03.06.2013 Author: Viktor Titov

Preparing for a Change of Government in Qatar

5274Qatari Emir Hamad is seriously ill and having difficulty performing his duties as head of state. A liposuction operation in May 2011 reduced his weight by 40 kilograms and damaged his already bad health. The Emir is suffering from a severe case of diabetes (a common illness in the Emirate, where close relatives frequently marry), and he had weighed 160 kilograms. In addition, he has difficulty following the diet recommended by his doctors, especially during opulent dinners with foreign guests. His daughter, who functions as his personal secretary, has been present at virtually all of Hamad’s meetings with foreign visitors for the last five years, and she keeps a syringe containing insulin with her in case the Sheikh takes a sudden turn for the worse. At a time when Qatar is actively engaged in financing the opposition and directly involved in subversive actions in Syria, and with the people in the Emirate itself becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the amount of money being spent on the war in Syria, the ruling elite cannot allow an unexpected power vacuum should its head of state die or become fully disabled.

Members of the ruling Al Thani family council, which has a limited membership, met in a closed session in late May. They have a say on the secession, and they decided that Emir Hamad would give up his position to his son — Crown Prince Tamim, who is currently serving as Deputy Emir (i.e., he is the second highest ranking person in the country). That decision was actively promoted by Hamad’s wife, Mozah, who is concerned that if the Emir resigns, one of his brothers will take his place, if not someone from entirely outside the ruling Al Thani dynasty. Especially since Saudi Arabia has recently been actively working towards regime change in neighboring Qatar, which has encroached on Riyadh’s territory of influence, which is what the Saudi royal family considers Syria, the Sunni areas in Iraq and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia is also highly irritated that Doha, without concealing its ambitions, is trying to replace the Kingdom as leader in the Arab and Islamic world and is playing its own game with the Muslim Brotherhood. Especially since Riyadh considers Qatar a territory inhabited by Saudi tribes, including the Miadadi tribe, which the Al Thani clan is part of. There is justification for that since the Miadadis came to the Qatar Peninsula in the late 18th and early 19th centuries from oases in southern Arabia, 350 kilometers from the current capital of Saudi Arabia. Also, Hamad frequently says that he is the 18th great-grandson of Mohammed Abdel Wahhab — the founder of the Wahhabi doctrine who lived in what is now Saudi Arabia — thereby indirectly given credence to his Saudi roots.

Prince Tamim, who is now 33 years old, can hardly be called the best choice to lead the country, even a dwarf of a country like Qatar. He is too young and lacking in experience, especially in the field of economics, although for the past five years he has been heavily “coached” in state administration and foreign policy (he was even made the “head gatekeeper” for relations with Iran). In addition, he inherited his father’s disease, although so far he does not have an acute case. Witnesses say, however, that, after meeting with Iran’s president during a visit to Tehran in 2010, Tamim went into the room next door, where he was given an injection of insulin.

The United States would also like to see the current Emir replaced. They are placing their bets in the internal Al Thani dynasty struggle on a tandem consisting of Tamim-Sheikh Musa and the Al-Attiyah clan, members of which hold high-level positions in the bureaucracy, military and economy, including in the power industry. The clan’s “patriarch” — Abdullah — is the “father” of Qatari LNG (liquefied natural gas), exports of which are responsible for the country’s current prosperity. His brothers are serving as Chief of the General Staff and State Minister of Foreign Affairs. Many of them are technocrats educated in American universities, and they are strongly oriented towards Washington. They are opposed by the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Hamad bin Jassim, an offshoot from a dead-end branch of the Al Thani family tree (the Qataris claim his mother was a Pakistani concubine), which prevents him from being considered of royal blood. Therefore, a priori, he cannot hold a senior position in the country unless there is a coup d’état that changes its system of clan rule. He once did a good turn for Hamad by supporting his coup (when he deposed his father in 1995) and helping to legitimize the new head of state at a time when the leading Arab countries – Egypt and Saudi Arabia — opposed the revolt. When he became Prime Minister in 2003, bin Jassim got control of the Qatar Investment Department (the sovereign wealth fund), and many Qataris say he has used its funds for his personal enrichment through various corrupt schemes, especially in foreign investments. He is worth $20 billion — significantly more than the Emir himself. And that irritates Hamad’s family, especially his wife and son (the Crown Prince), who fear that the prime minister could use that financial “resource” for his own domestic political purposes. Therefore, bin Hamad’s political career will be over if the current Emir steps down. Moreover, he could be forced to pay back a large part of the treasury funds he “expropriated.”

Washington would find a peaceful change of power without upheaval within the ruling dynasty beneficial, because otherwise Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have the sympathy of the Emirate’s large Shiite community — which are treated as second-class citizens — could intervene. While wanting Hamad to step down, however, the Americans nevertheless saved him from an attempted coup in mid-April 2012 when the royal guards began attacking the Emir’s Palace in the center of the capital., American special operations forces arrived on helicopters from the US Al Udeid Air Base, the largest in the Persian Gulf, and rescued the Emir and his inner circle.

The Prince was introduced to the heads of the other Persian Gulf Arab monarchies at the last summit of their regional association — the Gulf Cooperation Council — and it was made known that he would soon be taking his father’s place. A change of leadership in Qatar would be very symbolic. Prince Tamim stands every chance of becoming the youngest leader of a conservative regime on the Arabian Peninsula— and a Wahhabi regime, at that. That could signal the replacement of the aged, if not senile, leaders of the other Persian Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia’s, whose king is “on his last legs.” The United States would probably also benefit from that, because a delay in the generational turnover of the ruling elites in Arabia could result in serious upheavals and even something resembling the Arab revolutions, as happened in several other Middle Eastern countries where the republican leaders were too deeply entrenched after ruling for decades and were completely corrupt.

For Russia, however, a change of Qatar’s government would hardly be a positive development, given Tamim’s pro-American orientation and his Western, or more precisely British, educational background (Sherborne School and Sandhurst military academy). The United States and Great Britain are now using and will continue to use Doha to squeeze Russia both out of the Middle East and out of Iran, Central Asia and even the North Caucasus, as well as the European Union’s gas markets. Qatar has enormous financial resources acquired from exporting LNG that it could use to accomplish that, and it has experience in “assisting” Islamic extremists and even terrorists in a wide variety of countries.

Viktor Titov, Cand. Sc. (History), is a Middle East analyst. Exclusively for New Eastern Outlook.