One of the outgoing emir’s last acts was to quietly prolong the life of the current advisory council.
Note: This article is from the Guardian.
Qatar’s brand new emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, is being subject to the Gulf equivalent of Kremlinology as he takes the reins of power following his father’s abdication. The overall emphasis has been on continuity — a bland and sensible public message for a tiny country that wields enormous political and financial power and naturally wants to avoid shocks.
Tamim gave little away in his brief early morning address to the nation on Wednesday. He used lightly-coded language to describe Qatar as acting in its own interests and not being dictated to by others. It had “aligned itself with the Arab peoples and their aspiration to live free of corruption and nepotism.” But there was no direct mention of its role in promoting and supporting the uprisings in Libya and Syria, nor of its close links to the Muslim Brotherhood, now ruling in Egypt and Tunisia (and deeply unpopular in the other Gulf monarchies).
Qatar, he insisted, “rejects divisions in Arab societies on sectarian lines” — rebutting accusations that it is fomenting hatred by backing extremist Sunni rebels fighting the Assad regime. Reflecting that view, Beirut’s al-Akhbar described him bluntly as the emir of the Sunni Ikhwanji (Brotherhood) Spring.
In an ironic echo of the days when the Al Thani and Assad families were still close, I came across a secret US cable, courtesy of WikiLeaks, where the then Crown Prince Tamim was quoted as telling General David Petraeus, of US Central Command that Syria was changing:
Tamim assessed that although those around him are difficult to deal with, Bashar himself is a good person, and his thinking is changing too, even commenting recently…that Israel is not the enemy, Al-Qaida is.
That was in September 2009 — an age ago in Middle Eastern politics.
Amidst the scramble to decode the intentions of the new head of state, there were a couple of interesting clues from Azmi Bishara, the Palestinian intellectual who is often described as a political adviser to Tamim. Bishara used to be an Israeli MP and now runs the Doha-based Arab Centre for Research and Policy Studies. He told al-Jazeera TV — this week providing its most detailed coverage ever of Qatari affairs — that the emirate would be quieter from now on but “would not abandon its principles”. Bishara also criticised the channel’s often stridently Islamist tone. How that squares with the influence of another key figure in Doha, the Egyptian Sunni preacher and the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Sheikh Yousef Qaradawi (who has been sounding very sectarian himself recently), is one of the mysteries/contradictions of life at the top in Qatar.
Still, the chief significance of this week’s news from Doha is that it is about generational change, not democracy — a characteristically maverick but calculated Qatari response to the events of the Arab spring. One of the outgoing emir’s last acts, after all, was to quietly prolong the life of the current advisory council, casting a question mark over an earlier pledge to hold elections in 2014. But handing over the baton is not an empty gesture. Its meaning was underlined strikingly when the 33-year-old emir received formal congratulations from his most powerful neighbour, the 90-year-old King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia — where voluntary abdications have never been an option.
For some Qatar-watchers, the departure of the powerful Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani, the veteran prime minister and foreign minister, is as big a deal as the change of emir. HBJ, however, is reportedly expected to retain his post as vice-chairman of the Qatar Investment Authority, (QIA) (estimated worth up to $200bn). And as for the now former emir, says a friend, he will “still be around to give advice and keep an eye on things.” Qatar may have acquired a new ruler, but it remains very much a family enterprise.
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