The change of leadership in Qatar on June 25, 2013, served as a signal of a subtle, but profound, change of direction in the greater Middle East. Of significance, however, is that it indicated that the outgoing Emir of Qatar would spend more of his time and wealth managing — with his wife — his “international interests”, leaving the management of the State of Qatar to the incoming Emir, his son.
It is, with this event and others, the start of a new era which was begun by the gradual decline in US influence in the region after 1979 (and particularly after 2008), and confirmed by the transitions in leaderships which took place in the so-called “Arab Spring” period, compounded by subsequent elections in Pakistan and Iran. The changes are not yet complete.
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani’s abdication as Emir of Qatar on June 25, 2013, had been quietly anticipated, and Qatar’s allies were discreetly informed in advance. It was no surprise, and was believed to have been dictated largely because of health concerns by the 61-year-old monarch, but it was also dictated by the process of preparing Crown Prince Tamin bin Hamad al-Thani for the post. It also meant that the Prime Minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, would have to retire, so close were he and Sheikh Hamad in the development of Qatar’s economic and strategic policies.
However, the transfer of power to Sheikh Tamin, 33, inevitably would mean a transformation in Qatar’s adventurist strategic policy, even though it was Sheikh Tamin and his mother — Sheikha Moza, the second wife of the outgoing Emir, Sheikh Hamad — who were the great proponents of the aggressive policy of support for radical Islamist combatants to help overthrow Libyan leader Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi and Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad. The question is, however, what that “transformation” will entail. It was, by late June 2013, by no means clear that Sheikh Tamin would be more moderate than his father.
In any event, it has been intimated that the now-former Emir, Sheikh Hamad, would be able, with Sheikha Moza, to devote more time to managing Qatar’s international activities, ranging from the discreet support of interventionist activities by what has come to be known as the “Qatari Foreign Legion” to international aid issues.
The support by Qatar for the anti-Qadhafi rebellion was not in itself surprising, but the manner of it seemed uncharacteristic of the moderate approach which Sheikh Hamad seemed to have taken in the years building up to that event.
Related article: How Worried is Saudi, Qatar by the Syrian Conflict?
Qatar went in to the Libyan conflict by aggressively backing and arming a salafist and Ikhwani (Muslim Brothers) force which was antithetical to the traditionally moderate, pro-modernist Sanussiyah Muslims in the Cyrenaica province of Libya: the people who had begun the uprising against Qadhafi’s coup. They had acted against Qadhafi to restore the 1952 Constitution. And Sheikh Hamad was very much aware of that, given that his early encouragement into the development of Qatar’s gas fields — against the strenuous opposition of Saudi Arabia, which was “anti-gas/pro-petroleum” — came from Libyan then-exiled Prince Idris al-Senussi, who had briefed Sheikh Hamad and then-Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim extensively on the differences between Senussi and Saudi Wahhabi approaches to Islam.
It is true that Sheikh Hamad and Hamad bin Jassim ultimately fell out with Prince Idris after the money began accumulating in Qatar, transforming its position, and there was a reluctance to recognize Idris’s rôle in the gas revolution which Qatar began. But was that enough to cause Qatar to back such a radical, jihadist intervention in Libya when it could have just as easily supported the moderate, local Cyrenaican Senussiyahs who had initiated the revolt — the counter-coup — against Qadhafi?
Ultimately, however, the Qatari “foreign legion” in Libya came under control, more or less (but not before its allies attacked the US Consulate-General in Benghazi, killing the US Ambassador and others on September 11, 2012), and the Senussiyah faction won control, electorally, of Libyan politics, and retained control of Cyrenaica.
Neither was the momentum of Qatari support continued after the Libya episode to the anti-Bashar jihadists in Syria explicable in relation to Sheikh Hamad’s long history of moderation. True, Sheikh Tamin’s and Sheikha Moza’s ostensible passion for these causes may have played a rôle, but there was still much more to it than that.
One contributory strand to the event was the plan, rejected by Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Assad on advice from his key ally, Iran, by Qatar to build a gas pipeline across from Qatar and via Saudi Arabia and Syria, to reach the European market. Iran wanted to develop its own pipeline access Iraq and through Syria to reach the same European market (when embargoes against Iran would eventually be removed). Those familiar with this situation in Doha indicated that the Qatari leadership’s response to this rejection was to support the removal of Bashar, and in this they found a ready ally in Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But, again, there was more to it than this.
Why would Qatar so deliberately pick up the gauntlet and challenge the great power of the Persian Gulf, Iran, by threatening to destabilize Syria?
Part of it lies in the competitiveness felt between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, and particularly between Qatari Emir Hamad and Saudi national security chief Prince Bandar, even though the two share ownership in the al-Jazeera broadcasting service based in Doha. Qatar has large outstanding territorial claims against Saudi Arabia, because the creation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia subsumed substantial tracts of land, abutting the present Saudi-Qatari border, occupied by Qatari tribes. As well, the now-departing Emir felt that Saudi approaches to reclaiming some sense of strategic viability compared with Shi’a Iran were weak, vacillating, and dangerous, and Sheikh Hamad felt the need to build a sense of unity among the Sunni Arabs to enable them to withstand Iran.
But, again, there is clearly more to it than that.
Significantly, incoming Emir Sheikh Tamin has become engaged in rebuilding Saudi-Qatari relations, despite his apparent zeal for the Libya and Syria adventures. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have backed different factions of the opposition to Bashar in Syria, but both, by late June 2013, had to face the reality that they had failed in both Syria and Libya. The Syrian Administration of Bashar al-Assad had, to all intents, won the “civil war” that outside monies had triggered in Syria. Moreover, US Pres. Barack Obama had ventured too late in the Syrian conflict to propose US arming of Syrian opposition groups to overthrow Bashar, and it had been clear that the Government in Doha — the outgoing Emir and Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim — had very strong support (or urging) from Pres. Obama to undertake the courses they had taken on Libya and Syria.
Pres. Obama had wanted his allies, Qatar and Turkey, to support the Ikhwan (Muslim Brothers) as the main instruments of change in the region. Even Saudi Arabia, which supports neo-salafist and Wahhabist jihadists, was concerned that the White House was going too far, and even felt some common cause with Israel to quietly resist the US President’s radical approach to ending the rule of Pres. Bashar. And, by late June 2013, it seemed that even Prime Minister Erdogan in Turkey — suffering from impotence in his ability to overthrow Bashar, a conflict he had helped initiate — was now ready to begin quietly extracting himself from the Syria dispute. Turkey, by late June 2013, was telling the US that it would no longer be able to act as a conduit territory for the shipment of arms to the Syrian rebels.
Turkey had, since the overthrow of Qadhafi, worked very closely with the US Government — including US Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, who had been killed on September 11, 2012 in Benghazi — to ship arms out of Libya to the Syrian rebels, discreetly embarking them on Turkish-controlled ships out of Benghazi to Syria, either directly or via Lebanon or Turkey.
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron, who had keenly supported the Obama White House on “arming the Syrian rebels”, was apparently told by his Foreign Secretary, William Hague, that Parliament would not back him on this, and Mr Cameron had to back down.
Pres. Obama, then, was isolated on this, but still needed to demonstrate (for domestic US political purposes) a determined and successful Middle East initiative to distract from mounting political difficulties at home, where a variety of scandals were damaging both his political standing and his ability to win the coming mid-term Congressional elections, where he had hoped to regain control of the House of Representatives.
Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other states were gradually backing away from the Syrian dispute. Now, Qatar’s new Emir, keen to rebuild relations with Saudi Arabia, also had the opportunity to scale back efforts in Syria. The question was, then, whether Pres. Obama — who had been counting on at least some signs of success and virility in the Middle East to rebuild media support at home — would be able to let go of the Syrian war and “allow” Iran to win. This is an option which both Saudi Arabia and Pres. Obama would be reluctant to embrace, given their commitment to Sunni Muslim dominance over Iran and Shi’ism.
Certainly, the politically embattled Islamist (Sunni) Turkish Prime Minister, facing continuing domestic unrest and the now-unmasked threats from Iran to stir up massive unrest in Turkey (through the Kurds, Shi’a, ‘Alawites, and others) if Turkey did not desist from attempting to destroy Bashar in Syria, knew he had to pull back from his full policy of support for the Syrian rebels. Ironically, the Turkish- and Qatari-sponsored “civil war” in Syria had created a massive exodus of Syrian refugees into Jordan, Turkey, Greece, and other states. The best that the US Obama Administration could do was to blame the humanitarian crisis on Pres. Bashar.
But at the end of the day, the transfer of power in Qatar to Sheikh Tamin — and the voluntary retirement, reportedly to London, of former Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim — was a face-saving way of “re-shaping” Qatar’s adventurism. Given the lack of responsiveness to Pres. Obama of Egypt’s Ikhwani Administration of Pres. Mohammad Morsi, it was becoming clear that the whole policy of supporting the Ikhwan in Egypt, Turkey, Libya, and Syria, was running out of steam. Whether this message would resonate with an activist Sheikh Hamad in retirement, however, is still unclear.
But this trend would enable the US finally be in a position where it could begin a meaningful dialog with Iran, with the earlier (unsuccessful) policy of “carrot and stick” now being reduced to the state when the stick was seen to be ineffective? Certainly, it seems that former Emir Sheikh Hamad may attempt to counsel Pres. Obama against any rapprochement with Iran. And Iran itself may not yet be ready to negotiate with the White House. Why, indeed, should it do so when it has been strengthening its strategic position (albeit while the US-led economic embargo of Iran is biting its citizens), and the US position in the region, along with that of its major ally, Turkey, is weakening.
Iran, too, had a new President — Hassan Rohani — who could be used as a perceived instrument of change to enable matters to move to a new form of stability.
By. Gregory R. Copley