Emir of Qatar deposed by his son

Palace coup: Sheikh, overthrown in bloodless takeover while on visit to Geneva, vows to return

PATRICK COCKBURN

Jerusalem

Deposed by his own son in a bloodless palace coup, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, yesterday said he would return, whatever the cost. He dubbed the coup the "abnormal behaviour of an ignorant man".

After ousting his father, Crown Prince Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani said in a brief televised address: "I am not happy with what has happened, but it had to be done and I had to do it." Senior members of the ruling al-Thani family, which numbers some 1,500 men, gathered in the capital, Doha, to pledge allegiance.

Sheikh Khalifa, 63, who was visiting Switzerland when deposed, shows no sign of giving up. He said other Gulf state leaders had pledged support, adding: "I am still their legitimate emir, whether it is for the royal family, for the people, or for the army and I will return home whatever it costs." However last night a State Department spokesman in Washington said the United States recognised the new emir after receiving assurances over its relations with Iran and Iraq.

Qatar is a barren peninsula, but industrialised countries follow its fortunes closely, because it sits on top of the North Field, the world's largest single gas field, and has 5 per cent of world gas reserves. The coup, even though it occurred within the royal family, will still cause concern among the oil states of the Gulf and their foreign backers, all of whom feel intensely vulnerable to internal and external threats.

Sheikh Hamad, 45, the new Emir, told an emergency cabinet meeting that circumstances which he did not explain had forced him "to take the reins of power in the country, thus replacing my father, who will remain the respected and beloved father of everyone". But the endorsement seems unlikely to mollify the former Emir, who ousted his uncle in his own palace coup in 1972, a year after Qatar was given independence by Britain.

The Qatari peninsula is one of the world's least habitable places, its sandy wastes rising just above the shallows of the Gulf. Qatari men are usually given work in the public sector while everything else is done by Indians, Pakistanis and other expatriates who make up three- quarters of the population.

Sheikh Hamad has been Crown Prince since 1977, and the most powerful figure in Qatar after the Emir since the Eighties. His action yesterday may have been sparked by an attempt by his father to regain lost authority. The coup's mechanics consisted of no more than sending troops to Rayyan Palace, where his father lived, and to Doha airport.

The coup will not be greeted enthusiastically by rulers of the other Arab oil states. Sheikh Hamad has always advocated an independent foreign policy, notably different from that of Saudi Arabia - he has good relations with Iran, which wants a share in the offshore North Field, but has also restored relations with Iraq. At the same time, Qatar is negotiating a $1bn gas deal with Israel.

The ousted Emir, Sheikh Khalifa, had kept his control over Qatar's oil money, even after ceding authority elsewhere. Like most oil state rulers, he saw himself, not unjustifiably, as surrounded by people, indigenous and foreign, who wanted to part him from his money.

A telephone conversation between Sheikh Khalifa and King Fahd of Saudi Arabia on the eve of the 1990 Gulf crisis, which was intercepted and later published by Iraq, gives a sense of the fears haunting Gulf rulers. King Fahd: "We are envied as Gulf states. Yet, where were those who now envy us when we were poor? They did not say 'Our brothers have nothing'." Sheikh Khalifa: "No, they didn't."

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