In a sober televised address, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, 61, the Emir of Qatar, bade goodbye to his people and to 18 tumultuous years of power. “The time has come to turn a new leaf in the history of our nation, where a new generation steps forward,” he said.
Alluding to the vast changes he has brought about, he recalled the words of the fourth Caliph, who said: “Teach your children other than what you were taught, as they are created for a time other than yours.” He went on: “I declare that I will hand over the reins of power to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani; and I am fully certain that he is up to the responsibility…”
Perhaps he was inspired by Pope Benedict: as the only Gulf state to host a Roman Catholic church, albeit one without a steeple or any other outward sign of its function, the idea is not unreasonable. Or perhaps, as Daud Abdullah of the Middle East Monitor put it on Qatar’s own Al Jazeera: “The decision [to step down] was a pre-emption of what is likely to happen in the region.” Whatever the case, the decision to abdicate and transfer power to his second son, Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim, is the most sensational event to hit the Gulf since the Emir secured the 2022 World Cup for his tiny country.
Emirs, like most popes, do not resign: they go on until they drop, or can be conveniently ousted. But Sheikh Hamad, who barged his own father out of power in 1995 while the old man was in Switzerland, has brought vast prosperity to his kingdom by doing his own thing. Some say his decision may have been prompted by health worries: he has already had two kidney transplants. But as the inner workings of the Qatari royals remain closed even to Al Jazeera, no one who speaks really knows, and no one who really knows, speaks.
What can be said for certain is that, ruling a country one-quarter the size of Belgium with the world’s largest reserves of natural gas and only 300,000 citizens, Sheikh Hamad has proved acutely aware of both the risks and opportunities Qatar faces. His decision to abdicate was praised around the world as yet more proof of his statesmanship.
Sheikh Tamim has served by his father’s side for several years – it is believed that the handover has been planned for some time – yet the Sandhurst-educated 33-year-old is keeping any plans for change firmly under wraps. The calm reaction of the financial world to the handover suggests continuity is the likely outcome. “This [transition] was expected for a while now, given that Sheikh Tamim was involved in several areas related to economy and foreign policy,” a senior trader at NBK Capital told the Wall Street Journal. “Market expectations [of] the young ruler are high as he likely brings to the table longer-term stability in terms of policy.” One thing that will not be happening is a swift move to increased democracy – in one of his last acts Sheikh Hamad extended the term of the Consultative Council, effectively postponing indefinitely elections that were planned for later this year.
Sheikh Tamim, who spent his first day in the top job rubbing noses with subjects and well-wishers including the Emir of Kuwait, now finds himself astride an empire that would get even the most jaded billionaire salivating: Harrods, the Shard, large chunks of Barclays (Qatari money controversially saved it from being nationalised after the 2008 crisis), Sainsbury’s, Shell and the London Stock Exchange – all these are found in the portfolio of the Qatar Investment Authority, which is believed to have resources of between $100bn and $200bn. Qatar has also played an assertive role in the region, supporting the opposition to Colonel Gaddafi in Libya and now backing the rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
The emir’s legacy is both extraordinary and paradoxical. In the past decade Qatar has used its vast wealth to create not only Al Jazeera but also the annual Doha Forum, the Qatar Museum Authority (which has built up one of the world’s greatest collections of art), and “Education City”, which comprises branch campuses of some of the world’s leading universities.
Under the forceful direction of Prime Minister and Foreign minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, known as HBJ, who is also expected to step aside, tiny Qatar has also become a political powerhouse, active in crises from Yemen to the occupied territories. Only last week the Taliban opened an office in Doha in expectation of negotiations with the US and Afghan governments. Qatar reportedly bankrolled it to the tune of $100m.
Yet the conservatism of the ruling dynasty compares with anything in the Arab world. The domestic press is fiercely regulated. A Qatari poet who teased the royal family and hailed the recent Arab uprisings was given a life prison term, later reduced to 15 years. But Qatar sees no contradiction in aggressively promoting the Arab Spring.
Boldly, the Emir allowed Israel to open a trade office in the state (closed in 2008 after Israel’s attack on Gaza), yet Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, follows the ultra-conservative Wahhabi school of Islam, which opposes integration and encourages jihad. The Emir has vowed to “spare no effort” in spreading Wahhabism across “the whole world”.
Art lover, promoter of secular education, founder of a world-class broadcaster yet also an evangelist for a polarising version of Islam: a cynic might argue that Sheikh Hamad has deployed a huge amount of money to buy the goodwill of the West, making it easier for him to promote Wahhabism’s uncompromising views. Whether Sheikh Tamim sees his mission in the same terms we will soon begin to discover.
Where the money goes: The shopping list
Qatar Holding, a subsidiary of the Qatar Investment Authority (the Qatari royal family’s sovereign wealth fund), is the biggest shareholder in Barclays, with a 6.7 per cent stake as of the end of last year.
Qatar Holding is also the largest shareholder in Sainsbury’s, with a 26 per cent stake.
Egyptian-born tycoon Mohammed al Fayed sold Harrods to Qatar Holding for a reported £1.5bn in 2010.
Disney sold Miramax film studios – which produced successful Hollywood films such as No Country For Old Men and Good Will Hunting – in 2010 for around $660m (£427.5m) to a joint venture, Filmyard Holdings, which included Qatar Holding.
The Qatari sovereign wealth fund was also behind the £2bn Shard 310-metre-tower near London Bridge. It is Europe’s tallest building and was designed by Renzo Piano.
In a class of its own: How Britain schooled the world
Several prominent figures, like Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim, have been educated at British public schools – and an even larger number will have graduated through the Royal Military Academy.
The 33-year-old new emir was educated at Sherborne and Harrow – taking his A-levels in the UK before going on to Sandhurst.
King Abdullah II of Jordan was educated at St Edmund’s School in Hindhead, Surrey, before also progressing on to Sandhurst.
Sultan Qaboos bin Said of Oman was educated at an unnamed private-education establishment in England from the age of 16. He, too, went on to graduate from the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst.
According to John Walmsley, the principal of Atlantic College in Llantwit Major in Wales, an international sixth-form college, which has had its own fair share of world leaders and royalty among its former alumni: “The UK private-education system is still held as a very valuable educational establishment – although the UK Border Agency may be doing its best to stop this.
“It is a strong system and it is a secure system.
“The King of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, had his security man who lived in the village – but I think he was just seen as giving Crown Prince Willem, as he then was, a lift to wherever he wanted to go.”
Two of those with the most influence over the future of the world who passed through Atlantic College, though, were probably two of the four Chinese students who were allowed out of their country to be educated after US President Richard Nixon’s “break-the-ice” meeting with Zhou Enlai in the 1970s. They are now serving on the Communist Central Committee charged with running China.
It is to the universities that one has to look to see some of the more controversial foreign students who have been educated in the UK. Saif Gaddafi, the son of the former Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, was educated at the London School of Economics, where he was involved in a row over plagiarism after it emerged 6 per cent of his thesis could be traced to other sources.
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria spent years in the 1990s in postgraduate training at the Western Eye Hospital in west London studying ophthalmology. According to his contemporaries, he showed little interest in politics while he was there.
More and more private schools are setting up satellite schools on campuses in the Middle East. Sherborne already has a long-standing school in Qatar while the BISJ school in Saudi Arabia – while it does not slavishly follow the English national curriculum – uses it as its base for what is taught at the school. A private company, Evolvence Capital, has announced plans to set up branch campuses of independent schools in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.