Qatar`s “new” phase

A follow up to my last post, where I had briefly discussed the move of Sheikh Hamad, former Emir of Qatar, of stepping down in favour of his son, Sheikh Tamim. 


Few days ago, the big question was: is Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani (HBJ), former PM and Minister of Foreign Affairs (the brain, together with the former Emir, behind Qatar`s foreign policy and the country`s prominent role in supporting the uprisings in the Arab world, particularly in Libya and Syria) going to maintain his position in the next government?

Now we know the answer: HBJ has been replaced by Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, another member of the royal family seen as very close to the new Emir, who has long served in the interior ministry. Sheikh Abdullah is not only taking over HBJ in his former position as PM, but also as Minister of Foreign Affairs.

So, the HBJ era is over. It is unclear whether the former PM would retain his position as vice chairman of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), “a sovereign wealth fund with assets believed to be $100-200 billion, although Qatar watchers expect him to keep that job”, according to Reuters` analysis. This is a very strategic position not only for the sake of this tiny state which is one of the wealthiest in the world; but also on a private level, and in fact HBJ`s personal fortune is estimated to be in the billions. 

Going back to Qatar`s foreign policy and its involvement in the geopolitics of the region, analysts like French scholar Nabil Ennasri and Foreign Affairs` David Roberts, have estimated that, despite the fact that HBJ is gone, continuity in the country`s strategy should be expected. Maybe with a different style, marked by less unilateralism and more cooperation with other regional powers, notably Saudi Arabia, especially on the Syria file.

Other relevant changes after the government`s reshuffle include the appointment of Al Jazeera network`s director general Sheikh Ahmed Bin Jassim Al Thani as the new Minister of Economy and Trade. His career within the media network has been indeed quite short; he had took over Wadah Khanfar who resigned in September 2011, with the aim of  restructuring Al Jazeera`s assets in a corporate direction.

The new Emir has also appointed a woman, Dr Hessa al Jabar, former head of  ICT Qatar (the government body which oversees the ICT policy in the country, and which introduced many innovations in the country and founded Creative Commons Qatar) as new Minister of Communication and Information Technology. It has to be noticed, though, that the former Emir had abolished this ministry in 1996, one year after seizing power, with a decree which aimed at “freeing Qatar’s media from any dependence to a ministry constraining it through numerous legislations and laws from going forward to wider horizons, especially at a time witnessing a noticeable spread of satellite channels” (source: Qatar`s Ministry of Arts, Culture and Heritage).

It is not by chance that, at the time, a reference was made to the “noticeable spread of satellite channels”: 1996 is, in fact, the year when Al Jazeera, Sheikh Hamad`s media masterpiece, was launched with the aim of being the first independent news outlet in the Arab world.

Now the fact that the Minister of Communication has been restored leaves lots of room for speculation about Qatar`s future plans in terms of media policy and, more generally, about the way of managing the country. In the past couple of years after the Arab uprisings broke out, Al Jazeera`s “independence” from Qatar`s foreign policy has already been heavily questioned, and maybe more to come in the next future…

What`s next for Qatar (and for the Arab region)?

As announced yesterday, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, Emir of the state of Qatar, has handed power to one of his sons, the 33 years old Tamim bin Hamad al Thani.

Today, in a 7 minutes televised speech (English transcript available here) the Emir made the formal announcement, although speculations about the succession of power in the tiny but rich and powerful Gulf state have been ongoing for a while. Last year, Sheikh Hamad declared to the Financial Times that Tamim was in charge of ruling the country for 80%. Tamim has been officially the Heir Apparent since 2003; being the son of the Emir`s favorite wife, the influential and glamorous Sheikha Mozah, he was already believed to have the greatest chance among Hamad`s children to become the next Emir.

But maybe not everybody was expecting this to happen right now, when Hamad was still pretty much in control of a country whose profile — financially, politically, culturally speaking — he has widely contributed to raise in his 18 yrs of rule. As speculated in this thoughtful piece by French scholar Nabil Ennasri, author of a book about Qatar, one of the reason for stepping down in favor of his son — besides the Emir`s deteriorating health — could be to stop the criticism that the country has received in these past two years for the aggressive role played in the Arab Spring, particularly in the case of Libya and Syria. By handing power to his son, Sheikh Hamad would prove that he is not preaching democracy and reforms in the Region while being attached to absolute power in his own country. Stepping down would provide the other Arab countries with a “model” (this is the word that Al Jazeera Arabic`s analysts have extensively used today in their coverage of the event) for the succession of power, in a peaceful and bloodless way. Yet, what Al Jazeera didn`t — and cannot — notice is that power still stays strongly in the hands of the same family, while an impression is given of an open-minded ruler who gives up to his privileges in favors of new generations, as Sheikh Hamad said today in his speech.

Yet maybe the most important question to answer revolves around the fate of Hamad bin Jassem, the powerful –and extremely wealthy, as The Independent reports here –– Prime Minister who also occupies the strategic position of Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Nothing has been said about the government that the new Emir will head. Everybody at the Palace knows that Sheikha Mozah, the mother of the new Emir, and her son, have manifested open hostility vis-a-vis Hamad bin Jassem and his politics. Hamad bin Jassem is deemed a strong man, and very much in charge of Qatar`s strategic choices in terms of foreign policy (and in its investments` deals, too) –which, lately, have been so much criticized –.

Rumors have been circulating, more than one time, that Hamad bin Jassem would likely orchestrate a coup against Sheikh Hamad sooner or later; looking at Qatar`s history this would not have been unlikely, since the succession of power in the country has always happened through coups (including when Sheikh Hamad took over his father, in 1995here there is a rare TV excerpt of his speech at the time–).

Sheikh Hamad has reiterated that Qatar`s policy wont change; and this is also what Al Jazeera`s analysts were stressing today during the speech`s coverage. However, the next days or weeks will tell us what would likely happen to Qatar`s foreign policy and to its masterminder, Hamad bin Jassem.