Qatar builds its investments and its influence in a stormy Middle East


Egypt's Vice President Mohamed ElBaradei, right, talks with Qatari foreign minister Khalid bin Muhammad al-Atiyah, center, during a meeting at the presidential palace in Cairo, Egypt, Aug. 5, 2013. (Egytian Presidency/Via EPA)
August 9, 2013

Tamim Bin Hamad al-Thani had just turned 15 the summer his father overthrew his grandfather. It was June 1995. While Sheik Khalifa Bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, was traveling in Switzerland, Tamim’s father deposed him in a bloodless coup.

Two months later, Tamim donned a straw boater and dark morning suit, the uniform of the elite English boarding school Harrow. Within two years, he was enrolled at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, where British army officers are trained and Arab leaders have groomed their offspring for decades.

Now, at 33, Sheik Tamim has taken over as emir after Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, 61, announced his abdication on June 25. The succession is extraordinary in two ways. It’s rare for a leader in the Persian Gulf not to cling to power until death. It’s equally unusual for a transfer of power in the region to go smoothly.

“The emir always thought he shouldn’t go on forever,” says Graham Boyce, who was British ambassador to Qatar from 1990 to 1993, when he got to know Sheik Hamad as crown prince. Boyce says Hamad claimed that by the time he decided to step down, Tamim was making 90 percent of the administrative decisions.

“So there won’t be a major policy shift,” he says.

Ordinarily, a changing of the guard on a sand-swept peninsula the size of Connecticut inhabited by about 250,000 Qatari citizens and 1.7 million immigrant workers would be of little consequence to the outside world.

Yet the Thani family, sitting on the third-largest natural gas reserves in the world, didn’t just turn Qatar into the world’s richest nation per capita ($103,000 in 2012); it also ensured that the tiny emirate has had a disproportionate impact on events in the Middle East — and beyond.

Tamim becomes the youngest leader in the region at a time when Qatar’s power has been ascendant. To protect its interests in a turbulent region, Qatar has armed and bankrolled Syrian rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, and it continued to support Egypt through its tumultuous change of government in July.

As a hedge against falling gas prices, it has made multibillion-dollar investments in iconic companies such as Barclays; London’s Harrods department store; Tiffany; and Volkswagen, Europe’s largest carmaker.

In their earliest and most overt attempt to have some influence on world events, the Thanis in 1996 launched the al-Jazeera satellite channel, which is based in the capital, Doha, and is the news broadcaster of choice among the world’s 300 million Arabic speakers.

In 2005, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld accused the channel of promoting terrorism through its coverage of suicide attacks in Iraq. Al-Jazeera said it was just covering the news.

In late August, al-Jazeera America is scheduled to begin broadcasting news, sports and entertainment coast-to-coast to 50 million U.S. households after buying Current TV, a cable channel, from former vice president Al Gore and other partners for a reported $500 million.

At home, the Qatar government has used its vast wealth to transform Doha into a showcase of urban architecture, hoping to attract business and tourism from abroad as Dubai did in the nearby United Arab Emirates. Insulating itself from the dissent and unrest that has roiled neighboring states, Qatar has cocooned its citizens in free health care and education.

The country’s building boom rolls on ahead of soccer’s 2022 World Cup, which Qatar is hosting, with enough stadiums under construction to seat Qatar’s citizenry twice over.

Like his father, the new emir recognizes that Qatar can’t thrive on natural resources alone, says Fahad bin Mohammed al-Attiyah, the head of Qatar’s National Food Security Program and legal adviser to Tamim before his ascension.

“Sheik Tamim realizes Qatar cannot take for granted what it has,” he says. “The hydrocarbon industry is not the endgame.”

Tamim’s first key appointments in government suggest continuity more than change. He replaced Prime Minister Hamad Bin Jasim al-Thani, a distant relative, with another, Sheik Abdullah Bin Nasser al-Thani, formerly minister of state for internal affairs.

Ali Shareef al-Emadi, chief executive of Qatar National Bank, became finance minister. QNB, the Middle East’s biggest lender, placed No. 1 in Bloomberg Markets’ annual ranking of the world’s strongest banks in the June issue.

‘Repressive elite’

Tamim has absolute power as emir. Qatar is a hereditary emirate that has been ruled by the Thani family since the mid-19th century. Its lone concession to popular rule at home has been municipal elections.

In 2012, Amnesty International criticized Qatar for imposing a life sentence on a poet, Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, found guilty of incitement to overthrow “the ruling system” and insulting Emir Hamad.

“We are all Tunisia in the face of the repressive elite,” Ajami had written after violent demonstrations in Tunis in December 2010 touched off the Arab Spring.

“It is deplorable that Qatar, which likes to paint itself internationally as a country that promotes freedom of expression, is indulging in what appears to be such a flagrant abuse of that right,” Philip Luther, Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director, said at the time.

Ajami’s sentence was subsequently reduced to 15 years. Qatari government officials declined to be interviewed for this article.

Beyond its borders, Qatar has championed revolution, public protest and demands for democracy across the region. It supported forces fighting Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi by sending Mirage fighter jets to enforce a no-fly zone over the country in 2011.

After the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, Qatar agreed to lend $8 billion to the new, Muslim Brotherhood-led government on the grounds that it was democratically elected. “Whatever the people of Egypt decide, we will respect,” then-premier Hamad Bin Jasim al-Thani said at the Washington-based Brookings Institution in April.

That promise was tested. On July 3, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi was unseated in a military coup after angry protests exploded in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, raising the possibility that Qatar’s Egypt bet could backfire. On July 4, the state-run Qatar News Agency reported that Doha would continue to support “the brotherly Arab Republic of Egypt.”

Since Morsi’s removal, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE have pledged $12 billion in aid to Egypt, challenging Qatar’s influence over the Middle East’s most populous state.

In late July, citing an unnamed Foreign Ministry official, the Qatari news agency reported that the government was “surprised” that Morsi remained in detention. On July 27, the news service said Qatar denounced “the alarming events” in Egypt, including “the killing of protesters” who took to the streets in support of Morsi.

Qatar’s relations across the greater Middle East are under stress, partly because of heightened tensions between the Thani family’s Sunni branch of Islam and Shiite leaders in Iran, Iraq and Syria.

Qatar is driven by the need to form alliances that help safeguard the country’s survival, says Martin Indyk, director of the foreign policy program at Brookings, which receives funding from Qatar, and a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

“They are a tiny population in a very dangerous neighborhood,” he says.

With instability in Egypt and an aging leadership in Saudi Arabia, where King Abdullah is 88, Tamim is unlikely to make bold moves, says Boyce, Britain’s former ambassador in Doha.

For one thing, he won’t be ushering in a new era of democracy anytime soon. Shortly before his abdication, Hamad delayed elections to the advisory council, which assists the emir in formulating government policy, by extending the body’s term for three years. Elections had been planned for this year.

Tamim may by his nature ease concerns among neighbors that have questioned Qatar’s foreign policy activism.

“Tamim will be less impulsive than his father and slightly more cautious,” Boyce says. “He may pursue a less-high-profile foreign policy.”

Largest natural gas exporter

As a delegate of the Saudi-Qatari Coordination Council, Tamim has forged ties with his royal neighbors, including 77-year-old Crown Prince Salman. In so doing, he has helped mend relations that were strained by al-Jazeera’s coverage of opposition to the Saudi monarchy. Tamim also steered talks in Doha in 2010 that led to a peace agreement between warring factions in the Darfur region of Sudan.

Before his father’s abdication, Tamim was deputy commander of the Qatari armed forces. Since at least 2005, Tamim has been given a growing role in internal security matters, according to U.S. State Department cables released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

Until he became emir, Tamim was also chairman of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the sovereign wealth fund fueled by the country’s gas reserves.

At the end of 2010, after a 15-year, $120 billion investment in tankers, refineries and other infrastructure, Qatar reached its annual production target of 77 million metric tons of liquefied natural gas, becoming the world’s largest exporter.

In 2012, the QIA was valued at $135 billion and outgunned all other sovereign wealth funds by purchasing assets abroad worth $16.8 billion, according to the Sovereign Investment Lab at Bocconi University in Milan.

The QIA and its several investment arms have built up a diversified portfolio of direct investments. In Britain alone, Qatar invested $33 billion in the past six years. In London, it built the Shard, the tallest office building in Western Europe; swallowed up the Olympic Village constructed for the 2012 Games; and agreed to buy the soon-to-be-vacated U.S. Embassy.

Qatar is far from a passive investor: Qatar Holding, a QIA unit, held out for a higher price from Glencore International for its 11 percent stake in Xstrata in a $29 billion takeover, last year’s biggest.

Tamim also formed Qatar Sports Investments, which bought the Paris Saint-Germain Football Club in 2011 and went on to spend $475 million buying star players, including David Beckham, who retired this year.

The sheik installed an old friend, Qatari tennis pro Nasser al-Khelaifi, as the club’s president. Khelaifi’s roughly written job description on LinkedIn speaks volumes about the new emir’s enthusiasm for sports: “Sign a hell lot of Players.”

During his school days in Britain, Tamim showed few signs of the flashy lifestyle exhibited by some of his generation in the gulf. At Sherborne School, which Tamim attended before Harrow and again one year afterward, Tamim lived in a spartan dorm room with undecorated walls, says Fahed Khayyat, a fellow student.

“He was so humble and down-to-earth that no one knew at first he was from the ruling family of Qatar,” says Khayyat, 33, now an entrepreneur in Amman, Jordan.

Several of Tamim’s 24 siblings by his father’s three wives have also moved into positions of authority in recent years, confirming that power in the emirate is moving from Hamad’s generation to the next one.

Stephen Day, a British diplomat who was Tamim’s guardian in the 1990s and British ambassador to Qatar from 1981 to 1984, says Hamad was open about his succession plan.

“It’s already pretty well in place,” he says. “There’s a better-qualified generation of younger people who served their apprenticeship and are taking over the key positions.”

This is particularly the case with the children of Tamim’s mother, the second of Hamad’s wives, Sheika Mozah Bint Nasser al-Missned. Her prominent role, rare for a woman in the gulf, is one of the distinguishing features of Hamad’s reign.

An advocate of higher education and women’s rights, she’s chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation, which has built Education City, a sprawling campus in the capital that hosts eight U.S., British and French universities, and is overseeing the Msheireb project, an ambitious $5.5 billion redevelopment of downtown Doha. In the main square, chilled air will rise from the ground; below, garbage trucks will move through tunnels so as not to disturb street life.

Tamim’s younger sister Sheika Hind, 28, a graduate of Duke University, served as Hamad’s chief of staff.

Another sister and Duke graduate, Mayassa, 30, who’s chairwoman of the Qatar Museums Authority, was called the art world’s most influential person by Art & Auction magazine last year after she reportedly spent about $250 million on Paul Cézanne’s “The Card Players,” the highest price ever paid for a painting.

In Zurich in 2010, Tamim’s brother Mohammed, 25, pitched his country’s ultimately successful World Cup bid to soccer’s governing body, FIFA — no easy task, given that he had to sell the idea of a tournament in summer temperatures above 104 degrees. Ecuadoran soccer player Christian Benitez died of a heart attack on July 29, a day after making his debut for his new Qatari club.

In July, FIFA President Sepp Blatter moved to ease anxiety over playing conditions, saying he would urge the group’s executive committee to shift the tournament to wintertime.

Al-Jazeera America may be Qatar’s most brazen move yet to grab the world’s attention.

“We need to be the most recognized media organization in the world,” says Ehab al-Shihabi, interim chief executive of al-Jazeera America.

This sort of panache grates on Qatar’s detractors.

“They think they can influence American public opinion and institutions in order to protect themselves,” says Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi.

The country has courted opprobrium in other ways, such as its treatment of immigrant workers. They make up 88 percent of Qatar’s total population, giving the country the highest ratio of noncitizens to citizens in the world, according to Human Rights Watch.

In a February report, the New York-based advocacy group said Qatari employers routinely confiscate workers’ passports, making it hard for immigrants to leave or change jobs. Many workers, the report said, live in crowded and unsanitary labor camps.

Through its activist foreign policy and its armory of investments at home and abroad, Qatar has enlarged its presence on the world stage. For almost two decades, Hamad sought to strike a balance between reaching high and overreaching. He wasn’t always successful in the eyes of neighbor states and human rights organizations.

The pressures on his son will be no less intense, the choices no less difficult: Qatar remains small, gas prices are not immutable and the neighborhood isn’t getting any safer.

The full version of this Bloomberg Markets article appears in the magazine’s September issue.

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