The transfer of power from Sheikh Hamad to his son, Sheikh Tamim, is mere window dressing. It will have little impact on the tiny sheikhdom’s policies.
Qatar is a tiny country in the Persian Gulf — total population 1.6 million of whom only 200,000 are citizens. Foreign workers are not given citizenship rights. Even citizens do not enjoy many rights apart from over-indulgence, as happened during Ramadan when scores of people were hospitalized for overeating.
The ruler, called amir, is supreme. No criticism of the amir is permitted. Last year, a poet was sentenced to 15 years in jail for criticizing him. The Qatari constitution stipulates that the word of the amir is law and he cannot be criticized otherwise this is dubbed an “insult” and that is punishable by a long prison term.
So why did the June 25 transfer of power from Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani to his 33-year-old son Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani generate so much excitement? It was all quite contrived. Al-Jazeera, the Qatari mouthpiece crowed, “A new ruler for a transformed country” (June 24, 2013). Commentary elsewhere was less flowery. Some called it a “PR stunt”; others said it was done on the orders of the Americans; yet others said it gave the Qataris a leg up on their erstwhile Saudi rivals. Each of these explanations carries a grain of truth. There was also plenty of praise for Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, only 61, handing power over to his son when tradition in the medieval sheikhdoms is to cling to power till death. One only has to look at the desert kingdom of Saudi Arabia that is viewed as a rival by the Qataris.
Al-Jazeera showed footage of a long line of Qatari tribal elders coming to “congratulate” the new ruler by rubbing noses with him in the tradition of the desert bedouins. The Qatari TV station also said they came to “pledge allegiance.” What else could they do; did they have a choice in his selection; were they ever consulted? What if they had refused to give allegiance; would that have changed the ground reality? More critically, what would be the fate of such people if they failed to show up at the palace? Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi also lined up to congratulate the new amir. Imagine an octogenarian Shaykh coming to pledge allegiance to a 33-year-old ruler! Imam Ghazali has warned Muslims in his monumental work, Ihya al-‘Ulum, “Do not seek the advice of ‘ulama that go as supplicants to the king’s court; instead, rely on those scholars at whose door the rulers stand askance.”
Following his assumption of power under the watchful gaze of his father, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani praised his father Sheikh Hamad, saying the former amir achieved “miraculous” successes during his 18-year rule. While miraculous may be a gross exaggeration, it must be admitted that Sheikh Hamad has raised Qatar’s stature considerably given its tiny size and population. Under his rule, the country has been punching way above its weight, much to the chagrin of the Saudis that claim sole authority to leadership in the Arabian countries.
What has not been explained so far is why Sheikh Hamad handed over power to his son, Tamim, who is not the oldest in line but is the fourth son of the just-retired ruler that has three wives. Tamim is the son of the second wife but first lady Shaykha Mozah bint Nasser al-Mosned, Hamad’s favourite (poor first and third wives!). The fact is Sheikh Hamad wanted to make sure his son succeeds him in his lifetime. Sheikh Hamad’s older brother, the just retired Prime Minister Sheikh Jassim bin Khalifa Al Thani, is an ambitious and shifty character. Hamad feared, quite rightly, that if his brother survived him, it would create problems for his anointed successor. We have the example of the late King Hussain of Jordan. Even while suffering from cancer and on his deathbed, he flew back to the kingdom from the US. He signed a decree to replace his brother, Crown Prince Hassan giving the throne to his son, Abdullah in 1999. It must be borne in mind that Abdullah was barely 37 and did not have much experience, certainly not as much as his far more seasoned uncle.
Abdullah’s total experience included acting in a few third rate movies and his rapid promotion, without merit, to the rank of air force general. These would hardly qualify him to wear the crown of a troubled kingdom like Jordan. There was of course another factor also going for Abdullah. His mother was an English woman although King Hussain had divorced her in 1967 packing her to Britain when the five-foot two-inch monarch took on a very young attractive Palestinian bride. Unfortunately she did not live long, dying in a helicopter crash, whereupon the tiny king took a tall Lebanese Christian woman as bride.
But back to tiny Qatar. Sheikh Tamim is a graduate of Britain’s Military Academy at Sandhurst. He must be a military genius since he was commissioned only in 1998 and today he has already reached the rank of deputy commander of Qatar’s forces. He followed in his father’s footsteps. Sheikh Hamad had also graduated — don’t laugh — from Sandhurst! His ponderous bulk defies his military background but then he would not be an over-indulgent Qatari. Sheikh Tamim is also an investment genius; he sits on the board of Qatar’s $100 billion Sovereign Wealth Fund. It must be nice to have so much cash around and not have to answer to anyone as to how it is spent.
The new ruler unveiled his own cabinet a day after he became the amir. Most of the cabinet is made up of Al Thanis, naturally the repository of all wisdom. Qatar has been dominated by the Al Thani family for almost 150 years and its governing system is like the monarchy in the UK. In Qatar, people have no role in running the affairs of the country and the decision-making process.
Qatar also hosts a major US air base in the Muslim East at al-Udaid, built with Qatari money and given to the US for free. Washington is naturally a staunch supporter of the Qatari dynasty; how could it be otherwise: after all, getting a free air base and being able to dictate policy to the rulers is like owning the island. It is full of gas, hence all the riches. Obama frequently praised the just-retired Qatari amir for his contribution to “democracy.” No doubt, the new amir will also be showered with praises for supporting the military coup in Egypt as another sign of their contribution to democracy. When you are full of gas, you will fly pretty high but when the balloon is pricked, the landing could be quite hard.