Opinion

The Great Debate

Behind the abdication of Qatar’s emir

By Shibley Telhami
June 26, 2013

Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, speaks at a summit in Rome, Nov. 16, 2009. REUTERS/Alessandro Bianch

Nothing was trivial about the moment: Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani gave up his post as emir of Qatar to his son at the pinnacle of his influence, in an act as rare and surprising as his ascending to power through a bloodless coup against his own father in 1995.

The very brevity of the emir’s abdication speech and the remarkable absence of boasting about his transformation of Qatar was itself a rarity in an Arab world accustomed to long, windy addresses on even trivial matters.

What drove the policies of the outgoing emir? What will come next?

The fact that the world is paying attention is a testament to the central role that this small, previously sleepy nation now plays on the world stage. The story of what drove the outgoing emir — and his key partner, Foreign and Prime Minister  Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani (HBJ) — tells much about the driving forces in the Arab world. One hint appeared in the announcement’s sparse wording: “We believe that the Arab world is one human body, one coherent structure, that draws its strength from all its constituent parts.”

The outgoing emir, who grew up in the Pan-Arab era of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, once described himself to me as a “Nasserist.” He described his Prime Minister HBJ as a “Sadatist” — or admirer of the pragmatic, pro-Western Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who succeeded Nasser and made peace with Israel.

From this perspective, one of the emir’s most important contributions to Arab politics, the pan-Arab Al Jazeera TV, was the modern — and more credible –version of Nasser’s Sawt Al Arab radio, which itself had revolutionary impact on the Arab world in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Indeed, Al Jazeera has played a key role in the Arab world, hosting Arab nationalists as regular commentators, including Mohammad Hassanein Heikal, Nasser’s confidant. But Qatar, and Al Jazeera, also host Islamists, especially Sheikh Yousuf Al Qaradawi, one of the most influential Sunni religious authorities.

Beyond any pan-Arab aspiration, the outgoing emir’s strategy was in the long-term interest of Qatar. Yet at the core of his — and Al Jazeera’s — success is understanding the Arab and Islamic aspirations of the millions of people they tried to reach. Which is why they paid so much attention to Palestine, as the prism of pain through which Arabs viewed the outside world.

Even at the moment of abdication, Al Jazeera went immediately from Qatari commentators to Palestinian commentators in the West Bank and Gaza. Consider, in the new emir’s inaugural speech, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani followed by singling out his commitment to the Palestinian issue — of all the international issues facing Qatar and the Arab world.

What distinguished al-Thani’s reign, beyond the enormous resources at his disposal, were two key elements. He was an initiator and bold decision maker, and he displayed unusual tolerance for the short and intermediate costs of long-term interests.

Al Jazeera is a good example. Despite heavy diplomatic costs that strained Qatar’s relations with countries ranging from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to China, the emir rarely backed down when it came to Al Jazeera. His sight was focused on long-term benefits.

Coming to power only a year before he launched Al Jazeera, al-Thani and Qatar were often criticized — especially by the Saudi-owned regional newspapers and TV stations. The criticism was directed not only at the emir’s takeover but also at his independent policies — including warming up to Israel when peace seemed possible.

By creating a station that reached and inspired not just the 250,000 Qatari citizens but 350 million Arabs, the emir hoped to take away viewership from stations critical of Qatar.

There was another service that Al Jazeera provided to Qatari rulers: Arabs viewed this as a welcome voice, reflecting their own aspirations. The network helped protect the Qataris from intense criticism for being a pro-American emirate that hosted a military base for U.S. airplanes attacking Iraq in the unpopular 2003 Iraq war.

The 20120 Arab uprisings that started in Tunisia created both opportunities and challenges. The opportunities came with the vacuum of leadership in the Arab world: with Iraq struggling, Egypt busy internally, Syria imploding and Saudi Arabia cautious, Qatar moved to fill the void.

How many countries in the world are able and willing to provide Egypt with $8 billion in aid; give money and arms to the Syrian rebels; and provide the financial incentives to be on both sides of the Palestinian divide?

But with power comes scrutiny of a small nation that is playing almost all sides as a survival strategy. Even as Qatar emerged as a key ally of the United Sates, Al Jazeera gave voice to Osama bin Laden, as its audiences expected. It reached out to Israel, but also supported Hamas and Hezbollah in their confrontation with Israel. It worried about Iran, but kept the lines of communication open. It projected Arab nationalism, but reached out to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It took the lead in supporting the Syrian opposition — in a role that cannot be finished without significant international support that remains absent.

Could the Arab uprisings that Qatar has backed come to Doha’s own doorsteps?

Despite extraordinary prosperity and modernization, Qatar is hardly a democracy, and criticism of the emir is still constitutionally prohibited. When the Arab uprisings started, Qatari Prime Minister HBJ said bluntly that even Qatar was not immune to the demands for change.

The emir’s abdication when Qatar is thriving moves the country into the hands of a new generation with minimal dissent, while giving his son a golden chance to bolster his own legitimacy and credentials.

This abdication will inevitably inspire debates in the Arab world. Particularly in Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah is 88, the crown prince is 83 — and where nearly two-thirds of the population is under age 30. This is in marked contrast to the abdicating Qatari emir at 61 and his successor at 33.

The story of the past decade has been of declining Arab affinity with their own states — in favor of Islamic and Arab identity — at least in part because Arab leaders’ extraordinary longevity made it harder for people to differentiate rulers from states. In my polls, Saudis have expressed by far the lowest sense of identification with the state of six Arab countries studied in the past decade.

What can the new emir do to inspire not only his own people but also Arabs everywhere? Go beyond his father’s achievements, and create a more open political environment at home.

PHOTO (Insert): Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani at the closing ceremony of the 12th Arab Games at Al-Sadd Stadium in Doha, Dec. 23, 2011. REUTERS/Fadi Al-Assaad 

 

 

 

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