There is no doubt that Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani is an extremely hard act to follow. In a region burdened with government inertia, many regard him as a visionary and trendsetter. His son and successor, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, inherits this legacy in every practical sense. That means support for change in the Middle East, conflict resolution, economic development and a just peace in Palestine. To appreciate the magnitude of the challenge the new emir faces, it is necessary to assess the legacy of his predecessor.
When Qatar launched Al Jazeera satellite television in 1996, few expected that it would become a major force in the Middle East, let alone across the globe. Backed generously by the Qatari government, within a relatively short time it created a climate for, and love of, freedom of speech in a region where it was, and still is in some places, relatively rare. The channel gave a “voice to the voiceless” and a solid platform for public debate. In doing so, it has empowered the disenfranchised masses from Mauritania to Oman.
Ultimately, that new-found freedom was expressed in popular demands for change; for dignity and justice. For the first time since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, people felt that they were masters of their own destiny. In Egypt, for example, the once familiar sight of protesters corralling into Cairo University now seems a feature of the distant past.
Since the overthrow of the ageing dictatorships, Qatar has continued its principled support for transition. Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have all benefited substantially from soft loans, financial grants and investments. No other state in the region, or the world for that matter, has given as much as Qatar.
With its highly gifted and efficient diplomatic structure, the Qatari government has mediated in the region’s bloodiest fratricidal conflicts. Doha is the capital of regional peacemaking. From Darfur to Somalia to Lebanon to Palestine, Qatar encouraged unity, inclusiveness and nation-building.
Even in Syria, during the initial protests in 2011, the government of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa encouraged reconciliation between the Assad regime and its people. At the time, Doha was one of the closest allies of Damascus. When the Assad regime opted for a military solution instead of the political route, Qatar aligned itself with the just aspirations of the Syrian people.
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This was a textbook example of foreign policy that was not wedded to static dogma. Under the retiring emir, Qatari diplomacy came of age, capable of interpreting historical trends correctly and responding to their demands with detached, impassionate judgments.
Beyond the Middle East, Qatar has often been referred to as the plucky Gulf state, which on account of its wealth punches above its weight. Even so, it takes much more than money to win something like the right to host the FIFA World Cup. Given the fierceness of the competition, often spearheaded by global powers, success in the bidding process takes considerable political acumen and diplomatic skill.
The London 2012 Olympic Games came about largely through the political lobbying of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and the business community, as well as civil society. Likewise, without the tireless efforts of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa and his team, Doha would not be hosting the 2022 football tournament.
What must not be overlooked in this success is the role played by the Crown Prince, now emir, Sheikh Tamim. In this light, Qatar’s enterprising forays and dynamism on the world stage look set to continue.
On issues of hard power, such as the global “war on terror”, Qatar’s position was often channelled through its Al Jazeera network. It enabled millions to witness, in real time, how the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were prosecuted. This led to acute tensions between Doha and the Bush administration in Washington, and deadly US attacks on Al Jazeera bureaus in Baghdad and Kabul.
On the more intractable conflicts, Palestine most notably, Qatar’s support for the Palestinians’ quest for independence and self-determination is expected to continue. Because of the distinctive nature of the Palestine question, Doha will in all likelihood continue to use its regional influence to galvanise Arab consensus and support. Back in 2008, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa was pained deeply when the Arab League consensus was broken after he called for an emergency summit to discuss Israel’s aggression against the Gaza Strip. There are, admittedly, no guarantees that his successor will have easy success in this regard.
Of all the files awaiting the new emir’s attention, though, none compares to Jerusalem. Its legal status as an occupied city has not deterred the occupying power, Israel, from its Judaisation policy and ethnic cleansing campaign. Having recently taken the initiative to establish a special fund for the city, Qatar must, in the short-term, demonstrate commensurate political engagement.
The self-declared motive for Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa’s early resignation is that the time has come for a new generation to assume leadership. After carefully laying the groundwork, installing the necessary machinery imbued with no less talent and vision, he decided to step down. The moderniser has gone but the modernisation of Qatari foreign policy will continue. There is, indeed, continuity in change.
Dr Daud Abdullah is director of the Middle East Monitor (MEMO) in London.