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Al Jazeera mark II 6, May 2014

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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It has been known for some time that Qatar has been planning to launch a new news channel based in London. Half of the ‘Al Arab Al Jadeed [The New Arab]’ venture began on 30th March 2014 with the news website, while the expected TV channel is still in the works. Many have puzzled as to why Qatar, which has already spent untold billions on its main broadcaster, Al Jazeera, would sink money into another venture, while other have mocked the decision.

The driving force behind the whole venture is Azmi Bishara. The colorful Doha resident who has seemingly been influential behind the scenes in Doha for some time now and is the head of the Arab Centre for Policy Studies, which is in the process of expanding to become a Masters degree-awarding institution. Under Bishara’s leadership, AL Arab Al Jadeed is thought to provide a counter weight to Al Jazeera Arabic, which unabashedly tows a pro-Muslim Brotherhood line. Despite the mockery, there is a certain logic to this. It strikes me as perfectly sensible for Qatar to attempt to balance out its image as a slavish Ikhwan-supporting state, for that is how it is viewed by some, though the truth is inevitably much more nuanced.

Aside form Al Jazeera, Qatar has long sought to boost its ‘soft power’ – to use the hackneyed phrase – using media. Aside from Al Jazeera, one of the ways that it wanted to boost the Libyan opposition was by establishing  Libya al-Ahrar TV station. Qatar is also believed (or rather rumored) to be behind a range of other media ventures elsewhere in the Middle East, such as the Al Jadeed channel in Lebanon. Qatar’s elite clearly feel that as a small country with a minimal ability to project power because it is such a physically small place, using its key resource – cash – to buy asymmetric soft power is a wise investment. This is not such a bad calculation.

As for the more conspiracy minded notions that Emir Tamim is pursuing this Al Arab Al Jadeed venture because his hands are tied when it comes to altering Al Jazeera because it was started by and is somehow still under the ‘protection’ of his father, Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani, there are more persuasive (and likely) if less entertaining reasons afoot. Firstly, purging Al Jazeera may be too vocal or obvious a sign that Qatar has given in to the Saudi-led tub-thumping, some of which has allegedly demanded that its coverage be altered. Clearly Qatar needs to give some ground, but it wants and needs to do this in as quiet a way as possible. Clearing house at Al Jazeera, though I have argued that it would be a beneficial idea overall, would understandably be an obvious sign of change. Secondly, it is practically impossible to change bureaucracies. They have a profound inertia all of their own. Even in Qatar where the Emir is relatively unconstrained, the leadership has shown over and over again that it prefers to duplicate bureaucracies rather tackle them head-on. Hence the creation of the Supreme Councils over the years to actually make meaningful, effective institutions as opposed trying to reform the old bureaucracies in charge of the same fiefdoms.

 

 

Qatar Emir Voluntarily Abdicates 25, June 2013

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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The following article appeared on RUSI.org on the 25th June.

Once again Qatar leads its region and takes the world by surprise. After months of speculation and rumours, change is finally coming to Qatar. In stark contrast to leaders across the Arab World, without any popular pressure whatsoever, the Emir of Qatar, Hamad Bin Khalifah Al Thani, has passed power to his son and Heir Apparent, Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. Like his father did 18 years ago when he took power from his father, Tamim will spend the next few days greeting his fellow citizens taking their oath of loyalty before beginning the work of establishing a new Cabinet and Government.

Changes

Thirty-three year old Emir Tamim is one of the youngest leaders in the world and is approximately sixty years younger than his contemporary in Saudi Arabia. Though Qatar has seen abdications before (though not in the last two changes of power) this change is deeply unusual and has no recent regional precedent. Emir Tamim is expected to instigate a widespread reshuffle in the Qatari Government, which many believe will include not only younger Qataris but perhaps even female Cabinet Ministers.

While a younger Government and Emir Tamim will have room to stamp their own personality on Qatar going forward and may well bring some needed impetus to proceedings, no one expects large changes. The strategic direction of Qatar is set: it is an international focussed country, inextricably linked to a range of key countries. Without the leadership of Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani, one of many Ministers expected to lose or change portfolios, the more pointed nature of Qatari diplomacy may be smoothed and Qatar may not so readily launch itself into regional issues. Nevertheless, Qatar is unlikely to back away from its foreign commitments or significantly alter its approaches domestically.

Legacy

Emir Hamad has transformed Qatar. From a small backwater with no regional ambition or capability of extending its influence as it entered the 1990s, under his leadership, Qatar has become an often pivotally important country on the international stage. From hosting two huge, critically important US bases for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; becoming the world’s largest supplier of liquefied natural gas (LNG); starting the Middle East’s media revolution by founding Al Jazeera; becoming one of the world’s most prominent investors; and more recently actively supporting the Arab Spring: the legacy of Qatar’s Emir is extraordinary.

The Emir could not have done all this without his key lieutenant, Hamad Bin Jassem Al Thani, who has been Qatar’s Foreign Minister since 1992 and Prime Minister since 2007. HBJ as he is often known, has become one of the world’s most prominent diplomats and has overseen Qatar’s inexorable expansion in its foreign policy. He has also been the head of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority since 2005 and has led its key acquisitions around the world, but most notably in London.

Though in the recent past Qatar has enjoyed unusual success in its foreign policy, most notably in getting Lebanese factions to an agreement in 2008 and in the support of the Libyan rebels against Colonel Gaddafi, more recently Qatar has come unstuck. Like many actors, Qatar is at a loss of how to effectively support the rebellion in Syria. Their tactics thus far of supporting a motley group of opposition activists has not proven successful, while the Qatar-based Muslim Brotherhood ideologue Yusuf Al-Qaradawi has been exacerbating sectarian tensions from Doha with increasingly shrill speeches and sermons. While Qatar is not alone in being befuddled as to how to solve the Syrian crisis, this is an ongoing issue that Qatar’s new elite will have to cope with immediately.

Going Forward

The two Hamads cannot easily be replaced. They were unique individuals in the history of Qatar and of their region who shared a similar vision and drive. However, the Emir has steeped his children including the new Emir, Tamim, in this vision and his work will not be unpicked. Indeed, the Hamads have inextricably tied Qatar into a range of international countries through its energy supply, its investments, and its wider government-to-government agreements. It would be almost impossible to rewind and for Qatar to retreat to an introspective focus. The 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar is yet another marker in the sand compelling Qatar to continue with its grand infrastructure projects and maintain its open attitude towards the world.

Tamim’s mother, the hugely influential Sheikha Moza, is still – for now – head of the Qatar Foundation – the multi-pronged social and educational charity in Qatar under whose auspices Education City containing several foreign Universities are found. Even if Moza were to step aside soon, she has inculcated her children into the Foundation’s goals and has made four of them (out of six including Moza herself) Board Trustees.

As for Tamim’s personal political inclination, aside from generic rumours suggesting that he is of a conservative persuasion, he is a relatively unknown quantity. Yet there is little evidence to support such a conclusion beyond Doha-based gossip. While Tamim was the impetus for supporting the pay rise for Qatari public workers and military officers – a classically traditional policy of Gulf rulers – thus far his key portfolios in Qatar are related to vastly expanding sporting access, boosting Qatar’s sporting pedigree around the world and making Qatar more food secure in terms of increasing Qatar’s ability to produce a meaningful percentage of its own food requirement using technology and careful management. These are hardly concerns typically associated with conservative tendencies.

Instead we need to sit and wait to see what Emir Tamim will be like. There is huge potential for him to set initiatives using his personal judgement, which will be keenly watched to discern more of an inkling as to his personality. Yet Qatar’s position in the world and its core interests have not changed.