Ras al-Khaimah leader’s passing leaves a divided legacy

01 October 2010

Power struggle likely to ensue between new ruler and former heir apparent

After a long period of ill-health, Ras al-Khaimah ruler Shaikh Saqr bin Mohammed al-Qasimi died on 27 October, aged 92.

The world’s longest-serving monarch, taking power in March 1948 - when Harry Truman occupied the White House, and King Abdulaziz reined supreme in Saudi Arabia - his passing marks the end of an era for Gulf dynastic politics.

Having ousted his own uncle, Shaikh Sultan, in a bloodless palace coup, in latter years Shaikh Saqr himself had to witness a bitter family power struggle that pitted younger members of the al-Qasimi clan against each other in the battle to succeed him.

Shaikh Saqr remained the most independent among the seven emirate rulers, only consenting to join the federation in February 1972, several months after its December 1971 foundation. This delay followed his refusal to relinquish a claim of sovereignty on the Tunbs islands, which were occupied by Iranian troops on 30 November 1971 – a tragedy that he never got over.

That independent frame of mind saw Ras al-Khaimah resist federalising influences from Abu Dhabi. Yet with its hydrocarbons-bereft economy accounting for barely 1.5 per cent of the UAE’s total GDP, ambitions towards autonomy were always unrealistic.

Shaikh Saqr’s masterstroke was to make judicious use of the federal budget to build up an economy that, while still heavily centred on fishing, trade and agriculture, now also boasts a significant container terminal and successful ceramics and tourism industries. A persistent focus on the importance of education is another of Saqr’s positive legacies to his emirate.

In the 1990s, the RAK ruler ceded much of his powers to his heir apparent and son, Shaikh Khalid bin Saqr, a strong voice for reform. As Crown Prince, Shaikh Khalid helped establish a municipal council and was a keen supporter of women’s rights.

Yet by June 2003, Shaikh Khalid’s more conservative half-brother, Shaikh Saud bin Saqr had ousted him as crown prince, and it is he who now succeeds his father. 

Troublingly for Shaikh Saqr’s legacy, the next few years could see an acrimonious struggle for power play out between two sons with sharply different agendas. Shaikh Khalid has spent the past few years lobbying for support in the US, accusing his half-brother Saud of cosying up to Iran and allowing Ras al-Khaimah to become a haven for terrorists. He retains designs on the top job, but the incumbent is unlikely to give up without a fight.

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