Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani is nobody’s fool. The Emir of Qatar did not step down in favour of his son Tamim because of his health, although a gastric bypass operation had drastically reduced his weight. So much had his appearance changed – so much fitter and smaller did he look – than when I lunched with him at a Lebanese restaurant in Doha, I at first did not recognise the ruler of Qatar. Was the 60-year-old man opposite me a senior official of the Emir, perhaps? Only the deference paid to him by other guests and the sudden appearance of his second wife Sheikha Moza – mother of the new Emir – alerted me to the fact this was the same man I had met in his palace years before.
He talked to Qataris of his “new role in serving the nation” and the world wondered what “role” this might be. A new “Father of the Nation” perhaps, the title which President Hamid Karzai consigned to the old King of Afghanistan when he returned to Kabul? I doubt it. If Emir Tamim is going to control Qatar, Sheikh Hamad may well control Tamim. Not in the dictatorial sense, of course. But when Sheikh Hamad’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, retires – as Qataris believe he now will – he will remain in charge of the Qatar Investment Authority, of which 33-year old Tamim is chairman.
The outgoing Emir has not ruled Qatar since 1995 only to go into retirement. Did the idea of mortality strike him after his operation? The “old” Emir (the quotation marks are necessary for a comparatively young man) was used to danger. He once told a palace visitor that he would not tell the US to remove its massive airbase from Qatar – however angry he was with the George W Bush administration – because if he did so, “my Arab brothers will invade me”. Too true. The “retirement” – quotation marks again, perhaps – of Sheikh Hamad is one in the eye to the fragile-boned old men who run Saudi Arabia and whose ancient royalty have a disturbing habit of dying in office.
Tamim, they say, has led a comparatively sheltered life, although Harrow and Sandhurst – the same military boot-camp which his father attended – may persuade the Brits that he is our Plucky Little Emir Mk II. They had better watch out. In Washington, Sheikh Hamad once responded to a complaint about his Al-Jazeera channel from Dick Cheney by walking out of Cheney’s office, thus winning a Guinness Book of Records-style award for the shortest meeting ever with a US Vice-President. And when he believed that Bashar al-Assad had lied to the Turkish Prime Minister about democracy in Syria, Sheikh Hamad turned with fury upon the Assad regime. As he gave weapons to the Libyan rebels, so he now sends money and guns to the Syrian rebels. Never has an owner of Harrods been so involved in gun-running. If it’s like father, like son, Tamim will be no pushover.
But Hamad likes surprises. Who would have expected al-Jazeera to appear on British TV screens? Or Qatar Airways, the only airline where I once sat next to an Arab noble with a hooded eagle on his arm in business class? Or an Emir owning large bits of London? The richest country with the lowest unemployment, Qatar lives on liquid gas, although exporting it – frozen – is a very expensive matter. But is it a “nation” when it has a native population the size of Hull? Certainly it is a more viable state than the gloomy minority monarchy down the coast in Bahrain.
And, like the old British Empire, it has a power grotesquely out of synch with its geographical size. A conduit to the accused war criminal Bashar of Sudan, to Israel, to the sectarian politicians of Lebanon, to Hamas in Gaza, to the Taliban, the nation which Hamad built doesn’t just – as the old cliché goes – “punch above its weight”; it is a flea which happily bites any great power that gets in its way, and woe betide the victim which scratches its skin afterwards.
But Hamad learned the greatest lesson of the Arab awakening: that the great revolutions of the region will one day reach the Gulf – with a tornado force which might embrace a king or two – and when they do, Qatar may survive. Why should Tamim wish to change that happy prospect?