In a voluntary transfer of power to his 33 - year - old son, Crown Prince Tamim, the emir emphasized the need for “young blood”. The move is unprecedented in the Persian Gulf region where dynastic monarchies typically only relinquish power on their deathbed.
Those words emphasizing vigor and fresh thinking can be seen as an oblique, but deliberately, aimed swipe at Qatar’s tacit regional rival - Saudi Arabia. Both despots share the same Wahhabi dogmatism, and to a point they are allies in their agenda of animosity towards Shia Iran. But that fragile alliance belies a seething jealousy born of feudal rivalry for primacy.
Saudi Arabia may be the world’s biggest oil producer, but relatively tiny Qatar, jutting out from the Arabian Peninsula, has the planet’s third largest known reserves of natural gas. With a population of only two million compared with Saudi Arabia’s 27 million, that hydrocarbon abundance gives Qatar a per capita wealth four times that of Saudi Arabia with none of the latter’s many social problems of youth unemployment and income inequality.
In recent years, Qatar has been using its overflowing coffers to buy friends: investing in European capitals, media, hotels, industries and football teams and burnishing a “modernizing” image through slick media outlets like Al Jazeera TV.
Where Qatar is promoting an image of innovation and youthful exuberance, the more powerful neighboring Saudi kingdom is by seeming contrast in the grip of a chronic power - struggle between aging successors to King Abdullah. The infirmed Saudi king, aged 89, has already outlived two of his Crown Princes, and the long - delayed hereditary handover has stoked resentment between a clan of brothers and half - brothers and their elderly sons.
At the comparatively youthful age of 61, the resigning Qatari monarch has taken the region and the world by surprise. He is said to be suffering from unspecified ill health, but a recent trip to Washington, where he met with President Barack Obama, showed him to be apparently in fine fettle. It can be safely assumed that while Sheikh Tamim may be the new face of Qatar, his father and other elders, such as the outgoing Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, will retain the power behind the throne. In other words, it’s more shuffle than shake - up.
The absurd irony of this hereditary soap opera being greeted approvingly by the Western corporate media is that these same media claim to be clamoring for democracy in Syria, with the help of the absolute dictators of Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
Anyway, the nominal succession of power in Qatar is not entirely a surprise. Sheikh Tamim, the fourth of Hamad’s sons, has been groomed to take over for the past decade. In the last three years, the British - Sandhurst educated Crown Prince has undergone intensive preparation with stints in the military as deputy commander and serving on the board of the emirate’s $100 - billion sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority.
Nevertheless, the announcement this week appeared to come out of the blue. The decision for the ostensible shake - up among the Qatari rulers can be seen as a canny public relations exercise that is rooted in the latent power struggle between Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Both are vying for dominance in regional affairs; and both share an equal obsession to undermine Iran.
The two Wahhabi kingdoms have emerged as key players in the Western geopolitical agenda to manage the political turmoil across the Middle East and North Africa. With their vast wealth, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been splurging cash on Tunisia and Egypt to ensure the rise of the closely related Salafist Muslim Brotherhood. The conservative economic and foreign policies of the Muslim Brotherhood are well suited to managing the status quo for Washington, London and Paris, which is also in the interests of the Persian Gulf monarchies.
At times Qatar seems to have outpaced its larger Saudi neighbor for gaining influence. Qatar’s patronage, for example, towards Hamas in the Palestinian territories has served to give the House of Al Thani a certain amount of kudos in the wider Arab region, although that embrace seems to have worn thin of late and is increasingly seen as another empty PR gesture.
On a more sinister level, the Wahhabi kingdoms have been crucial in bolstering covert Western militarism in the region. In a reprise of their weapons - supplying role in Libya to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Saudi Arabia and Qatar are again serving as the arms conduits for NATO in its regime - change operation in Syria. The Persian Gulf kingdoms have reportedly spent upwards of $50-100 million to arm and pay salaries for the thousands of foreign mercenaries who have gravitated to Syria in the Western bid to topple President Bashar Al Assad.
Saudi Arabia is the more established partner with American and British military intelligence in recruiting and directing Al Qaeda - affiliated mercenaries. The Wahhabi fundamentalism of the Saudi and Qatari rulers afford a controlling influence on the myriad Salafist or Takfiri militants who have come from all over the region to take up arms in Syria against “infidels”. The latter include all Muslims who do not subscribe to their fundamentalist brand of religion, as well as Christians and secularists. Of particular hatred are Shia Muslims and the related Alawite sect.
This extremely intolerant mindset of the Saudi and Qatari - sponsored insurgents in Syria accounts for the appalling indiscriminate violence against civilians over the past two years - with nearly half of the total death toll of 100,000 so far being civilians. Both Qatar and Saudi Arabia have close ties with the foreign Salafist groups in Syria, who make up the bulk of the fighters. The bloodletting can thus be seen as a direct consequence of these kingdoms competing for influence to carve up Syria at the behest of the Western powers.
In recent weeks, as Syrian government forces have begun to gain the upper hand against the militants, Saudi Arabia has reportedly taken a more strident role in arming the militants with heavier firepower in the form of anti - tank and anti - aircraft missiles. The Qatari rulers seem to have deferred to their bigger neighbor in taking this new lead.
Reports that Qatari military officers were involved in smuggling chemical weapons, including the deadly poisonous Sarin, to Al Qaeda - linked militants in Syria may also have had a chafing effect on the Qatar rulers for being caught openly in such terrorist activity.
Earlier this week, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud Al Faisal hosted US Secretary of State John Kerry, with a rallying call that the Western governments must step up their military intervention in Syria. Kerry also met with Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan. In somewhat shrill tones, the Saudis accused the Syrian government of Bashar Al Assad of conducting “genocide” against its people. The Saudis also sought to implicate Iran in assisting President Assad militarily with Iranian troops inside Syria - a claim that Tehran strenuously denies.
It is clear from this that Saudi Arabia in particular fears that the Western - Wahhabi axis is in danger of losing the covert war of aggression in Syria, which would register a grave blow to the geopolitical interests of the House of Saud. Saudi Arabia is therefore recklessly escalating the militarist agenda and is egging on the US and other Western powers to do likewise.
In this gear - change by Saudi Arabia over Syria, the Qatari rulers are likely to be left feeling sidelined of late. On the same day this week that Saudi Arabia was calling for major military intervention in Syria, the Qataris announced to the world their “dramatic news” of “fresh blood and fresh thinking” with a generational succession to power in the emirate.
Make no mistake: Qatar is just as capable and willing as Saudi Arabia in waging the cynical dirty war in Syria on behalf of the imperialist powers. But the sneaking feeling is that the more PR - savvy smaller sheikhdom couldn’t resist a PR opportunity to steal the thunder from its lumbering Saudi rival. Such is the world of treacherous ‘allies’.
By Finian Cunningham