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Backstory: The royal couple that put Qatar on the map

(Page 2 of 2)

Hamad, the eldest of the emir's five sons, returned home and was commissioned as lieutenant colonel in the Qatari armed forces, quickly rising to commander in chief of the forces, overseeing modernization of the military. He married a cousin, which cemented a problematic political alliance. He married Sheikha Mozah, because she caught his fancy. And he married yet again, solidifying another alliance with another cousin.

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Everything one might expect. Nothing really new in the desert. Yet.

During these years, Sheikh Khalifa was busy creating a benevolent welfare state, complete with free healthcare for the people – and, reportedly, Swiss bank accounts for himself. By the end of his 23-year rule, the emir had cultivated a taste for the extravagant, and spent significant time out of the country, often on the French Riviera, leaving the day-to-day rule to Hamad. "Don't make any changes" seemed to be the fatherly advice offered from the luxury hotel suites across Europe to the earnest young man in charge back home.

Why, indeed, make any changes? The nation's riches endowed its 200,000 citizens with free education, healthcare, housing, utilities, and one of the highest per capita incomes in the world: between $20,000 and $30,000 today.

But Hamad – young, intelligent, well educated, and by the mid-1990s heading a fast-growing family of new-generation al-Thanis – was restless.

"Think Spain in the 16th century," suggests James Reardon Anderson, dean of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service outpost in Qatar. "That country, too, had a huge windfall, but all they did was reinforce the feudal system – and so eventually went into receivership. Qatar was at a similar moment in history and ... [Hamad] recognized it and did not want to squander it. He is savvy."

In the summer of 1995, after getting the blessings of the various al-Thani factions, Sheikh Hamad staged a bloodless coup, calling his father at a Zurich hotel, according to local legend, to inform him of the change. His father, so it is told, hung up.

Determined to cling to power, the elder sheikh disowned his son and returned to the Gulf to gather support among the tribes for a countercoup. Sheikh Hamad responded in typically modern fashion – by hiring a big US law firm to help freeze money, reported to be in the billions, that his father had in bank accounts around the world.

Sheikh Hamad was in his mid-40s when he took Qatar's reins of power, in a region where the median age of rulers at the time was 60. He was of a new generation, open to the sorts of social, technological, economic, and political ideas from outside that his elders had never known. And, surrounding himself with young, Western-educated advisers, the new emir got right down to the business of remaking the national agenda of this traditional Wahhabi land. Since then, Qatar has not only reformed and redefined itself, it has begun to play an international role, both on TV, via the emir's Al Jazeera but also as a US ally in the Middle East.

Sheikha Mozah need not have been sad on that wedding day long ago – for nothing was going to turn out as expected. And she would get that chance to fight her father's fight for reform after all.

Next: Part 2 – a modern marriage reforms a traditional nation.