Qatar exerts huge control over British business, but it could be heading for an ‘Arab autumn’

Investments by Qatar’s state-owned companies in Britain are the largest in western Europe: Shell, Barclays, the Shard, Harrods, Canary Wharf and 30 per cent shares in the London Stock Exchange will surely guarantee a lowering of the UK flag to half-mast when Hamad and Tamim die

Robert Fisk
Thursday 28 July 2016 17:48 BST
Sheikh Tamim (pictured) served by his father’s side for several years before his 2013 abdication
Sheikh Tamim (pictured) served by his father’s side for several years before his 2013 abdication (Reuters)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


Oh to be an Emir! Qatar, for example. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani runs a county-sized country with $193bn (£147bn) of investments in Britain, China, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Malaysia, Spain, Turkey and the US. It’s going to host the Fifa World Cup in 2022 at a cost of $120bn – but no worries, because Tamim’s little emirate is the largest natural gas producer and exporter in the world, hosts the biggest US airbase outside America itself, runs Al Jazeera television (the Qatari equivalent of the British Empire upon which the sun never set) and only 10 per cent of the population are actually Qataris. So, as I say, no problem.

The other 90 per cent are no-vote expatriates, from street sweepers to nuclear physicists, and then there’s Sheikha Moza bint al-Missned, mother of Tamim, second (and favourite) wife of his father Hamad whose abrasive, shocking, tough, independent – some might say dangerous – foreign policy produced enemies in high places (George W Bush) and friends in low places (the Taliban, Hamas, al-Nusrah, you name it).

Lebanese economist, journalist and bank vice chairman Marwan Iskandar, who was a financial adviser to Hamad’s father Sheikh Khalifa – overthrown in a “white coup” in 1995 while Khalifa was counting his cash in Switzerland – is now preparing a book on the whole fandango. He suggests that Sunni Muslim Qatar, like other fantasy emirates in the Gulf, has more problems than it might like to admit, but might just survive better than its neighbours.

Several years prior to ceding his throne to Tamim, Sheikh Hamad explained his views very accurately to me. I was dressed in an old Irish pullover and crumpled trousers while UK businessmen in city-slicker suits were kept (deliberately) waiting outside the sheikh’s “divan”. When I asked him why, if he didn’t like US policy on Iraq, he didn’t throw them out of their airbase in Qatar, the great man replied: “Because then all my Arab brothers will invade me!” A smart cookie, although not one to escape Iskandar’s critical eye.

Hamad, who in 2013 abdicated in favour of his son Tamim in what Iskandar calls another “white coup”, repaired the emirate’s vile relations with Saudi Arabia, supported the Kingdom’s (hopeless) war against the Shi’ite Houthis in Yemen, cut back on his father’s financial largesse to the al-Qaeda-al-Nusrah army in Syria but continued his mother’s strategy of building campuses for Western universities in Qatar.

She is variously described in Iskandar’s narrative as “ambitious”, “intelligent”, “dynamic”, “attractive”, “beautiful and elegant in shape and clothing” and “cultivated”, with “the features of a desert hawk, an agile physique and an active mind”. Under Sheikh Hamad – she was the second of his three wives – she controlled a budget of $15bn and became, in the words of Le Monde, “an icon of Islamic feminism”. Needless to say, she has enraged the conservative Wahabi Salafists of Saudi Arabia as well as Qatar.

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Qatar’s special relationship with France is told in astonishing and sometimes titillating detail in Iskandar’s book, which has already been published in Arabic. Hamad, through his Prime Minister and distant relative Hamad bin Jassem, signed a contract with Airbus for €13bn in 2007. On Bastille Day that year, Sheikh Hamad and Sheikha Moza shared the Paris viewing stand with Nicolas Sarkozy. In the parade before them was another of Sheikha Moza’s sons, Sheikh Joaan bin Hamad, a graduating student from the St Cyr military college.

The following year, Sarkozy visited the Gulf; he spent two days in Qatar but only six hours in Saudi Arabia – a big diplomatic mistake since the Saudis have a population of 24 million people and far great influence in the Arab world.

Qatar helped (financially, of course) ease the way for Colonel Gaddafi of Libya to release a group of Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor who had been tried on bogus charges of infecting patients with Aids. Sarkozy’s then-wife Cecilia, who later married an events organiser called Richard Attias in New York, returned with the hostages on the eve of Sarkozy’s election. But, Iskandar writes, “in 2008 and during his visit to Qatar, Sarkozy told the Emir [Hamad] of Qatar that he wanted to divorce because he is in love with another lady, the actress and singer Carla Bruni. He wanted to marry her but his wife insisted that he pay €3m, which he did not have. The Emir paid him the said amount and wished him a happy ... marriage”.

Qatar benefited from a law that exempts its national institutions and member of the ruling family of taxes in corporate profits, properties and rents and profits on the sale of properties. Apart from acquisitions in French real estate, Qatar took, among other investments according to Iskandar, 12.03 per cent of the Lagardere Group, 7.5 per cent in Total, 7 per cent of Vinci, 2 per cent of Vivendi, 5 per cent of Viola and 85 per cent of shares in La Tanneur – a company acquired by a group owned by Sheikha Moza – and 100 per cent of the Saint-Germain Football Club.

Investments by Qatar’s state-owned companies in Britain are the largest in western Europe: Shell, Barclays, the Shard, Harrods, Canary Wharf and 30 per cent shares in the London Stock Exchange will surely guarantee a lowering of the UK flag to half-mast when Hamad and Tamim die – just as it was when old King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia expired.

But it’s Tamim who clearly fascinates Iskandar, along with his mother Moza. Tamim has cut his losses by closing Al Jazeera’s failed project in the US, which also contaminated the whole channel’s news values, and ended all Al Jazeera criticism of Gulf neighbours; he has officially (so he says) ended supplies of military equipment to Jabhat al-Nusra – though financial, food and medical assistance continue – and took away all functions from Hamad’s ex-prime minister. Qatar took Saudi Arabia’s side against Iran.

Can Qatar really afford to build the infrastructure for the Fifa World Cup in 2022? Iskandar clearly has his doubts.

But with a drop of democracy – representative elections would be a help – Tamim might steer his golden emirate through what Iskandar describes as the post-revolutionary “Arab autumn”. Qataris are worried about the vast number of expatriate workers – 2 million in a population of 2.3 million – in their tiny nation. They dislike being protected by foreign nations (the US). But in a country where every young Qatari will grow into middle age with an oil reserve credit equalling $27.5m in the ground, coup d’etats are strictly for those who believe in little green men at the bottom of the garden. (The Qatari liquid natural gas garden, by the way, is going to have plenty of competition in the coming years – not least from the US and Russia.)

A manifesto produced by Qatari democracy adherent Ali Khalifa al-Kuwari, published in Lebanon to avoid Qatari censors, stated that the people needed more transparency in government decisions, greater participation in Qatari political life and – most important of all – decision-making powers over the income of oil and gas, rather than leaving it up to the Emir to use to secure internal acceptance or foreign support.

But don’t hold your breath. Tamim is the All Powerful One. And his mother Moza would appear to be the events organiser to beat all others.

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