Qatar's Game of Thrones

by Christian Henderson


Trouble in the ‘Desert Democracy’: the Emir’s abdication, succession politics, and how 33 year old Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani will manage it all. 


In June of this year, the Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani’s (HBK), abdicated his throne, passing the mantle of power to his son Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. It is a rare act in the history of the monarchical families of the Gulf. Succession in the region  is usually handled in two ways, either by coup or on the death of the king or emir. That HBK has, at the relatively young age of 61, chosen to succeed power to his son raises a number of questions about his intentions. At face value, it could just be the strategy of a benign leader who wishes to act responsibly and is thinking about the future of his country. A more cynical analysis might suggest that HBK has no intention of relinquishing power, and that he will continue to pull most of the strings from behind the scenes.

Given the recent history of Qatar the most likely plausible explanation is that HBK wishes to reap the benefits of appearing accountable without the insecurity of losing control through democratic elections. The Emir had proven himself to be an imaginative leader. He understood that the ageing and reactionary leadership of neighbouring states –  Saudi Arabia in particular – was a weakness that he could exploit and counter, His government’s sponsorship of the Pan-Arab Al Jazeera television channel is a good example of the sort of manoeuvring that,enabled the development of Qatar’s soft power, and which now lies at the heart of its influence.

HBK’s succession of power to his son is arguably another bid to bolster  Qatari soft power. Since the start of the Arab revolutions in 2010, Qatar has played a highly visible and partisan role as a sponsor of the opposition movements and new governments that have emerged. This role has included direct military involvement in Libya or financial aid in Egypt and Tunisia. Qatar’s most controversial involvement has been in Syria, where its support for the opposition has left it embroiled in a vicious civil war and in confrontation with Assad-regime alliesIran and Russia. The Syrian track has been Qatar’s most high risk engagement, and many in the region have questioned what might happen if the Assad regime and its allies seek to retaliate against Qatar.  In that light, the appearance of an ordered transition in Qatar could be viewed as a gambit to renew the country’s soft power and exceptionalism, providing the country with renewed legitimacy and international influence at a time when it is so highly exposed.

Qatar’s strategy – encouraging democracy externally while retaining control internally – is possible because it has a tiny, manageable population of around 220,000 – just the right size to encourage the image of Qatar as a “desert democracy.” This mythical form of government consists of rule through generous state patronage and some access to the country’s decision makers through informal interaction, at least for those with the right social connections. In reality public participation in the political process is limited and the jailing of a local poet earlier this year provides insight into how intolerant the country’s leadership is of dissent. Tamim, in other words, is not inheriting a political culture that is in any way democratic.

It is also unlikely that Tamim will be given the space to embark on policies that are radically different from those of his father. Insiders in Qatar say that one scenario is that HBK will continue to dominate most of Qatar’s portfolio of international mediations and Tamim will concentrate on the country’s domestic affairs. The role to be played by the powerful former Prime Minister, Hamad bin Jassim (HBJ), is also worth considering. As a figure of prominence, HBJ has been second only to HBK t in developing Qatar’s current position on the world stage. He is known for being a workaholic with huge ambitions for both Qatar and himself. He has considerable private assets. And until the current reshuffle HBJ held the positions of Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and head of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the country’s sovereign wealth fund.  He has now been removed from his ministerial positions and his future at QIA is unclear, but his influence and power appear to be undiminished. He installed many senior civil servants and managers of state assets who now owe their positions of influence to his patronage. If they remain loyal to HBJ, and he chooses to exert influence through  this informal network,  then Tamim may find that his wings are clipped, at least until he can reshape Qatar’s government and state owned assets and install people who are loyal to him.

One player in Qatar who will benefit from this reshuffle is Tamim’s mother, Sheikha Mozah. Mozah is HBK’s public wife, and she has exerted considerable influence behind the scenes. She has built up her own portfolio of institutions and charities including Qatar Foundation and Inspire. Mozah has been successful at pushing her children into positions of influence in Qatar and it is likely that she will now have even more influence as a result of Tamim’s accession. Another of Mozah’s children, Sheikha Mayassa, may also play a future role. In keeping with the leadership’s habit of doing the unexpected. a role for Mayassa would mark the entrance of a woman of the ruling family woman into public politics – an unusual development that would further accentuate Qatari exceptionalism..

As if the politics of the royal court didn’t make things interesting enough, Tamim will inherit his position at a time when the Arab region is facing the greatest challenges of the post-colonial era. At present, politics in the Gulf and Middle East is highly fluid and evidence of sectarianism in public discourse suggests a region that is highly polarised. HBK has led Qatar into a confrontation with Syria and its allies, states known to respond to foreign policy challenges via violent proxies and other asymmetric capabilities. There is concern, meanwhile, that HBK is stepping down with unfinished business to hand, and that his whole Syria policy has been misguided. Tamim will be responsible for Qatar’s public image and may have to work that much harder – or at least appear to work harder – to reduce the country’s exposure to tcrisis. Many in the region feel that Qatar has failed to manage its public relations effectively and that its actions have, as a result, been frequently misinterpreted. The lack of information surrounding HBK’s abdication is a good example of this, leaving some wondering at the apparent lack of t constitutional process in the move. .

Domestically, Tamim will have to manage a population of increasingly indulged Qataris who see government handouts and patronage as their due. Since the start of the Arab revolutions Qatari government employees have had their salaries raised between 60%-120%, leading to inflation and a growing sense of entitlement. There is no doubt that Qatar has the funds to sustain this kind of spending, but it will come at the expense of human development and economic diversification. In other resource rich states in the region, there are indications that population growth and the finite nature of oil and gas reserves could one day drive the need for radical political and economic restructuring. Citizens will have to be weaned off government largesse, and engage in a more responsible culture of resource and revenue management. . Politically, Tamim will find it almost impossible to do this any time in the near future, especially as he will have to take short-term steps to shore up loyalties. There is a rumour circulating, perhaps inevitably, that one of his first policy decrees will be an increase in government salaries –bringing to mind the old adage that while some things change most things will stay the same.

About the Author: Christian Henderson is a researcher and PhD candidate in Development Studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Follow him on Twitter at @CjvHenderson

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