Qatar: The making of Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’

The outgoing Qatari emir is an expert in Machiavellian politics, writes Larbi Sadiki.

heir emir qatar
"The obstacles facing Sheikh Tamim present an opportunity from which to build political capital to consolidate his father's legacy while leaving his own individual stamp as ruler," writes Sadiki [Qatar Media Corporation/Al Jazeera]

Eighteen years after executing a bloodless coup that kindled a passion for modernising and rebranding Qatar, Emir Hamad bin Khalifah Al Thani now upgrades statecraft to a new level: a voluntary transfer of power to the younger generation.

Through this masterful “game-changer”, Emir Hamad effectively exorcises the ghost of his own father whom he deposed in 1995. More importantly, he sets Qatar on a transitional trajectory for his successor former Crown Prince and now Emir Tamim bin Hamad to follow and measure up to.

Paraphrasing Niccolo Machiavelli, Emir Hamad proves himself not to be the kind of prince motivated by preserving the status quo, but rather by overthrowing it. As Qatar, the Middle East and North Africa, and the world await the transfer, one question remains: How will the 33-year-old Sandhurst-trained Emir Tamim borrow this leaf from his father’s book?

Transfer? Or transition?

Will this move benefit Qatar? At face value, this is both a transfer (hand-over of power from father to son) and a transition (a long-term process of transformation).

No outsiders will be privy to the full facts of the planned transfer of power in Qatar. Once an impoverished pearl-fishing country, it is now a bustling centre of diplomacy, finance and culture firmly plugged into the global economy and a partner with the West. Nonetheless, this bold move occurs at a pivotal moment in a region experiencing continual upheavals and challenges.

Sheikh Tammim takes over as emir of Qatar

The missing pieces in the jigsaw puzzle for this transfer will be left for future historians to identify. The question as to what drives an Emir in the apogee of his power to abdicate, boasting an impressive track record of achievements in wealth-making, welfare distribution, stability, security, niche diplomacy and continuous institution-building, is not easily answerable.

Retirement due to illness does not seem to be on the agenda of Abdulaziz Bouteflika in Algeria or King Abdullah in neighbouring Saudi Arabia – both are older and in poorer health than the Emir. However, if one goes by the facts, popularly known and others not so, we can begin to sketch out the outlines and some details of this unprecedented act of far-sightedness. Thus, it is a testimony to the acumen and experience acquired through the years by Sheikh Hamad both as a crown prince and Emir.

“Power” is central to the study of political science, and based on personal experience, Emir Hamad (the father) has strengthened and stabilised Qatar’s power by transferring the reigns to his son. He, himself, does not want to be overthrown by his son. In the words of Machiavelli, one would have to be contented with the view that ‘sufficient sand has escaped from the hourglass’ of Emir Hamad’s political ‘life’ to see more clearly than other mortals in his political posse.

Power succession looms large not just in Qatar, but in the Gulf as well. In a region where heads of state are selected, this position of absolute power is transferred between the elders of the anointed cliques within royal houses. Gerontocracy appears to be an anachronistic system in Doha.

The planned abdication in favour of someone who falls into the ‘youth bulge’ of the Arab world, especially in the context of the Arab Spring is a rude awakening to Qatar’s immediate neighbours. This decision will reverberate across the capitals of the Gulf monarchies. A new way of ‘doing’ succession has arrived onto the scene and new norms are subtly being introduced.

Expert political maneuvering 

Qataris are being spared the pitfalls and uncertainties of the modus operandi surrounding the historically opaque and fractious transfer of power. In a palpable sense, Emir Hamad has broken with tradition. Rather than staying put and becoming enamoured with the trappings of power, he has envisioned the bigger picture. Such an act of moral courage has created a firewall of sorts against the typical cloak and dagger machinations of would-be heirs so common in the region.

Without a doubt, the Emir’s wide horizon has enabled him to cast his sight beyond the immediate short-term. Thus smooth transition in his life and at his behest might have looked preferable to power transfer in his absence and outside his control. For, even with abundance of money, tribal kinship, Qatar’s politics may not be spacious enough for the new Emir Tamim and  Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr Al-Thani , who both are arguably stakeholders who have benefited immensely from the Emir’s trust.

Qatar’s emir transfers power to son

The latter is larger than life in every sense, one of the world’s richest men and the Emir’s right-hand man since the 1995 coup. The former has since 2003, when he ascended to crown-prince-ship, benefited from the most rigorous coaching in politics, mentored by the Emir and his Prime Minister, two giant political animals by any standards, and Sheikhah Mozah whose own imprint on Qatari politics is conspicuously indelible in areas ranging from education to philanthropy.

Should the incumbent prime minister step down, as many expect, the emir-in-waiting would assume the powers of a “first amongst equals” to govern un-encumbered by an established political figure.

With the imminent departure of these figures from Qatar’s political landscape, one wonders whether the apple will fall not too far from the tree – with his father’s current policies serving as a guide. Crucially, in this regard, the soon-to-be Emir will inherit a transcript to follow the beaten track.

Three marks stand out:

  • Firstly, the institutional legacy of the laboratory that the outgoing Emir has constructed such as Al Jazeera’s soft power, the periodic municipal elections beginning in 1999, the 2005 constitution, planned elections for the consultative council, the projected creation of a constitutional court, the Qatar National Vision 2030, and the fight against corruption.
  • Secondly, the modernisation of the infrastructure in the domains of finance, education and research that has culminated in the creation of the Qatar Foundation.
  • Thirdly, a peacemaker with a maverick attitude not shying away from engaging with ‘pariah’ sates and marginal actors (Hamas, the Taliban and various Islamists).

In the final analysis, Emir Tamim has big shoes to fill. His father is the perfect archetype Machivelli ruler – his political innovation allowed him to transform obstacles and opportunity into advantage.

The obstacles facing Emir Tamim present him with the very opportunity from which to build political capital to consolidate his father’s legacy while leaving his own individual stamp as ruler in his own right. This opportunity lies in deepening good governance, streamlining the civil service, more legal oversight on executive power, expansion of participation and government response, diversifying the economy to include knowledge-based industries, and engendering a more vocal and equal citizenship within Qatari-Islamic-tribal specificity.

The new Emir may be on the cusp of aiding a new dawn in Qatar and the region. Several months ago, he spoke of the power of the people in the context of the Arab Spring of which he is an avid champion.

If the young emir is to continue the legacy of his father, then he must adopt three principles from Machiavelli’s The Prince:

“Before all else, be armed.” As of right now, Sheikh Tamim’s best weapon is the people’s support. With public backing, he will be able to fend off vagaries of power and outside threats.

“The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.” Sheikh Tamim cannot rely on the counsel of “yes men” and must have advisors who hold a diverse array of opinions.

Lastly, “it is much more secure to be feared than to be loved.” The destiny of the republics and monarchies of fear, whose skeletons litter political history, past and present, serves as a reminder that, on this particular count, Machiavelli is to be ignored.

Dr Larbi Sadiki is a Senior Lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, and author of Arab Democratization: Elections without Democracy  (Oxford University Press, 2009) and  The Search for Arab Democracy: Discourses and Counter-Discourses  (Columbia University Press, 2004).

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