Political tensions register in Doha

20 November 2012

Qatar’s crown prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani is assuming a greater role in government, but potentially pitting him against the country’s prime minister

When Qatar announced salary increases of up to 120 per cent for public sector workers in September 2011, it was remarkable for two reasons. Firstly, it was another dramatic sign of Doha’s willingness to use its wealth for everything from international acquisitions to supporting its regional diplomatic efforts. Secondly, it was not announced by either of Qatar’s two most prominent political figures.

The pay rise announcement, estimated to cost about $3bn a year by Qatar National Bank, came from neither Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, nor his prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani. Instead, it came from the emir’s second son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. That such a populist measure came from the Crown Prince is symbolic of efforts to try and build his profile domestically and strengthen his position for an eventual handover of power.

Increased visibility

Following the pay hikes, which primarily benefited military personnel, Sheikh Tamim, who is only 32, has taken on further responsibility. “Sheikh Tamim has become more visible over the past two years,” says one analyst in Doha.

His positions now include being chairman of supreme councils on the economy, education and healthcare, the Public Works Authority (Ashgal), head of Doha’s bid for the 2020 Olympics, chairman of Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), and deputy commander in chief of the army. The last is particularly important as it also covers domestic security. He has become increasingly prominent in receiving foreign dignitaries.

For now, Qatar has so much going on domestically and internationally – with a massive infrastructure investment in preparation for the football World Cup in 2022 and an increasingly active role in regional politics – that an extra pair of hands is necessary. But the potential for tension is rising as Sheikh Tamim’s increasing prominence risks encroaching on the prime minister, who remains a towering figure in Qatari politics and business, both domestically and internationally.

Presently, the emir and the prime minister lead Qatar’s foreign policy, which has taken an increasingly assertive stance in recent years. The emirate has supported rebel groups in Libya and Syria, provided financial aid to Egypt after the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, and supplied aid to Gaza after the emir’s high profile visit there in late October. The emir has stepped back from domestic affairs, handing over considerable responsibility to Sheikh Tamim.

The prime minister, who also serves as foreign minister, is chief executive officer of QIA and splits his time between international deal-making, diplomatic efforts, and domestic roles, including being chairman of Qatar Airways.

“Now there is enough going on for Sheikh Tamim to do without seriously diminishing what the emir and prime minister are doing,” says the local analyst. “But there may come a time when their [the crown prince and the prime minister’s] interests overlap and then the emir could have to step in.”

Political camps

Although the grooming of Sheikh Tamim as his father’s successor is commonplace for Gulf monarchies, it has led to suggestions that the policymaking landscape is divided into two camps, says Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the London School of Economics.

“I suspect the emir and Sheikha Mozah [the crown prince’s mother] are trying to smooth the way for Sheikh Tamim’s succession by strengthening him vis-a-vis the prime minister,” he says.

The creation of bodies such as the supreme councils for education and healthcare are viewed by some as a way for Sheikh Tamim, and also Sheikha Mozah, to seize control of policymaking. In this way, it is similar to the efforts of Bahrain’s Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to increase his control over the government through the Economic Development Board. In Bahrain though, Sheikh Salman was trying to circumvent frustrations with the prime minister, who was viewed as an obstacle to reform. In Qatar, the prime minister is a key figure of support to the emir and works closely with him on shared strategic goals.

Sources in Qatar say that so far there is little sign of tension as both Sheikh Tamim and the prime minister are focusing on different areas. But the possibility for overlap emerging between the two and how it is handled will be one of Qatar’s biggest political concerns.

Sheikh Tamim’s key positions

  • Head of the Qatar Olympic Committee
  • Member of the International Olympic Committee
  • Head of the Doha 2020 Olympic Bid Committee
  • Head of the Upper Council of the Environment and Natural Sanctuaries
  • Chairman of the Supreme Council for the Environment and Natural Reserves
  • Chairman of the Supreme Education Council
  • Chairman of the Supreme Council of Information and Communication Technology
  • Chairman of the Public Works Authority (Ashghal) and the Urban Planning and Development Authority
  • Chairman of the board of directors at Qatar Investment Authority
  • Chairman of the board of regents of Qatar University
  • Chairman of the Doha Asian Games Organising Committee in 2006
  • Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Qatar Armed Forces
  • Deputy Chairman of the Ruling Family Council
  • Vice-president of the Supreme Council for Economic Affairs and Investment
  • Deputy chairman of the High Committee for Coordination and Follow Up

Key fact

The emir has stepped back from domestic affairs, handing over responsibility to Sheikh Tamim

Source: MEED

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