Qatar and its Emir; He'll Do it His Way
By Economist 27/5/10
May 31, 2010 - 6:27:14 AM
THE economy of the Gulf emirate of Qatar is making even China’s look sluggish. This year it is set, by one estimate, to swell by more than 23%. Last year it grew by 10%, the year before by 13%. The IMF reckons the country’s GDP per head rose last year to nearly $84,000 at purchasing-power parity, the world’s highest figure, far above the United States’ $46,000 and Britain’s $35,000 and easily topping the rich-list of the 22-country Arab League, with Kuwait trailing on $38,000 and Saudi Arabia well behind on $23,000. Congo and Zimbabwe, by contrast, come bottom of the IMF’s table, at $332 and $355 per head.
Behind these figures the government of this little promontory that sticks into the Gulf off the east coast of Saudi Arabia is being careful not to let the bonanza go to its head—as happened down the coast in the overreaching emirate of Dubai. With fewer than 300,000 Qatari citizens among its 1.7m inhabitants, Qatar is unarguably a success. In almost every respect it is managing, as the diplomatic jargon goes, to punch far above its bantam weight.
The reason for this happy state of affairs is fourfold. First, it is the largest producer and exporter of liquefied natural gas in the world, yet is dramatically expanding output. Second, its emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, may be the most dynamic of the Arab world’s leaders, and in Sheikha Mozah has the feistiest of wives. Third, it has an unusually independent foreign policy, which has turned the emirate into a diplomatic hub. And fourth, it is the home of Al Jazeera, the Arab world’s most influential television channel (see article).
The emir, now 58, ousted his father in 1995 in a coup. Since then he has consolidated his rule, spread his country’s vast wealth across the realm, and made his influence felt far afield, in Washington, London and beyond.
This year it is reported that the country’s sovereign-wealth fund, under the aegis of the Qatar Investment Authority, may invest some $30 billion abroad. It is set to increase its 17% share in Volkswagen, Europe’s biggest carmaker. Areva, the French nuclear group, is another candidate for investment. The authority already owns 7% of Barclays, a British bank, a quarter of J Sainsbury, Britain’s third-biggest supermarket chain, and a chunk of London’s Canary Wharf. This month it bought Harrods, London’s most famous shop.
No less spectacularly, Sheikha Mozah’s Qatar Foundation, which is bent on bringing world-class education and culture to the state, has spent billions of dollars to lure a bunch of the best American universities to Qatar, including Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Georgetown, Northwestern and Texas A & M. Sheikha Mozah has been the driving spirit behind such spectacular schemes as the Museum of Islamic Art, designed by a Chinese-American architect, I.M. Pei. Every cultural project is emphatically cosmopolitan.
The emir, a keen sports fan, has also brought an array of big-prize competitions to his state, including football, golf and tennis, that tempt the world’s top players. Now Qatar is bidding to host the football World Cup in 2022. With temperatures above 40º Celsius when the tournament would be held, the bid’s chief promoter says the latest technology would be harnessed to blow cool air into the stadiums to reduce the heat to the mid-20s. Forget the expense.
But the emir’s most striking achievement is diplomatic. The Americans are still his closest ally, shoving the slower-moving British, the Gulf’s former imperial power, into second place. A huge American base is a forward headquarters of America’s Central Command, which oversees Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet the emir keeps on good terms with Iran, exchanging cordial visits with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Earlier this year the two signed a defence pact, whose detail remains vague.
And the emir has managed to turn Qatar into a peacemaking hub, albeit that he has not always settled the conflicts at hand. His biggest recent success was in persuading—some say paying—Lebanon’s rival parties to come together in November to form a unity government after months of deadlock: the emir is said to have virtually locked the Lebanese leaders in a room and told them to come out only after they had done a deal. Sudan’s government and rebels have made headway towards peace under the emir’s aegis, with President Omar al-Bashir several times visiting Qatar, despite requests by the International Criminal Court that he be arrested and sent to The Hague to face war-crimes charges. No way, said the ever-emollient emir.
Most controversially, and sometimes to the irritation of fellow Arab leaders of beefier places such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the emir has sought to make peace between the Palestinians and Israel, which, along with Hong Kong and Singapore, he is said to admire as the perkiest of mini-states. Israel enjoyed the rare Gulf privilege of having a permanent trade mission in Qatar until its closure during the Gaza war a year-and-a-half ago. The emir has offered to reopen it, provided that Israel lets building materials back into Gaza but the Jewish state’s prime minister has so far rejected the idea. At the same time, the emir has made a point of hosting the leaders of Hamas, the Islamist movement that controls Gaza and whose senior figures are often in Qatar.
Down the golden street
Still, discomfiting spectres lurk. One is a glum sense among many indigenous Qataris, despite all those shiny new foreign education establishments, that they are being swamped by incomers and done out of serious jobs. Most of the glamorous new projects are run, at the executive level, by outsiders, with Qataris sometimes tokens at the top. Moreover, the dizzy pace of modernisation has led some Qataris to worry that their identity is being eroded.
Another spectre is democracy. The emir does not pretend he is anything but a benevolent modernising autocrat. He and some of his fellow Qatari sheikhs, often tribal leaders in their own right, hold the traditional majlis where citizens can present petitions and air their problems. But Qatar is essentially a family show.
The emir’s prime minister, Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, is a cousin. Of the 19 key ministers reckoned to run the place, seven are al-Thanis, as is the central bank’s governor. Two belong to the emir’s mother’s family, the al-Attiyahs, who also provide the army chief of staff. Sheikha Mozah’s clan, the al-Missneds, are big in the security service and elsewhere. A new constitution has promised to let two-thirds of a toothless advisory council be elected. But the poll has been put off.
One day, perhaps, an educated middle class may emerge to call for more accountability and a bigger slice of the wealth. Jealousies could yet rumble within the ruling family. The 1.4m-plus foreigners, most of them from India and Sri Lanka and many still paid a pittance amid such riches, may one day demand better working conditions and rights. But there is no sign yet that the oil-and-gas money is running out or that the emir cannot continue to please his people by treating them generously and giving them the pride that has come with Qatar’s bumptious appearance on the world map. Qataris, at least indigenous ones, have plainly never had it so good.
Source: Ocnus.net 2010