By Deccan Walsh
January 22 2018
For the emir of Qatar, there has been little that money can’t buy.
As a teenager he dreamed of becoming the Boris Becker of the Arab world, so his parents flew the German tennis star to Qatar to give their son lessons. A lifelong sports fanatic, he later bought a French soccer team, Paris Saint-Germain, which last summer paid $263 million for a Brazilian striker — the highest transfer fee in the history of the game.
He helped bring the 2022 World Cup to Qatar at an estimated cost of $200 billion, a major coup for a country that had never qualified for the tournament.
Now at age 37, the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, has run into a problem that money alone cannot solve.
Since June, tiny Qatar has been the target of a punishing air and sea boycott led by its largest neighbours, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Overnight, airplanes and cargo ships bound for Qatar were forced to change course, diplomatic ties were severed and Qatar’s only land border, a 40-mile stretch of desert with Saudi Arabia, slammed shut.
Not even animals were spared. Around 12,000 Qatari camels, peacefully grazing on Saudi land, were expelled, causing a stampede at the border.
Qatar’s foes accuse it of financing terrorism, cosying up to Iran and harbouring fugitive dissidents. They detest Al Jazeera, Qatar’s rambunctious and highly influential satellite network. And — although few say it openly — they appear intent on ousting Qatar’s young leader, Tamim, from his throne.
Tamim denies the accusations, and chalks up the animosity to simple jealousy.
“They don’t like our independence,” he said in an interview in New York in September. “They see it as a threat.”
The boycott turned out to be the first strike of a sweeping campaign by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, that has electrified the Middle East. Obsessed with remaking his hidebound country and curbing the regional ambitions of its nemesis, Iran, the young, hard-charging Saudi has imprisoned hundreds of rivals at a five-star hotel in Riyadh, strong-armed the prime minister of Lebanon in a failed stab at Iran and stepped up his devastating war in Yemen.
The Saudi prince has shaped the Trump administration’s approach to the Middle East and his endeavours could have far-reaching consequences, potentially driving up energy prices, upending Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and raising the chances of war with Iran.
The Qatar dispute is perhaps the least understood piece of the action, but it has a particularly nasty edge.
In September, at a normally soporific meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, Saudi and Qatari diplomats exchanged barbed epithets like “rabid dog” and heated accusations of treachery and even cruelty to camels. “When I speak, you shut up!” yelled Qatar’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Sultan bin Saad al-Muraikhi.
“No, you are the one who should shut up!” his Saudi counterpart shouted back.
The highly personalized rancour has the unmistakable air of a family feud. Qataris, Saudis and Emiratis stem from the same nomadic tribes, share the same religion and eat the same food. So their dispute has shades of quarrelling cousins, albeit ones armed with billions of dollars and American warplanes.
The crisis took an alarming turn last week when the Emirates accused Qatar’s warplanes of harassing two Emirati passenger airliners as they crossed the Gulf. Untrue, said Qatar, which fired back with its own accusation that Emirati warplanes had already breached its airspace twice.
From Pearl Divers to Porsche Drivers
That the other Gulf countries even care about Qatar enough to despise it is a relatively new development.
For much of the 20th century, the country was a barren Persian Gulf backwater where pirates once lurked. Its people were desperately poor, typically diving for pearls in the summer and herding camels in the winter. For decades they lagged far behind their Saudi neighbours, who were in the midst of a heady oil boom. The ruling al-Thani family was riven by vicious internecine squabbles and periodic coups.
Then, in 1971, Qatar struck gas.
The discovery of the world’s largest gas field was initially a source of bitter disappointment. “People hoped for oil,” said Ahmed bin Hamad al-Attiyah, a former energy minister. But by the 1990s, new technology allowed gas to be liquefied and exported in tanker ships.
The emir, Tamim’s father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, took a huge gamble. Ignoring naysayers, he poured $20 billion into a sprawling liquefaction plant at Ras Laffan, on Qatar’s north coast, with help from the energy giant Exxon Mobil. The company was then headed by Rex W. Tillerson, who is now secretary of state.
The bet paid off spectacularly. Gas boomed, and by 2010 Qatar accounted for 30 percent of the global market.
Since then, Qatar’s citizens, today numbering 300,000, have become very rich, very fast. Their average income of $125,000 is the highest in the world, over twice that of the United States or Saudi Arabia. The state cocoons them with free land, cushy jobs and American universities. Gleaming supercars and limousines cruise along Doha’s palm-lined corniche. Poor Qataris are hard to find.
The metamorphosis was equally dramatic for the Thanis. Once the lords of a desolate peninsula of sand dunes and salt flats, they have become strutting sophisticates on the global stage: style icons who are celebrated in Vanity Fair and Vogue; art titans who splurge hundreds of millions on a Cézanne or a Gauguin; and media moguls who built Al Jazeera, the groundbreaking television network that helped fan the Arab Spring in 2011.
In June, Qatar’s national colours lit up the Empire State Building, in which it owns a stake, a mark of its punchy ambition.
But Qatar’s swagger is deeply contentious among its neighbours. In their reach for global influence, the Thanis have pursued ambidextrous, sometimes contradictory policies — preaching the virtues of peace, education and women’s rights while bankrolling Islamist extremists in Syria and hosting the biggest United States military base in the Middle East.
To Saudi Arabia and the Emirates — and Bahrain and Egypt, who have joined them in the boycott — Qatar is a nation of vexatious meddlers, intoxicated by its own wealth, that needs to be cut down to size.
Three duelling, headstrong royals are at the centre of the dispute.
Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed, 32, is leading a campaign to overhaul and energize his stultified society, including with outlandish proposals such as a $500 billion city on the Red Sea run by robots. He has a staunch ally in Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, 56, the hawkish crown prince of the Emirates, who has built a formidable military and shares his Saudi counterpart’s deep hostility toward Iran.
Both princes are arrayed against Tamim, the emir of Qatar. A towering man with a diplomatic mien, Tamim is in many respects a classic Gulf potentate: educated like his father at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England, he has three wives and 10 children, and lives in several luxurious palaces in Doha, a futuristic city of glass towers and curling highways.
His rise to power in 2013, at the age of 33, offered a stark contrast with the gerontocracy of Saudi Arabia, where rulers clung to their thrones till reaching their deathbeds. And his easy manner belies a stubborn streak that his neighbours see as the mark of a dangerous gadfly.
The baroque feuding among the three leaders — a twisting tale of cyber espionage, propaganda salvos, palace intrigue and high-stakes desert hunts — is worthy of an ancient Gulf power drama. Played by rich men in flowing white robes known as Thobes, it has been called the “Game of Thobes.” But it also represents a profound moment of reckoning for the glimmering city-states of the Gulf.
Having largely avoided the turmoil of the Arab Spring in 2011, they find themselves hurtling toward an uncertain new economic and political order. At the center of the tumult is Qatar, the Lilliputian contender that for years punched above its weight and is now thrust into the fight of its life.
Openness, to a Point
In downtown Doha, behind the imposing palace where the emir holds court twice a week, lies a discreet new museum that tells an ugly story with bracing honesty.
Through a series of polished exhibits, the museum, the Bin Jelmood House, delves into Qatar’s ignominious history of slavery, which was not abolished here until 1952. An evocative video recreates the suffering of the African slaves shipped from Zanzibar to dive for pearls, the mainstay of Qatar’s economy until the mid-20th century. A price list outlines the trade’s heartless calculations: 1,200 rupees, then about $550, for a driver in 1926; 1,500 rupees for a cook in 1909.
The museum, in its willingness to openly address the sins of the past, mirrors the image the Thanis seek to project for their country — open and enlightened, less dour than archconservative Saudi Arabia, more restrained than freewheeling Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
While Saudi women will finally be allowed to drive in June, Qatari women have been driving for decades. In Qatar, there are cinemas, bars and even female race jockeys. Christians can worship openly. Although Qataris share the puritanical Wahhabi strand of Islam with Saudi Arabia, there are no public beheadings or other spectacles that offend the modern conscience.
Tamim lauds his country’s democratic values. In 50 years, he recently predicted, Al Jazeera will be seen to have “changed the whole idea of free speech in the region.” In many respects, it already has.
But the openness goes only so far.
In 2012, a Qatari poet was sentenced to life in prison for insulting the royal family. (Tamim pardoned him in 2016.) Al Jazeera’s Arabic channel offers blistering coverage of other Arab heads of state but treats Qatar’s royals with kid gloves. Since 2016, the authorities have blocked Doha News, a rare online news outlet that provides critical reporting. In 2005, the government stripped 5,000 tribesmen, accused of disloyalty, of their Qatari nationality.
Although foreign workers make up 90 percent of Qatar’s three million residents, they have paltry rights, and Qatar’s World Cup preparations have been marred by a stream of reports by human rights organizations about abuses of migrant workers. A new law announced in October could significantly improve the situation if it is put in place.
Even the slavery museum is not quite as it seems. To avoid offending Qataris about a delicate aspect of their history, it opened in 2015 without the fanfare usually accorded a royal project.
As a result, few Qataris seem to have heard of the museum, and it is often empty.
For over a century, Qatar’s rulers were plagued by insecurity, usually at the hands of their own relatives.
Tamim’s grandfather toppled a cousin as emir in 1972, only to be pushed from the throne himself by his son, Hamad, in 1995. The ousted emir, who learned of his fate while on vacation in Switzerland, denounced his son as an “ignorant man” and then retreated into exile.
Once the gas billion flowed, starting in about 2000, family tensions eased, paving the way for an ambitious, reform-minded cast of royals.
Tamim’s mother, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned, 58, is one of the most famous people in the Arab world, known for her glittering gowns, ageless looks and advocacy of education and social issues. Sheikha Mozah, as she is known, behaves like a Western-style first lady, speaking at United Nations conferences and touring refugee camps in safari wear with a lightly bound scarf over her head.
She carved out her own power base through a multibillion-dollar foundation that created a philharmonic orchestra by recruiting musicians from 30 countries, built an $8 billion research hospital and brought branches of American universities, including Georgetown, Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon and Texas A&M, to Qatar.
Tamim’s younger sister, Mayassa, is Qatar’s culture Czarina — an art world behemoth who, at the age of 30, had an estimated annual budget of $1 billion. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York typically spends about $30 million on new acquisitions.) In 2008 she cajoled the architect I. M. Pei out of retirement to build the acclaimed Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, and later snapped up major works by Gauguin, Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst. When she bought Cézanne’s “Card Players,” with its un-Islamic scene of drinking and gambling, for an estimated $250 million in 2011, it was the world’s most expensive painting.
In Europe, Qatari royals have a reputation as high rollers with a yen for ostentatious real-estate and aristocratic prestige. After the 2008 financial crash, they bought Greek islands, French castles and so many iconic London properties — including Harrods department store, a share in Heathrow Airport and the Shard, western Europe’s tallest building — that it periodically induces anxious headlines in the British press about Qatar’s owning “more of London than the Queen.”
That much is true, British officials say, but Queen Elizabeth II doesn’t seem to mind: She has repeatedly dined at the $400 million Park Lane mansion of Hamad bin Abdullah al-Thani, a suave, thirty something cousin of the emir whose staff members are said to be dressed in the period style of the television series “Downton Abbey.”
In the Middle East, though, Qatar’s rulers have deployed their wealth to assert their independence from their larger neighbours.
For decades, Saudi Arabia, which is 186 times as large, treated Qatar as a virtual vassal state. In the 1940s, Saudi rulers took a slice of Qatar’s modest oil revenues; later they nibbled at Qatar’s territory and dictated its foreign and defence policy.
Tamim’s father, Hamad, accused the Saudis of trying to oust him in a failed coup in 1996 — a bitter episode that has framed the decades of simmering rivalry ever since.
Striking out on their own, the Qataris at first played the role of regional peacemaker, turning Doha into a sort of Geneva-on-the-Gulf where protagonists from wars in Sudan, Somalia and Lebanon could hash out their differences in five-star hotels. They embraced America, hosting a vast air base since 2003, the year of the Iraq war, and won popular influence through Al Jazeera, whose provocative style irked just about every Arab government.
The Qataris hosted leaders from the Palestinian militant group Hamas, causing Israeli officials to call Doha a “Club Med for terrorists.”
But it was the Arab Spring in 2011 that truly set Qatar apart. As grass-roots movements rose up against the established order across the Middle East, the Saudis and Emiratis were alarmed by the growing strength of political Islamists, like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which they feared could spread chaos in their own countries.
Qatar Supported The Islamists.
“We stood by the people,” Tamim told “60 Minutes” in October. “They stood by the regimes. I feel that we stood by the right side.”
The emir could afford to be bold. Qatar had vast wealth, a sprawling American air base just a few miles from his palace and no domestic opposition to speak of.
“There was a feeling they could do anything they wanted, as long as they threw enough money at the problem,” said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, the author of “Qatar and the Arab Spring.” “Their self-confidence was at a peak.”
But in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, frustration was brewing.
A Pair of Princes
Fittingly, the alliance between the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, and his Emirati counterpart, Mohammed bin Zayed, was cemented with a falcon hunt, a cherished rite of Gulf royalty that involves elaborate entourages and great expense — a single hunting falcon can cost $250,000.
In February 2016, the two princes travelled to the eastern desert of Saudi Arabia on a hunting safari, followed by summer shooting expeditions in France and Wales, trips that bonded the hyperactive 32-year-old Saudi and the older, like-minded Emirati. As well as a modernizing vision for their countries, they share a penchant for Shakespearean drama.
After Mohammed bin Salman ousted his rival for the throne in June, royal photographers filmed the prince kissing his rival’s hand, then his knee, in a sign of respect. Hours later the man was locked in his palace.
Their military alliance has drawn accusations of overreach. In Yemen, where they lead a devastating yet ineffective air war against the Iran-aligned Houthi faction, their forces face accusations of committing war crimes and stoking famine.
“They are two peas in a pod who see the need for unusual action in unusual times,” said David B. Roberts, a Gulf expert at King’s College London.
They are also united by a desire to put Tamim in his place.
Until recently, the royal rivalry was most evident in their global contest for the most expensive and attention-grabbing ventures. In the Emirates, Dubai has the world’s tallest building, while Qatar has the 2022 World Cup and a number of American universities.
In the art world, a Saudi royal bought Leonardo da Vinci’s “Salvator Mundi” for $450 million in November, eclipsing Qatar’s Cézanne purchase. The da Vinci painting, reported to have been bought for the crown prince, will hang in Abu Dhabi, which recently opened an extension to the Louvre.
They flame each other through their media. Al Jazeera gives free rein to Saudi dissidents, while Sheikha Mozah is the object of lurid, often misogynistic insults in the Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian media, where she is portrayed as a power-hungry manipulator of weak men.
But at its core the rivalry is political. It matters little that Qatar lost its Arab Spring bets: Across the region, Islamist forces bankrolled by Doha are vanquished or in retreat. Still, Qatar’s neighbours view it with near pathological suspicion.
That mistrust burst into the open in 2014 when Saudi Arabia and the Emirates withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, setting off a diplomatic crisis that ended nine months later with a smooth reassurance from Tamim that he would meet their concerns.
Then last year, without warning, those tensions spiked again.