media influence and populist appeals went hand in hand with
Qatari financial generosity – in Lebanon, among the Palestinians, in Sudan. All
this translated into political influence – see Qatar’s hosting, for example, of
talks between Fatah and Hamas, and of warring Lebanese factions in
The rise of Sunnism and the Brotherhood across the Middle East over
the last decade (and in accelerated form in the last two years) has carried
Qatar to a position of unprecedented influence.
The little emirate is now
in the big leagues. This has brought with it new problems and
Qatar stands somewhere close to center stage in all the main
flashpoints of the region at the present time. It is the main financial backer
of the Brotherhood in Egypt. Doha stands to replace Iran as the main backer of
Hamas, which itself represents the most dynamic element in Palestinian politics.
The emirate has close relations with the Erdogan government in Turkey and with the Nahda government in Tunisia – both
Qatar is also a central backer of the
armed rebellion in Syria.
Qatari money finances many of the most active
fighting units among the rebels. In particular, Doha (in cooperation with the
Turks) backs rebels units of a Brotherhood-type orientation, such as Aleppo’s
Qatar’s gains have raised the ire of two far more
substantial regional players – Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The Iranians, with
whom Qatar shares a massive natural gas field, are furious at Qatari support for
the rebellion against their client regime in Damascus.
The Saudis are no
less incensed at what they see as Qatar’s irresponsible support for the
Brotherhood, which Riyadh regards as the main threat to itself and other
conservative Gulf monarchies.
Saudi Arabia’s rivalry with Qatar is of
long standing, but the growing influence of Qatar has intensified
Qatar’s alliance with the anti- Western Brotherhood is made yet more
complex by its dependence on the US for protection against the Iranian threat.
The Americans maintain their largest air base in the region at al-Udeid, west of
the Qatari capital.
This combination of circumstances will now be the
responsibility of the young Tamim.
Are there any indications offering
guidance as to how he will respond to them? First of all, any hopes that the new
emir might promote a less pro-Islamist approach appear unlikely to be realized.
Informed sources suggest that Tamim is, if anything, more pro-Brotherhood than
The strategic alliance between Doha and the Brotherhood that
has so incensed the Saudis is likely to continue. Moreover, the smooth nature of
the transition suggests that the break with the old system of power is unlikely
to be complete.
While influential Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim
al-Thani will be replaced, the former emir is likely to have a continued role in
policymaking. Tamim’s accession does not represent the victory of a new branch
of the Thani family, or a new outlook. It is about the existing establishment
ensuring its future.
The bottom line, then, is that more of the same is
the most likely outlook for Qatar. More support for the Brotherhood in Egypt,
Syria, Gaza and beyond; more selective promotion of reform abroad while
maintaining a system of near-slave labor at home; more tweaking the nose of Iran
while nestling beneath the protective umbrella of the US Air Force; and more
competition with Saudi Arabia.
Francois Voltaire wrote, “With great power
comes great responsibility.”
Qatar’s regional stances suggest that if
great power comes with limitless wealth and Western indulgence, then the
responsibility can be happily ignored – at least for a time. •