A dwarf's dream of becoming a giant



The gas-rich emirate of Qatar is ruled by the ambitious Al-Thani clan. They are using their wealth to build a 21st century metropolis - minus the democracy.

If you want to understand how Qatar likes to see itself, wait until darkness falls. The capital of the emirate positively glows with power, wealth and greatness. Doha's skyline, mirrored in the waters of the Persian Gulf, reveals its lofty ambition when the buildings are lit up at night. Dozens of prestigious architectural flights of fancy have grown out of the desert sand in recent years, each one more extravagant than the next. One is unofficially - and for obvious reasons - called "the condom".

Seen from the water at night, Doha could be a proper metropolis.

And this is exactly what Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, wants to create. He is working tirelessly to build a model metropolis for the 21st century in the Middle East with the region's most modern hospitals and its most contemporary museums. Quite ambitious for a country of only 275,000 citizens.

But this is not all. For years, Qatar has been dabbling in the region's politics. During the Arab Spring, Qatar managed to support simultaneously the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Western military intervention in Libya and the rebels fighting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

At the same time, Qatar is sponsoring the digitisation of the Islamic collection of manuscripts in the British Library at a cost of 42 million euros. The emirate also built the Shard, the highest skyscraper in London and has invested around the world via its Qatar Holding in German technology company Siemens, French soccer club St. Germain, Britain's Barclays Bank and the US jewellery company Tiffany's. Qatar also owns a stake in other choice global assets, such as London's luxury department store Harrods.

This year the emirate is sponsoring a motorcycle Grand Prix, and in 2022 it will host the football World Cup. Through Al-Jazeera, it created a news channel of international standing.

Money is not an issue. Because the world's third-largest gas fields were discovered in waters around the peninsula, Qatar is the richest country in the world measured by per capita income. The state coffers currently hold about 150 billion euros.

But what really drives the Emir? Boredom? A need to show off? Some kind of missionary sense? Maybe a mixture of all these pushes the Emir to inflate his dwarf state into a regional power.

The 33-year-old new emir Tamim, however, is not the first ambitious al-Thani. His father Hamad, who peacefully handed over power to his son last June at the age of 61, started the ambitious plan to invent a creative, politically more modern oasis in the Gulf. His ancestors, who gained power in the small country in the middle of the 19th century, have shown political talent ever since. Hamad took over power from his father Khalifa in 1995, when the old Emir already mostly lived on the Cote d'Azur. It was a peaceful coup d'etat within the family which opened the way to reforming the country's Bedouin culture.

"Reform", of course, is a relative term. Emir Hamad had three wives. The second one, however, Mosa bin Nasser al-Missned was his favourite and she played an important role in liberalising and modernising society. She wears a scarf but not the abaya, the black cloth which usually covers women completely in this part of the world. Until 2013, she was heading the Qatar Foundation, a vehicle for innovation and investment. Thanks to her influence, the Emir gave the women the right to vote in 1997 and to stand in elections - a revolutionary act for the Gulf region. Even more remarkable: men and women are equal under the law.

"The Prophet Mohammed did not say that we have to lock up our women", says Ahmed Abdul-Malik al-Hamadi. The 63-year-old Qatari author and journalist, whose father was a pearl fisher, is drinking coffee in a modern shopping mall in Doha. He wears a traditional dishdash, a white dress with a red-and-white chequered headscarf. He married only once and has only two children: "We Qataris have our own interpretation of the Koran and our society has its own traditions."

In neighbouring Saudi Arabia, women are still fighting for the right to drive. "That's unthinkable for us, of course we Qatari women drive", says a businesswoman who came for lunch with her five children to the Islamic Museum of Doha's restaurant. She is the CEO of a Western marketing firm in Doha. Her oldest daughters are 15 and 16 years old. One wants to study engineering, the other astronomy. Heaven and earth are open to them - as long as they don't throw away the abaya, which the daughters and their mother are dutifully wearing.

The mother does not want to be quoted by name - a sign of the deeply undemocratic nature of the Qatari monarchy. When during the Arab Spring, calls to get involved in politics and in election campaigns spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East, the Emir quickly extinguished any push for more democracy. When a young poet called Mohammad ibn al-Dhib al-Ajami wrote: "We are all Tunisians now, confronting repressive powers", he was sentenced to life in prison.

Will this change with the young emir Tamim? The young ruler has the reputation of being careful. In his first year in power, he certainly showed one thing: he is less interested in spending money than his predecessors. An expert on the ruling clan in Doha says: "Tamim is not primarily interested in money. He would have never bought Harrods.That's just not his thing." Politically, however, he is his father's son: "He will keep to the moderate Islamist course of his father."

That also means he will continue to support the Muslim Brotherhood, which is under extreme pressure in Egypt since the army took back control of the country last July. Military courts sentenced 529 Muslim Brothers to death last month.

But the al-Thanis have supported political Islam for decades, trying to establish a moderate alternative to the otherwise common ultra-conservative Wahabi interpretation of Islam in the Gulf region. "The Muslim Brotherhood is the political centre in the Middle East", explains Andrew Hammond at the European Council of Foreign Relations in London: "and Qatar allows in the otherwise conservative region, an oasis for intellectual debate."

The emirate sees itself as even more than that: "You can see Qatar as a refuge for all the repressed" said Khalid bin Mohammed al-Attiyah, Qatar's new foreign minister during a visit to London last autumn.

The spiritual leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, Yusuf Abdullah al-Qaradawi, found asylum here, as did the left-wing intellectual and Israeli Palestinian Azmi Bishara, who needed to escape from Israel in 2007, after being threatened with a trial for treason (profil 07/14). Khaled Meshal, leader of the Palestinian group Hamas, lives in Doha too. At the same time the Qataris keep some sort of contact going with the Israelis.

With all its initiatives and interventions, Qatar's ruling family has annoyed its neighbours. In March, the other Gulf states recalled their ambassadors from Doha in protest at Qatar's continued support for the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood - a very unusual step for the consensus-seeking Gulf monarchies. They had one aim: to stop Qatar meddling in potentially unsettling political matters. Reconciliation efforts are under way, but tension is high.

Saudi Arabia in particular does not appreciate Qatar's ambition of becoming a political power. The Saudi ruling family used to consider Qatar as little more than its own backyard. Under Emir Khalifa - grandfather of the current ruler Tamim - that is practically what it was. As the ageing Qatari Emir spent more and more time on the Cote d'Azur at the beginning of the 1990s, the al-Sauds plotted to install a convenient successor. But Khalifa's son Hamad would have none of it. He seized power from his father in a peaceful coup in 1995, not so much aimed at unseating his father as at gaining autonomy from the Saudis.

Hamad's entire 20-year rule was an attempt to gain autonomy from Saudi Arabia. This also meant establishing excellent relations with everyone else. The US was invited to build the biggest US military base in the Middle East.

Now, Qatar is battling friend and foe on all fronts. The Saudis and the other Gulf monarchies are annoyed because of Doha's support for the Muslim Brotherhood. This is hitting Al Jazeera badly. The Egyptian military regime arrested 20 Al Jazeera staff and is accusing them of connections to terrorist groups - an accusation ultimately directed at Qatar itself.

But Al Jazeera itself is in trouble too. When it was founded 18 years ago as a kind of Arab CNN, it was euphorically welcomed by many. But complaints are now piling up - also inside Qatar. The TV station is seen as much too friendly to Islamist sources.

Similarly, Doha's support for rebel groups in Syria has turned out to be a dangerous and unpleasant experience. Extremist rebels have taken over and became infamous for particularly ghastly atrocities. One rebel leader last year cut open the chest of a dead soldier, removed his organs and tried to bite his victim's heart or lung. Recent images of mass executions of soldiers by rebels made headlines - not very good for the reputation of the sponsoring emirate of Qatar.

The al-Thanis are also getting a bad press for the treatment of guest workers in Qatar itself. Almost two million people live on the small peninsula, most in the capital Doha. The great majority are not citizens. Some 1.6 million guest workers live in appalling conditions. Construction workers in particular suffer from excessive work hours in the extreme desert heat. All this is based on what is known as the Kafala system. A sponsor can bring a worker into the country for a specific project. The sponsor keeps the worker's passport and can terminate the contract and send the worker home when he or she is not needed anymore.

This invites abuse. According to research by the British daily "The Guardian", one worker a day died last September from heat or exhaustion. In 2013 alone, 185 workers from Nepal died. Some are asking for a boycott of the Fifa 2022 World Cup because of these inhuman conditions.

Foreigners with better jobs don't usually risk their lives, but they do lose their freedom when they come to work in Qatar. A young Georgian woman explained that although she is well paid in one of the luxury hotels in Doha and her dormitory even features a pool, her social life is monotonous. "Men and women live strictly separated from each other. When a male friend came over for coffee, we got into trouble with security."

But superficially the Qatari experiment works quite well. The old Souk has been upgraded to a full- blown tourist centre, complete with fake bazaar alleyways, shisha pipe cafes and craftsmen in traditional outfits who pose for snapshots. Men in white dishdashes and women in black abayas drink tea next to tourists in tank tops. Even in the new luxury hotels they mix, although the bar in the "W" Hotel serves alcohol, which is strictly forbidden by Islam.

So far, Qatar's schizophrenic world seems to function - maybe because there is no public opinion which could voice opposition. The rather rushed change of power from father to son last June was seen as a sign that the al-Thanis felt it was necessary to show energetic leadership in times of crisis and mounting criticism.

For the moment Doha is a huge experimental laboratory. Some ideas - for example turning desert into farmland - are started with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. But they are also quickly shelved if they are then judged inefficient or undoable.

A similar fate might await some of the foreign policy adventures. If the rebels in Syria continue to be uncontrollable, they might see their Qatari funding dry up.

One thing seems to be clear by now: The young Emir is a lot less interested in spending money senselessly. As sign of this new modesty, Emir Tamim decided not to build twelve new stadiums for the World Cup, but only eight. Saving money still means something quite different in Qatar to the rest of the world.

Although there were many challenges in the last year -- the crisis of the Arab Spring and the seemingly monstrous idea of changing a traditional Bedouin culture into an ultra-modern regional power of the 21st century among them -- experts agree that Qatar's future is bright. "There's a good chance that the young Emir will rule successfully for the next twenty years", says a western diplomat in Doha. "So far the al-Thanis have survived the upheaval in the region quite well."


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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz