Sheikh Rattles Persian Gulf In New Role


Normally, palace intrigue in tiny oil sheikhdoms rates little notice. But the ousting of the Old Guard last year in Qatar - and what it means for other deeply conservative Gulf states - has people talking.

Changes have been so significant that Qataris describe them as a "near revolution" led by the younger generation. Even qualms about public use of the "D-word" - democracy - have faded.

But the effect has been felt far beyond the region: Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who took power from his father last year, has turned Qatar into an increasingly willing and crucial element of US security policy in the Gulf.

In a region where American strategic interests - ensuring the free flow of oil to the West - determine policy, and where other longtime US allies such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain face internal threats, Qatar is filling the gap.

Sources close to the emir say that during US Defense Secretary William Perry's recent visit to the region, he told Sheikh Hamad that Qatar had become "the linchpin" of US security strategy in the Gulf.

Despite the fact that Qatar favors easing the sanctions on Iraq and has courted - and been courted by - Iran, American support points to an increasing US trust in Hamad's rule.

For many Qataris, similar trust has been growing in their government. Hamad, who was educated at Britain's Sandhurst Military Academy, has launched reforms that were unthinkable just two years ago. He dropped censorship restrictions, is giving women a high profile role in Qatari society and has promised municipal elections next year.

In the Gulf, where most leaders have held power for more than 25 years - and three of them could not make it to last week's Gulf summit because of ill health - the Qatari delegation's youth stood in marked contrast to the frailty of some of the other delegations.

"Not to take away from the Old Guard, but this change is inevitable," says Sheikh Abdulrahman bin Saud al-Thani, Qatar's ambassador to Washington. "My grandfather traveled by camel for six months to reach Mecca [the Islamic holy pilgrimage site], and now we fly the supersonic Concorde to New York in a few hours. Change is the only constant for us."

Despite Qatar's tiny size - it is smaller than Vermont in population and land mass - the upstart sheikhdom is causing anxiety among stodgy neighbors. In part, this is because it mirrors the youth elsewhere in the region: More than 60 percent of Qatar's population is below 30 years of age. Qatar's fortysomething sheikh has installed equally young officials in nearly all high government posts.

Qataris and diplomats alike describe a society in which all the old rules no longer exist. In one unprecedented move, for example, Sheikha Moza, Hamad's wife, last month headed a high-level delegation to the US to learn about building up higher education in Qatar.

"Like it or not, here you've got the future face of the Gulf," says one senior Western diplomat. "They were all raised differently than their fathers and grandfathers, and they are remarkably well educated. They like change for change's sake, and it is confusing to the regimes around them. It frightens them."

Generational conflict

The palace takeover has not been without skulduggery and drama. Hamad had been de facto emir since the 1991 Gulf war, but when his father, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani was on a trip to Switzerland, his son took over. Using a reported $8 billion he had stashed away, his father vowed to return as the "true emir."

Sheikh Khalifa was seen to be behind a coup attempt against his son in February. A weapons cache big enough for 1,000 soldiers was found near the border with Saudi Arabia. But a truce has been forged.

Saudi leaders feel particularly threatened by Qatar's reforms, since Saudi Arabia has been closed to outside influence and tightly controlled for decades. Threats to the Saudi regime - especially from religious extremists - were manifested in June, when a massive car bomb destroyed a US military housing complex in al-Khobar, killing 19 Americans.

And in nearby Bahrain, political unrest among the majority Shia population against the ruling Sunni monarchy has made "democracy" a taboo subject.

Despite the uneasiness about Hamad's rule among neighbors, most Qataris - and privately many other Gulf citizens - favor the changes.

"I receive calls and letters every other day, from Saudi and Bahrain, from people who think Qatar is a good model. They say they are jealous," says Muhammad al-Musfir, the editor of Al-Rayah, a paper in the capital, Doha. "But Sheikh Hamad is very smart," he says. "He contains the old guard by appointing their sons to top posts."

Still, although democracy is on the lips of more and more Qataris, it is not intended to be the first step toward ending the monarchy - an institution that many Gulf citizens appreciate for its largess.

"Democracy is a relative term in the region," says Ambassador Abdulrahman. "We are talking about increased political participation, not one man, one vote. We are facing the 21st century, and Sheikh Hamad feels we are not ready for it. He wants our children to compete."

US support, US weapons

The job will be easier with American political support, which comes from one of the largest military pre-position agreements in the area. Weapons for an entire US armored brigade - 2,500 soldiers - were set up at desert warehouses over the summer. A similar-sized force sits in nearby Kuwait. And Bahrain has an access agreement with the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. These arrangements cut response time for a troop deployment along Kuwait's border with Iraq from one month - as it was before the Gulf war - to less than a week.

The root of the change is seen in the face of Sheikh Faisal bin Fahad al-Thani, the twentysomething head of planning, economics, and contracts for the state oil firm. Like many of his peers, his degree is from an American university.

"The world is changing," he says with an easy smile. "Before, nobody mentioned democracy. But it is not a threat to the monarchy if done in the right way."

"We have seen the Internet, and we have all been outside and know we can't hide," he says. "We are the first, but the other Gulf countries can't stop the movement because their people want the same thing: more openness, more say in government."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.