What’s Next for the Youngest Leader in the Arab World?


The fall of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi will have a ripple effect not only on the prospects for democracy in Egypt, but also for the foreign policy agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood’s most consistent supporter, the small but influential Gulf state of Qatar. Qatar’s ambitious program to support political Islam turned sour in the past year as civil warfare, sectarian strife, and political polarization fractured the revolutionary coalition, and Qatar failed to adapt to the changing times. Its narrow association with the elected Islamist government in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Islamist fighters in Libya and Syria, came to be resented by many in these societies and in the international community.

In the summer of 2013, Qatar is viewed less as a leader of the Arab populist will and more as a partisan in the post-Arab Spring’s political struggles. Meanwhile, Qatar is facing its own internal transition process and generational change. On June 25 the Arab world witnessed the rarely seen spectacle of a sitting ruler at the height of his influence stepping down from power in a peaceful transfer of authority to his son. Yet barely a week into office, Qatar’s young Emir Tamim bin Hamid al-Thani had to grapple with the overthrow of an allied government in Egypt, and with it the collapse of Qatar’s post-Arab Spring strategy. Adding to the disorientation, the chief architect of that policy, the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, also retired from office, opening the way for a new, younger leadership team. The surprising shift in rule and shocking turn in the regional situation has thrown Qatar’s future path and influence into doubt.

That Qatar’s international position can demand such intense scrutiny is itself a testament to the ingenuity and brashness of its former Emir Hamid bin Khalifa al-Thani and his prime minister. Prior to the Emir’s ascendancy in 1995, Qatar was a sleepy emirate, lacking the mercantile culture of its neighbors. Qatar’s emergence as a wealthy petrostate was delayed due to the late development and longer investment cycle of its natural gas fields. Under Emir Hamad, Qatar played catch-up, moving more aggressively than its peers to deploy its new wealth toward societal transformation. Ambitious programs of international engagement and educational reform were pursued. Recognizing that its students were not prepared for the high quality universities that it imported from the West, alone in the Gulf, Qatar commissioned the reworking of its entire K-12 educational system.

Change has Ups and Downs

Qatar brought change to the rest of the Arab world as well. The launch of al-Jazeera transformed the Arab media landscape for good, opening up political space for discussion and consolidating the Arab public into one participatory audience. Just how tightly that public was bound became evident in the spring of 2011, as al-Jazeera broadcast the spread of the popular uprisings, championing the public push for change from Tunisia to Egypt and beyond (although not for its neighbor, Bahrain). Qatar’s material support for armed revolutionaries in Libya and Syria showed just how far Qatar was willing to go to keep ahead of the Arab Spring. Embracing the elevation of popularly-elected Islamist movements and Islamist fighters, Qatar sought to leverage its support for their aspirations into regional influence. The confluence of interests was not lost on the citizens of transitioning states. When the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi narrowly won Egypt’s first post-Mubarak presidential election, one Egyptian paper’s headline screamed, “Congratulations Qatar!”

Qatar may have been misguided in its support for Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated forces from Egypt to Libya and Syria, and the precipitous decline of Qatar’s al-Jazeera is illustrative of this shift. Most observers noted a change in its editorial policyafter the removal of their Director General Wadah Khanfar in September 2011, and replacement by a Qatari royal, Ahmed bin Jassim Al Thani. Since then, critics argued that al-Jazeera lost its broader (although always Islamist-sympathetic) appeal and became more narrowly a tool of Qatari foreign policy. The network whose broadcasts were initially cheered in Tahrir square by revolutionaries in January 2011 has since been demonized in the Egyptian street in the wake of the June 30 demonstrations—its reporters were hounded out of a military press conference, and the offices of its Egyptian affiliate were raided by security forces. Some of its employees were detained and others resigned citing its bias toward the Muslim Brotherhood.

Options Ahead for the New Leadership

How will the young Emir Tamim bin Hamid respond to these setbacks? The cost of persisting in current policies and alliances will rise, given the new government in Egypt, and the mounting pressures for a shift in policy from Qatar’s Gulf Cooperation Council allies who have clashed with Qatar over its support of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations. These states were the first to embrace the new power alignment in Egypt, as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait rapidly pledged $12 billion in financial grants and assistance, although Egypt is still making good use of the $5.5 billion Qatar pledged to the Morsi-led government, which leaves Qatar still in the lead as the single largest donor to Egypt.

Qatar’s recognition of the new Egyptian government is the first indication of a change in direction. This was followed by a ministry of foreign affairs statement expressing concern over the loss of life that occurred on Sunday, as security forces confronted pro-Morsi protestors. The tone of the statements match that of Emir Tamim in his first address to the nation, where he expressed respect for all genuine and effective movements in the region, but pledged that Qatar will not choose one trend over another, nor will accept the division of Arab society by sect or creed. This inclusiveness will need to be more fully realized in Qatar’s policies to regain its standing in Egypt and elsewhere. A shift in tone and policy may be facilitated by new leadership at al-Jazeera, where Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassim has stepped down to take up his new position as minister of economy and trade in the new Qatari cabinet.

In attempting to recapture the big tent forum al-Jazeera once provided, Qatar can draw upon the resources it assembled through its patronage of public intellectuals and Islamist thinkers. These extend beyond the controversial Muslim Brotherhood cleric Youssef al-Qaradawi, to the Christian Palestinian Arab nationalist Azmi Bishara, and to post-Islamist dissidents like the Saudi Mohammed al-Ahmari. Ironically, Qatar’s own Muslim Brotherhood voluntarily disbanded in 1999. Its former Supreme Guide, Dr. Jassem Sultan, anticipated the weaknesses of a closed, secretive organization and set out to create something different. Dr. Sultan’s al-nahda project casts a more open inquiry into Islamic-oriented social change, allowing youth more autonomy to design their own projects with a focus on mentorship to help them succeed.

Youthful Leadership as a Strategic Asset

While having an inexperienced leader at the helm during these difficult times is of concern, Emir Tamim’s best asset may, in fact, be his youth. It was this quality that was highlighted by the former Emir Hamad in his abdication address which read as an ode to new generation:

“Our young people have proved in recent years that they are people of strength and resoluteness who comprehend the spirit of their time and fully understand its necessities while keeping up with what is new. Furthermore, they contribute with their ideas through the process of innovation.”

The speech aligns Qatar on the side of youth in a Gulf and broader Arab region convulsed by generational change. Like the rest of the Arab world, the Gulf states are experiencing a youth bulge with the median age being twenty-seven. This younger demographic is coming of age and embracing an era of technological change and individual empowerment seen across globe, but more pronounced in Gulf where the adoption of internet communication and social media has been rapid and deep. The potential sociocultural impact of these new modes of communication is much more dramatic in countries where deference to elders is expected and where religion imposes real restrictions on public interaction. Our understanding of the political change this may presage is still rudimentary, but the attitude toward authority definitely appears to be shifting as Gulf societies move decisively beyond the generation of leaders who presided over the founding of the modern petro-welfare state. The new generation, raised in comfort, appears much less willing to accept that wealth as a gift from rulers that necessitates acquiescence, and much more willing to question both the competence with which the nation’s wealth is managed and the rules for its distribution.

But There Are Limits

Emir Tamim does not appear poised to turn Qatar’s support for democratic liberation inward. Before abdicating, Emir Hamid issued a law extending the authority of Qatar’s appointed Shura Council into 2016, negating his own promise of parliamentary elections in 2013. Some Gulf youth activists registered their disappointment via twitter, imagining the impact if Emir Hamad had stepped down with an announcement of an elected parliament. Still others seemed impressed with the delegation of power to a new generation, and with Qatar’s clarity of vision, as opposed to the tendency of many older Gulf rulers to just muddle through until a crisis hits. If Emir Tamim can connect with this new generation in substantive ways that further empower them, then Qatar could truly bequeath a revolutionary legacy in the Gulf and regain its stature within the region.

Kristin Smith Diwan is Assistant Professor of Comparative and Regional Studies at the American University School of International Service.

Photo: Embassy of the State of Qatar in Washington DC


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