Leader Development & Education for Sustained Peace Program: Cross-Cultural, Geopolitical & Regional Education

In Review: Qatar’s Royal Abdication

From our 1 July LDESP Middle East News Update on the Gulf and the Levant.

Observers of the Middle East will rarely find the region lacking in news. And for those who thought the beginning of Ramadan on 8 July would at least usher in a temporary and slight respite from the regular upheavals, already it seems the opposite may in fact come into fruition. The following will review major events taking place in the Gulf and the Levant, starting with specifically Qatar (below) and Egypt.

Screen Shot 2013-07-01 at 3.10.59 PM

gs_qatarIn an unprecedented and remarkable turn of events for an Arab monarchy, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, at only 61-years-old, voluntarily abdicated his throne to his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani (33).

In a memo from Qatar, Rod Nordland of the New York Times explains the “New Hope for  Democracy in a Dynastic Land”:

“Now that he is set to become the new emir, the absolute ruler of Qatar, what possibly can Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani promise to the citizens of a tiny, incredibly rich country that seems to have everything?

In Qatar, the unemployment rate flirts with zero (it is 0.1 percent); infants have a per-capita income over $100,000; health, housing, low interest loans and educations are all provided. Qataris have a world-class television network in Al Jazeera, will host the World Cup in 2022, are building an airport that will eclipse the one in nearby Dubai and hope to soon be self- sufficient in food production.

But they do not have democracy.

Some people here cautiously hope that the surprise decision of the outgoing emir, Sheik  Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, 61, to hand power to his fourth son, Sheik Tamim, 33, may signal the governing family’s intention to offer Qataris a taste of expanded personal freedoms, even if democracy is not explicitly on the agenda.

There are some hints that already have at least a few Qataris excited. (For most, a beneficent feudal monarchy appears just fine, thanks, and they demonstrated their appreciation by lining up by the thousands, on foot and in their Mercedes and other luxury cars, to visit the two emirs, incoming and outgoing, in their palace on 25 June and pledge their allegiance.)

Najeeb al-Nauimi, the lawyer for Qatar’s only political prisoner, Mohammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, said he was hopeful. His client was jailed for life last year for writing a poem that, in a fairly tame manner, criticized “sheiks playing on their PlayStations.” Mr. Ajami was arrested under a constitutional provision  that forbids criticism of the emir, however  indirect.

Mr. Nauimi, who said he has known the incoming emir since the sheik was 9 years old, said 25 June that Sheik Tamim had told him that Mr. Ajami would be released within a few days of the new emir’s accession to power. That does not speak to democracy as much as it does to the absolute power of the monarch, but all the same, Mr. Nauimi hoped it would be a signal of openness to come.

“There will be a lot of changes, definitely,” Mr. Nauimi said.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama with The Former Emir of Qatar Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani and his second wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama with The Former Emir of Qatar Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani and his second wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The outgoing emir already promised parliamentary elections by the end of the year — a constitutional requirement that is long overdue. Mr. Nauimi is among those agitating for amendments to the Constitution that would let that Parliament appoint the prime minister, paving the way for a constitutional monarchy inching closer to the British model and away from the autocratic style of the Persian Gulf states.

It would be the first such example in any of the gulf’s monarchies, and one of the few in the Arab world.

“I’m optimistic,” Mr. Nauimi said.

Optimistic, but not absolutely sure — in part because the governing family has consistently demonstrated that it has no tolerance to being challenged, or even criticized indirectly. In the absence of any sort of public agitation, change will come from the top down, not from the bottom up.” (New York Times)

Responses to the change in leadership has been largely similar. Most analysts and observers discussing the prospects for Sheikh Tamim agree that the new emir is not likely to stray too far from his father’s legacy. As Tom Peter, a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, explains, “Most analysts agree that while Qatar’s transition is a positive development, it isn’t transformative. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the new emir, has been groomed for the position for several years now and has already helped shape many government policies. And while Sheikh Tamim may be a new face and a voice for the country’s younger generation, his family has controlled the country for almost 150 years. “I think he’ll continue within the strategic vision as set, and within that I don’t expect a huge amount of deviation,” says David Roberts of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar. If anything, Sheikh Tamim is likely to have a slightly less aggressive foreign policy than his father, opting to focus more on domestic issues, especially as the country prepares to host the World Cup in 2022.” (Christian Science Monitor)

See also: an excellent analytic article looking at “Qatar’s grand experiment” from PBS Newshour for a more detailed account of the balance between the country’s domestic affairs, or Qatarization, versus foreign affairs, internationalization.

However, in spite of the conjectures that Sheih Tamim’s alternative approach to foreign policy, Marc Lynch, professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, highlights how little we know about the new emir’s next moves outside of Qatar. Excerpted from Lynch’s Foreign Policy article, “Mysteries of the Emir: What do we really know about the transfer of power in Qatar and the plans of the country’s young new leader?”:

“While great pains will be taken to emphasize the difference between the emir’s abdication and the regimes overthrown during by the Arab uprisings, the fact remains that the emir has become the fifth Arab head of state to leave office since January 2011. Certainly, an orderly transition to the emir’s son does not look much like the popular uprisings that claimed the regimes of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi. No protests forced the emir and HBJ from the palace, no military eased them out the back door, no United Nations resolutions or furious Western heads of state demanded his departure, no humiliating trials await. In reality, however, the emir’s decision is as shocking in its own way as were the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings.

The rollout of the emir’s decision was carefully prepared and executed to make the unthinkable seem retrospectively inevitable.

(…) Those crafting the official version of the handover have therefore been exceedingly keen to present it as a historic but normal move, one that might even be emulated by other Arab monarchs — were they as bold and farsighted as the departing Sheikh Hamad. Bahrain would be the most obviously well served by following Qatar’s lead and transferring power to the crown prince. But neither the Khalifas nor their other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) friends are likely to do so. Indeed, Arab monarchs are more likely to quietly cheer the departure of a leader they have viewed as an unpredictable irritant and an undependable member of the GCC club. “What happened … in Qatar will most likely stay in Qatar,” remarked the Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla.

(…) But even when Arab monarchs fail to be inspired to hand over their power, the example of another potential road to leadership change in the Persian Gulf might have effects beyond the palaces simply by reintroducing the possibility of change that was dimmed by Syria’s horrors and Egypt’s chaos. Leaders may have survived for now, but the Gulf has been profoundly affected by the Arab uprisings: Kuwait passing through perhaps the most serious political crisis of its modern history; Saudi Arabia primed for generational challenges from a wired and frustrated population; and Bahrain is unlikely to recover anytime soon from its catastrophic sectarian repression. Great wealth, international backing, well-honed internal divide-and-rule strategies, and effective cross-national cooperation have helped the regimes resist those pressures. But the intense crackdowns across the Gulf over the last few years on human rights activists, political protests, Shiite citizens, the Muslim Brotherhood, and even online “insults” to the leadership show just how insecure and paranoid these regimes have become.

(…) Qatari domestic politics have rarely been of much interest to the outside world, though. What most non-Qataris really want to know is what this change means for Qatari foreign policy. Allow me to summarize in two words the thousand articles already written on the subject: Nobody knows. Qatar’s regime has always enjoyed exceptional autonomy from both domestic and international pressures in its foreign policymaking. Decisions on this front have been highly centralized and personalized, with leaders facing very few domestic political constraints. That means that the young, little-known Emir Tamim has perhaps more freedom than any other leader in the world to take whatever path he prefers.” (Foreign Policy)

As speculation over the new emir’s foreign policy direction continues, the small country has already engulfed itself as an influential player in the global arena, often in ways that seem contradictory. As the BBC’s Frank Gardner explains, Qatar is “A Country of Seemingly Ironic Contrasts,” in its involvement with the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel and Palestine, the United States, and other Arab authoritarians:

“So there is no mistaking, Qatar is rich. But it is also a country of seemingly illogical contrasts.

Take the Taliban. Qatar generously offered to host their office for peace negotiations which opened amid confusion and recriminations from Kabul.

(…) Now, the Taliban are a hardline Islamist movement, usually associated with Afghanistan’s long-running insurgency and the disavowal of almost all earthly pleasures.

Yet it turns out that its representatives have been in Qatar for quite some time and have adapted remarkably well to the lotus life in the Gulf.

“You can see them any weekend,” one local resident told me. “They go shopping in City Centre Mall. They have even had babies out here.”

Less than an hour’s drive from the Taliban’s smart new villa in Doha lies the giant US-run airbase of Al-Udaid.

This is where most of the coalition’s air operations in Afghanistan are co-ordinated from and it is strictly off limits to visitors.

Taliban Headquarters in Doha, Qatar Image Source: “How Qatar Came to Host the Taliban,” BBC

Taliban Headquarters in Doha, Qatar.
Image Source: “How Qatar Came to Host the Taliban,” BBC

When a frontline combat unit on the ground in, say, Helmand province, radios its base for air support, the request then gets routed through Qatar.

So just a short distance from the very building where Afghan peace talks may eventually get underway, coded signals are being dispatched that send Apache helicopter gunships or F16 jets into action against the Taliban.

Then there is the question of Israel. As an Arab and Muslim nation, home to the satellite TV station Al-Jazeera, Qatar has played host to plenty of Israel’s noisiest and most vitriolic detractors.

And yet unknown to most people, Israel had a discreet trade office in Qatar that only closed as recently as 2009 after its military incursion into Gaza.

(…) Of all the Gulf countries, Qatar is closest to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist organisation that has swept to power in Egypt.

It is home to its spiritual figurehead, the populist preacher Yousef Al-Qaradawi.

Yet Qatar, which used to impose a strict ban on alcohol, does have some well-stocked bars if you know where to go.

(…) Not that long ago I remember Egypt’s now-deposed President Mubarak complaining, during a spat with Qatar’s ruler: “Why should I pay attention to a country with the population of a small hotel?”

People are certainly paying attention to it now.” (BBC)

Currently, Qatar’s big international role is its support of the Syrian rebels. On 26 June, the new emir gave his first speech as head of state in which he made no mention of Qatar’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, claiming only that his country “should not be identified with any particular political trend and respected all religious sects.” (Daily Star) A few days later, the New York Times reported that in “Taking Outsize Role in Syria, Qatar Funnels Arms to Rebels”:

“As an intermittent supply of arms to the Syrian opposition gathered momentum last year, the Obama administration repeatedly implored its Arab allies to keep one type of powerful weapon out of the rebels’ hands: heat-seeking shoulder-fired missiles.

The missiles, American officials warned, could one day be used by terrorist groups, some of them affiliated with Al Qaeda, to shoot down civilian aircraft.

But one country ignored this admonition: Qatar, the tiny, oil- and gas-rich emirate that has made itself the indispensable nation to rebel forces battling calcified Arab governments and that has been shipping arms to the Syrian rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad since 2011.

Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad and his wife (centre) being greeted by Bashar and Asma al-Assad in Syria, 2008. Image source: “How Qatar Sized Control of the Syrian Revolution,” Financial Times

Qatar’s Sheikh Hamad and his wife (centre) being greeted by Bashar and Asma al-Assad in Syria, 2008.
Image source: “How Qatar Seized Control of the Syrian Revolution,” Financial Times

Since the beginning of the year, according to four American and Middle Eastern officials with knowledge of intelligence reports on the weapons, Qatar has used a shadowy arms network to move at least two shipments of shoulder-fired missiles, one of them a batch of Chinese-made FN-6s, to Syrian rebels who have used them against Mr. Assad’s air force. Deployment of the missiles comes at a time when American officials expect that President Obama’s decision to begin a limited effort to arm the Syrian rebels might be interpreted by Qatar, along with other Arab countries supporting the rebels, as a green light to drastically expand arms shipments.

Qatar’s aggressive effort to bolster the embattled Syrian opposition is the latest brash move by a country that has been using its wealth to elbow its way to the forefront of Middle Eastern statecraft, confounding both its allies in the region and in the West. The strategy is expected to continue even though Qatar’s longtime leader, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, stepped down last week, allowing his 33-year-old son to succeed him.

“They punch immensely above their weight,” one senior Western diplomat said of the Qataris. “They keep everyone off balance by not being in anyone’s pocket.”

“Their influence comes partly from being unpredictable,” the diplomat added.

(…) The United States has little leverage over Qatar on the Syria issue because it needs the Qataris’ help on other fronts. Qatar is poised to host peace talks between American and Afghan officials and the Taliban, who have set up a political office in Doha, the Qatari capital. The United States Central Command’s forward base in Qatar gives the American military a command post in the heart of a strategically vital but volatile region.

Qatar’s covert efforts to back the Syrian rebels began at the same time that it was increasing its support for opposition fighters in Libya trying to overthrow the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Its ability to be an active player in a global gray market for arms was enhanced by the C-17 military transport planes it bought from Boeing in 2008, when it became the first nation in the Middle East to have the durable, long-range aircraft.

(…) Charles Lister, an analyst with the IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Center in London who follows the Syria opposition groups, said that there was evidence in recent weeks that Qatar had increased its backing of hard-line Islamic militant groups active in northern Syria.

Mr. Lister said there was no hard evidence that Qatar was arming the Nusra Front, but he said that because of existing militant dynamics, the transfer of Qatari-provided arms to certain targeted groups would result in the same practical effect.

“It’s inevitable that any weapons supplied by a regional state like Qatar,” he said via e-mail, “will be used at least in joint operations with Jabhet al-Nusra — if not shared with the group.” (New York Times)

Though these recent developments in Qatar are fascinating, the Arab World’s monarchies have all proven remarkably resilient in the wake of regional upheaval, from the oil-rich countries in the Gulf, to the monarchs in the Levant and North Africa. The NATO Allied Command Operations (ACO) Civil-Military Fusion Centre (CFC) recently published an excellent report exploring this phenomenon, that is why have Arab monarchies maintained stability and

avoid forced regime change like other countries in the region. Excerpted from CFC’s “Regional Monarchies in the Context of the Arab Spring”:

King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud founded the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 after conquering most of central Arabia. Ibn Saud ruled during the country’s discovery of petroleum in 1939. The incumbent, King Abdullah, is one of Ibn Saud’s 45 sons. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud founded the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932 after conquering most of central Arabia. Ibn Saud ruled during the country’s discovery of petroleum in 1939.
The incumbent, King Abdullah, is one of Ibn Saud’s 45 sons.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

A wave of revolutionary movements swept the Arab nations of North Africa and the Middle East over the past two years; however, monarchical regimes in the region maintained stability, according to the International Relations and Security Network (ISN). The Arab Spring cost several leaders such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tuni-sia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali their positions of power – or in Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s case, his life. Meanwhile, kings or emirs in the region experienced relatively lower tensions within their borders. These facts may lead one to argue, in broad terms, that the Arab monarchies are simply more resilient to popular destabilising factors. However, the reality is more complex. The effects of the popular movements, as well as the authorities’ responses to such movements, varied greatly because of the individual social, political and economic conditions in each country.

Of the eight regional monarchies, five Arab Gulf states, including Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), experienced less significant protests throughout the course of the Arab Spring. In Jordan and Morocco, where largely peaceful demonstrations challenged social, political and economic conditions, the kings responded to Arab Spring protest movements with reforms. Bahrain was the only Gulf monarchy that faced a more imminent threat from massive street protests. The Bahraini government, as an extension of the monarchy, retained control by resorting to repressive measures aided by a Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) force. This report will first present general trends that consider the potential factors that might have sustained the relative stability observed in the Arab monarchies through the Arab Spring. The report will then focus individually on the three most significantly affected states, namely, Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco.

Arab monarchs enjoy varying degrees of legitimacy rooted in religion or culture that their counterparts in non-monarchical dictatorships in the region cannot claim. The Jordanian and Moroccan kings’ claims of direct de-scendancy from the Prophet Mohammad, or the Saudi king’s self-portrayal as the protector of Islamic holy lands (Mecca and Medina), are elements contributing to their legitimacy. In addition, legitimacy may also be rooted in the tribal system in which the king is perceived as the guarantor of stability.

King Abdullah I of Jordan was the ruler of Transjordan, a British protectorate from the division of the fallen Ottoman Empire, from 1921 until his assassination in 1951, although in 1946 Jordan became an independent state. The incumbent is King Abdullah I’s great-grandson. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

King Abdullah I of Jordan was the ruler of Transjordan, a British protectorate from the division of the fallen Ottoman Empire, from 1921 until his assassination in 1951, although in 1946 Jordan became an independent state.
The incumbent is King Abdullah I’s great-grandson.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

One difference between the republican regimes toppled by their citizens and the Arab monarchies appears to lie in a form of social contract between the monarch and the people. To emphasise this difference in context, Jamal Khashoggi, a newspaper columnist in Saudi Arabia, and the director of the Al Arab News Channel, says, “In the Gulf, a monarch’s covenant is between a population and a royal family. The population was never promised the right to vote or even to name ministers. Although the bond is unfair, it was always thus, never built on ‘fraud and deceit’, as in those republics where people were falsely promised the right to choose their ruler.” Such unwritten social contracts between citizens and their monarchs have a stabilising effect for the countries. These conditions, as Dr. Christopher Davidson states in his New York Times article: “[H]ave usually been enough to placate citizens, satisfy the needs of expatriates and guarantee some degree of political acquiescence from the population, thereby allowing the monarchies to avoid heavy-handed repression.”

King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the current King of Bahrain and descendant of the Khalifa dynasty ruling since 1783. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the current King of Bahrain and descendant of the Khalifa dynasty ruling since 1783.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Monarchical power, which enables efficiency in carrying out reforms, can be considered another reason for the relative calmness of Arab Spring protest movements; monarchies are able to implement reforms swiftly in a top-down manner, according to ISN. The most prominent regional examples of this are provided by Jordan and Morocco, which introduced reforms as soon as Arab Spring sentiments began within their borders. (…)

The Three Arab Monarchies in the Danger Zone

Among the eight Arab monarchies, Bahrain, Jordan and Morocco had relatively more frequent, long lasting and more intense opposition protest movements, demanding deeper changes in their existing socio-political systems. Although these movements did not lead to a regime change in any of these three countries, they constituted major challenges to the authorities. The following sections will focus on these three monarchies individually, laying out the context of the Arab Spring movements as well as highlighting the major events over the course of popular un-rests. (AKO CFC)


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  1. In Review: Background to Egypt’s “30 June” Movement | LDESP

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