It was a very quiet coup. In fact, Qatari officials prefer to describe the events of 27 June as a change of leadership.
‘A coup?’ laughed one Doha civil servant. ‘Where are the tanks, where are the rival soldiers battling it out on the street? If I hadn’t switched on the television and seen with my own eyes the new emir being greeted by well-wishers in the emiri diwan, I would have assumed that it was just another ordinary day in the life of Doha.’
Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani’s assumption of power may have been the most significant political development in Qatar for 23 years and the first change in a GCC head of state for 14 years, but the event is destined to go down as one of the smoothest transfers of power ever recorded.
Within hours of the takeover announcement, Sheikh Hamad had received the backing of the ruling family and endorsement from the consultative council. By the end of 28 June, three of the permanent members of the UN security council – the US, France and the UK – had indicated that the affair, in their eyes, was an internal matter, while Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd had sent his congratulations.
And it is not only the international community that has reacted swiftly to the change in leadership. For business, the elevation of Sheikh Hamad holds out the promise of a more dynamic and vigorous economic policy, and of a more efficient decision making process in Doha.
Certainly, Sheikh Hamad’s initial actions have done little to dampen those expectations. Six days after he gained power, Sheikh Hamad issued his first emiri decree, approving the establishment of a formal stock exchange, to be known as the Doha securities market. It was followed a week later by another, providing for the creation of a new investment company, to which foreigners would be allowed to participate. This was followed on 11 July by the announcement of a new cabinet, consolidating his political position.
The main economic task on Sheikh Hamad’s agenda will be to push ahead Doha’s ambitious industrial programme based on North Field gas. His accession has revived hopes that momentum can be regained in Qatar’s quest to become a major gas exporter and petrochemical producer. One reason for the optimism is that as heir apparent, Sheikh Hamad has played over the past three years a pivotal role in getting the state’s first generation of gas-based projects off the ground and earned a reputation as a man international business could deal with.
‘He has been the architect behind the expansion of the industrial base, such as the Qatar Liquefied Gas Company (Qatargas) project, and the driving force behind the liberalisation process,’ says one local banker.
Of equal significance is the widely-held conviction that Sheikh Hamad’s accession brings to an end 12-months of political uncertainty.
From mid- 1994 up to late June this year, the Doha rumour mill had been dominated by one subject: the growing policy differences between Sheikh Hamad and his father, the former emir Sheikh Khalifa Bin Hamad al-Thani, over what future direction Qatar should take. The former was seen as an advocate of accelerated change, while the latter was viewed as a supporter of more cautious and conservative development.
In his first statement after becoming emir, Sheikh Hamad alluded to the difficulties. ‘As you are aware our country has gone in the previous period through difficult circumstances that are not unknown to you,’ he said. ‘Those circumstances compelled me very regretfully to make up my mind with the consent, support and allegiance of the ruling family … to assume the reins of power in the country in succession to my father, who shall remain a dear father to us all.’
He went on. ‘It is the necessity for the country’s sake and its interests…I vow and pledge myself to spare no effort to work for the high standing and progress of this country and welfare of its citizens.’
Sheikh Hamad’s accession has cleared the air in Doha. ‘At least now, there isn’t a cloud hanging over us, about who is in control,’ concludes one Doha-based diplomat. Local businessmen tend to agree. ‘A ship cannot operate with two captains,’ says one. ‘Now, we have one, we will be able to steer a smoother course.’
The fact that the former emir was away in Europe at the time of the takeover obviously facilitated the transfer of power and provided an opportunity for a clean break. Sheikh Hamad’s position has also benefited from strong support among leading members of the council of ministers (cabinet).
However, the magnitude of recent events will demand a period for the dust to settle. In his first comments after the takeover, the Foreign Affairs Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jabr al-Thani indicated on 5 July that the ruling family had agreed to appoint the new emir’s eldest son, Sheikh Mashaal Bin Hamad al-Thani, as heir apparent.
‘The succession comes back to the eldest son. All the royal family have agreed on that and the country operates on this principle, as the history of Qatar shows,’ the minister said.
Foreign relations will be high on the new ruler’s agenda. The accession has been accompanied by increased contacts between Doha and its GCC neighbours, which could pave the way for closer co-operation. In an interview on 9 July, Sheikh Hamad said he would attempt to sort out the long-running border disputes with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Speaking in conciliatory tones, he indicated that Doha was prepared to withdraw a complaint against Manama, presented to the International Court of Justice in the Hague over the Hawar island dispute.
Nevertheless, Doha is set to pursue its independent foreign policy line, maintaining good relations with Iran and calling for greater understanding over the plight of the Iraqi people in light of continuing UN sanctions.
But it is on the economic front that Sheikh Hamad has been quickest to stamp his mark.
The 3 July decree establishing the Doha securities market came two years after the government had first declared its intentions to set up a stock exchange. In announcing the law, the official Qatar News Agency (QNA) said the stock market was designed to boost domestic savings, create new investment opportunities and strengthen co-operation with foreign financial markets, but failed to mention when operations would commence.
‘It was highly symbolic that the new emir chose to pass law 14 (the stock exchange decree) first,’ says a local banker. ‘It was a very good sign to the financial community, reassuring us that business continues, despite recent events, and that Sheikh Hamad is not prepared to sit on important issues, which will benefit the local economy.’
However, the decree is unlikely to herald a head-long rush into privatisation. Says the banker, ‘Everyone is quite excited about the prospect of the exchange and it will certainly act as a catalyst for broadening the range of financing instruments. But in essence all the decree does is to provide a legal framework and an infrastructure. It will take time to work out the mechanics.’
Three weeks after the takeover, portraits of the former emir and his successor were still hanging side-by-side on the walls of public buildings in Doha. The sight gives an air of normality to what by recent standards, have been tumultuous times in one of the Gulf’s smallest capitals.