Jerusalem Post, 29/6.
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 Hamid bin-Khalifa al-Thani chose to step down. Power was transferred to his 33 year old son, Tamim bin-Hamid al-Thani.
Rumors of 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.
Emir Hamad took 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 Sunni Islamism. He placed his bets on them. The decision has proved prescient. Indeed, it has brought hitherto unimaginable levels of power and influence for the tiny emirate.
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 Arabic-speaking world.
Doha’s relations with the Muslim Brothers are of older vintage. Qatar’s patronage of the Brotherhood dates back to the 1960s. Like the Saudis, the Qataris offered refuge to Brotherhood activists fleeing the persecution of Gamal Abd-el Nasir’s regime in Egypt.
In the 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. Of its population of 1.9 million, around 1.7 million are non-citizens. These are mainly guest workers from the Indian sub-continent, 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.
A revolutionary Islamism seeking to turn them against the ruling Al-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 al-Qaradawi’s hugely popular and influential broadcasts, in which he issued fatwas and commented on regional politics.
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 2008.
The rise of Sunni Islamism and the Muslim 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 dilemmas.
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 Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Doha stands to replace Iran as the main backer of Hamas, who themselves represent the most dynamic element in Palestinian politics. Qatar has close relations with the Erdogan government in Turkey and with the Nahda government in Tunisia – both Muslim Brotherhood influenced movements.
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 Muslim Brotherhood type orientation, such as Aleppo’s Tawhid Brigade.
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 Muslim 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 it.
Qatar’s alliance with the anti-western Muslim 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 33 year old Tamim al-Thani. 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 yet more pro-Brotherhood than his father. The strategic alliance between Doha and the Brothers that has so incensed the Saudis is likely to continue.
Secondly, the smooth nature of the transition suggests that the break with the old system of power is unlikely to be complete. While influential current 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.
So the bottom line is that more of the same is the most likely outlook for Qatar. More support for the Muslim 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 that ‘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.