BREAKING: long-serving Middle Eastern autocrat removed from power

What? You thought I meant this guy?

"Look at all these important medals I won by bravely ordering people to give me medals!"
“Look at all these important medals I won by bravely ordering people to give me medals!”

No, sorry; it’s this guy:

"This thing on my lip threatens all mankind. I have to step aside to give scientists time to find a way to control it."
“This thing on my lip threatens all mankind. I have to step aside to give scientists time to find a way to control it.”
By the way, the circled bit is Qatar, shown here in regional context.
By the way, the circled bit is Qatar, shown here in regional context.

That second guy is the former Emir of Qatar, Shaykh Hamad b. Khalifah Al Thani, and his removal from power was entirely voluntary, with a peaceful transfer of power to his son and Heir Apparent, Shaykh Tamim b. Hamad Al Thani. This move has been rumored for a few weeks now and will likely also involve the resignation of Qatar’s Prime Minister (who also serves as the country’s foreign minister), Shaykh Hamad b. Jassim Al Thani. If you’re getting the sense that authority in Qatar is all tied up in the House of Thani, you’d be right about that; they’ve ruled Qatar since leading the fight for its independence from Bahrain in the 1820s, for a time as clients of the Ottomans, then of the British, then as independent emirs from 1971 on. Qatar is an absolute monarchy; an assembly exists but can be overruled by the emir, and despite a constitution that provides for direct election of 2/3 of that assembly, elections strangely keep getting scheduled and then postponed.

Qatar is an interesting case of modernization and conservative Islam trying to co-exist. The Thanis are ultra-conservative Wahhabis, just like the Saudi ruling house across the border, but it’s also a country that wants to be open for business with anyone and everyone. Alcohol is available though confined to hotels and a single, state-run liquor store for expatriates (half of whose patrons are, at any given time, in there buying booze for their Qatari friends and hosts). Other religions are openly tolerated, English is widely spoken, and commerce is the name of the game, but the image of an austere, conservative Islamic society is maintained as much as possible. When a country develops overnight from a poverty-stricken Arabian backwater whose economy barely subsisted on fishing and pearl-diving to a country whose fossil fuel reserves have given it the highest per-capita GDP in the world, you may expect some internal inconsistencies to develop, but there’s also enough wealth to spread around to keep the citizenry happy no matter what societal compromises need to be made. To Shaykh Hamad’s credit, he took a long-run view of things, investing the revenues from Qatar’s oil and gas reserves into education, infrastructure, health care, and other efforts to develop Qatar into a business destination to compete with neighboring Dubai, understanding that oil only lasts so long, but business is forever.

There’s also a dark side. Qatar has a pretty lousy human rights record, with some of the abuses you’d expect from an absolutist regime (though as absolutist regimes go the Thanis are on the mild end of the scale) combined with the lousy women’s rights record you’d expect from a Wahhabi regime, and that combined with the peculiar Persian Gulf institution of forced labor imported from South Asia and elsewhere in the Arab world. One of the reasons Qatar has the highest per-capita GDP in the world is that it only has about 250,000-300,000 actual citizens. But you can’t run a wealthy, industrialized society with a quarter of a million people, so Qatar imports a lot of foreign expats and laborers, who outnumber the citizens probably 5-or-6-to-1 but who are treated according to how much the Qataris value their diplomatic or cultural ties to the foreigners’ homes; so, westerners are treated very well, other rich Gulf types also quite well, but Egyptians and Palestinians pretty badly, and Pakistanis, Indians, and Nepalese like indentured servants. The Qataris recruit workers in the latter nations with promises of paychecks fattened with enough Gulf money that they can support their families back home, then once they get to Qatar their passports are taken away and they’re told they owe the government for the cost of their airfare and room and board, so that windfall they were expecting to make is more like “just enough to keep you from starving if you pool your money with a whole bunch of other poor marks we conned over here along with you.”

For a long time Qatar’s most famous institution was the beloved and/or reviled TV news network al-Jazeera, whose Arabic- and English-language stations have been staples in the Middle East and, well, lots of other places that aren’t America, where we’re forbidden from being exposed to news that hasn’t originated in some domestic clown-shop operation like CNN. In recent years, however, al-Jazeera and the Qataris have come under fire for what seems to be an ongoing erosion of the Arabic station’s once-famous editorial independence; it now seems to be pushing an official Qatari point of view, and people are even starting to question the editorial slant of the English-language service. This apparent change at al-Jazeera has coincided with Qatar’s increasing global prominence; it played a significant role in the “Arab Spring” movement and the subsequent civil wars in Libya and Syria, both via al-Jazeera’s reporting and with direct aid to protesters and rebels (and now to the post-revolutionary Egyptian government). Their pattern seems to be aiding militant Sunni extremists against technocratic/secular or Shi’a governments; certainly they are contributing to the wider Sunni-Shi’i conflict that Syria either is or threatens to become.

So that’s Qatar, more or less. What happens under the new emir is anybody’s guess because as far as I can tell nobody seems to know much about him. I was in Qatar when Shaykh Tamim was named as Heir Apparent, replacing his brother Shaykh Jasim b. Hamad Al Thani, and nobody knew what to make of him, or his sudden appointment over his brother, back then either. There are some thoughts that Shaykh Tamim will be more conservative than his father, by which I mean less bold in his foreign affairs, not “more conservative” in a religious sense, but that seems like pure speculation at this point. As to why Shaykh Hamad stepped down, who knows? There have been rumors about his health for a while now; he’s never been a trim guy, so maybe it’s as simple as his declining health. Maybe there were rumblings of discontent about Qatar’s recent international prominence and Hamad elected to step aside before anything escalated, though I tend to doubt this. On the other hand, maybe he just got tired of the demands of power. Michael Collins Dunn at the MidEast Institute blog noted that this puts Qatar in the unique position of having two living ex-rulers; Shaykh Hamad’s predecessor, Shaykh Khalifah b. Hamad Al Thani, who was overthrown in a bloodless coup by Shaykh Hamad in 1995, is still alive, and living in Qatar again after finally being allowed to return in 2004.

Anyway, this was all an excuse for me to link to an old post I wrote when Pope Benedict stepped down, about the abdication of the Ottoman Sultan Murat II in favor of his son, the future Mehmet the Conqueror. It’s a great story about another voluntary abdication, although that one actually didn’t stick, so just go read it already, OK?

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