By James M. Dorsey
Conventional wisdom predicts that 33-year old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani will adhere to his father’s use of sports as a key foreign, defense and security policy tool to embed Qatar in the international community. Experts and pundits suggest that Sheikh Tamim at best will nibble at the fringe of his father’s at times bold policies by expanding the government’s focus on domestic issues. No doubt, Sheikh Tamim has demonstrated his interest in sports as head of the Qatar Olympic Committee and by creating Qatar National Sports Day, a popular annual event on February 14. That move coupled with his chairing of the Supreme Education Council lies at the core of the suggestion that he will focus not only on the emirate’s regional and global projection but also on his country’s domestic affairs. As always, the devil is in the detail. No doubt, outgoing emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani will be remembered as a visionary who put his tiny country on the world map, changed the Middle East and North Africa’s media landscape with the creation of the Al Jazeera television network, offered the Gulf an alternative vision of leadership by stepping aside to make place for a younger generation and turned Qatar into a nation with the world’s highest income per capita of the population. Few Qataris will question the achievements of Sheikh Hamad, who on Tuesday handed over power to his son, a virtually unprecedented step in a region in which rulers hang on to power untill death even if they at times have experienced a deterioration of health that has incapacitated them not only physically but also mentally. A wave of demand of change sweeping the Middle East and North Africa only serves to highlight the significance of Sheikh Hamad’s move. “The time has come to turn a new leaf where a new generation steps forward… Our young men have proven over the past years that they are a people of resolve,” Sheikh Hamad said in a nationally televised address. Sheikh Hamad’s accomplishments notwithstanding, conservative segments of Qatari society with whom Sheikh Tamim at times appeared to empathize have questioned some of the side effects of the emir’s policies, including: Huge expenditure on a bold foreign policy that put Qatar at the forefront of regional demands for greater freedom and change but also earned it significant criticism; Unfulfilled promises of change at home that would give Qataris a greater say in where their country is going; A stark increase in foreign labor to complete ambitious infrastructure projects many of which are World Cup-related and have exposed Qatar for the first time to real pressure for social change; More liberal catering to Western expatriates by allowing controlled sale of alcohol and pork; Potential tacit concessions Qatar may have to make to non-Muslim soccer fans during the World Cup, including expanded areas where consumption of alcohol will be allowed, public rowdiness and dress codes largely unseen in the Gulf state, and the presence of gays.
A discussion in Qatar about possibly transferring ownership of soccer clubs from prominent Qataris, including members of the ruling family, to publicly held companies because of lack of Qatari interest in “the sheikh’s club” illustrates a degree of sensitivity to popular criticism. Sheikh Tamim has moreover enhanced his popularity by his close relationship to Qatari tribes, his upholding of Islamic morals exemplified by the fact that alcohol is not served in luxury hotels that he owns and his accessibility similar to that of Saudi King Abdullah. He was also the driving force behind last year’s replacement of English by Arabic as the main language of instruction at Qatar University. He is further believed to have been empathetic to unprecedented on-line campaigns by Qatari activists against the state-owned telecommunications company and Qatar Airways. Sheikh Hamad appeared to anticipate a potententially different tone under Sheikh Tamim by urging Qataris “to preserve our civilized traditional and cultural values.” Much of the criticism of Sheikh Hamad’s policies have been quietly supported by Saudi Arabia whose relation with Sheikh Hamad, who came to power in a bloodless coup in 1995, has more often than not been troubled. Sheikh Tamim could well bring a different tone to Saudi-Qatari relations. Since the eruption of the crisis in Syria, Sheikh Tamim has been the point man in coordinating policies with the kingdom and instead of the emir greeted guests as they arrived in March for an Arab summit in Doha. “Sheikh Tamim will not rock the boat. He is well-versed and immersed in Qatari vision and policy. He understands the importance to Qatar of sports. At most, he will be more publicly embracing of traditionalism in what remains at the bottom line a conservative society,” said a Qatari with an inside track. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute of Fan Culture, and the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog.