Last month the 61-year-old emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, stepped aside to make room for his son, 33-year-old Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. While there are few details out of Doha, the assumption is that Sheikh Hamad, long rumored to be ill, feels death on his doorstep. He passed power on to his son now to avoid the sort of succession crisis that often plagues the Persian Gulf’s Arab monarchies.
Along with great wealth, Qatar’s new ruler has inherited the world’s most famous television station, Al Jazeera, which since its 1996 inception has been seen by many as largely reflecting Qatari interests. And therein lies the problem. While some commentators have argued that the young emir is taking the helm at an opportune time, in reality what can be divined from Al Jazeera is that the emirate has no coherent policy. The paradox then is that for the young emir to build on the legacy his father has left, he will have to reject much of it. After the model of advice to untested Renaissance rulers, this week Agents of Influence offers counsel to the rising emir.
Congratulations, your excellency, for the maker of all things has favored you from birth, in place and parentage. Since the discovery of oil in 1941, Qatar has become rich beyond your ancestors’ dreams, thanks to the liquefied natural gas of which it is the world’s largest exporter. Of your tiny emirate’s almost 2 million inhabitants, you need share the wealth only among the one-eighth of the population that are Qatari nationals, giving your subjects the highest GDP per capita on earth. The rest—the construction workers from the Asian subcontinent who build your skyscrapers and the European lawyers and executives who steward Qatar’s dreams—seem content with the fact that they are much better compensated in Doha than they ever could be at home.
Your father was only a few years older than you when he removed your grandfather in a bloodless coup in 1995. He made Qatar what it is today, but what really seems to have made him is your mother, Sheikha Moza, the emir’s second wife and his favorite. The region’s rumor mill whispers that it was she who not only sought your advancement, but ensured your survival by arranging for your uncle, Hamad bin Jassem Al Thani, to be retired with your father’s abdication. Your mother, who one imagines would have had no trouble navigating the political intrigues of an Ottoman harem, recognized that the ambitious man who served your father as prime minister and foreign minister would otherwise stand as a threat to you after your father’s imminent death. Now that the realm is secured, it is time to take inventory of your assets.
The former emir adorned Doha with Western jewels, including the 2022 World Cup, European soccer teams, a branch of the Guggenheim museum, outposts of prestigious American universities and research institutions, like Georgetown, Cornell, and Brookings. All of the soft power and prestige your father won was made possible by a single investment he made in 1996 with the creation of an Arabic-language satellite news network that allowed him to project power far beyond the natural ability of your modest emirate.
Indeed, what began with the Sept. 11 attacks might best be described as the “Al Jazeera Decade.” When Al Jazeera journalists transmitted messages from Osama Bin Laden and his colleagues and sided with anti-American and pro-Saddam forces after the 2003 invasion it angered the Americans and thereby galvanized the Arabs, raising the station’s profile. There was finally, it seemed, a TV station that broadcast Arab power and dignity, outrage and resistance throughout the world.
It’s sometimes said that Al Jazeera reflects the policy of Qatar—this may be true, insofar as Qatar appears to have no discernible policy. It’s true that, in foreign affairs, as the Americans and Europeans are fond of saying, there are no permanent friends, only permanent interests—and Qatar’s grand strategy seems to be only to aggravate your much larger and richer neighbors in Saudi Arabia.
Qatar’s policies are variable as the wind. Your father visited Gaza to invest hundreds of millions in support of Hamas, while he was also on friendly terms with the Jewish state that Hamas wishes to destroy. You share the world’s largest natural gas field with your Iranian neighbors while you host the United States military’s central command. To you, a military man, this toying with larger powers perhaps seems dangerous. Having graduated from Sandhurst, surely you understand that, were it not for your alliance with the Americans, a platoon of Swiss Guard bearing only their ceremonial lances could overrun your country’s Pakistani-led armed forces in a matter of hours. The emir and the prime minister saw time and again the limits of their ability to shape the world around them.
At first, Qatar helped rebuild areas demolished in the 2006 war with Israel and brokered an agreement favorable to Hezbollah after the group turned on their Sunni countrymen in 2008. And yet after the uprising against Hezbollah ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad broke out in March, 2011, your predecessors had a change of heart: They dropped Assad and Hezbollah and chose instead to arm and fund their adversaries. The fact that the arms and cash Qatar provided Brotherhood-affiliated rebel units has not brought Assad’s demise any closer, while angering the White House, is yet more evidence that Qatari influence is written in water.
It seems that with the outbreak of the Arab Spring, your father and uncle believed that the Muslim Brotherhood’s time had finally come, a likely boon to Doha, too. Ever since the 1950s, when Egyptian President Gamal abd el-Nasser scattered the Brotherhood across the globe, Qatar has appeared to welcome Islamists. Your father gave Brotherhood preacher Yussuf al-Qaradawi an electronic pulpit with his own show on Al Jazeera. When the Brotherhood came to power in Egypt, Qatar invested its money and prestige in the Brotherhood, helping keep Mohamed Morsi’s government afloat with more than $8 billion in aid.
And now Morsi and the Brotherhood are gone, and the rest of Egypt is angry with you. But the point is not the money or the anger. So what if lots of Egyptians are mad at Qatar and Al Jazeera? Your father and uncle saved them from starving, and the reality is that just as Egypt’s initial blandishments turned to curses, they may soon again turn to praise. The history of your region shows it is unwise to put too much stock in popular acclaim. What matters is reputation—Qatar backed another loser. In spending its prestige so carelessly, Qatar has earned contempt.
Your father and uncle seemed to have seen the world like PR flacks. They were always happy to see their names in bold print and supposed that any publicity was good. They seemed interested in a variation on what American media experts used to call “synergy.” In the 1990s, the idea was for large conglomerates to master various forms of media—from music to books, and television to information technology. Similarly, your father and uncle seemed to want to marry news coverage to political gambits.
Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the outgoing mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg mastered the technique of creating self-fulfilling prophecies. For them it was not magic but an advanced stage of political warfare. The difference between them and your father and uncle is that they actually controlled the political systems of the institutions they sought to shape through the coverage of their media organizations. Because Qatar has no such control over a political network as unwieldy as the Middle East, your father and uncle’s bets merely undermined the power of the network. The other option is to forget about the magic and make Al Jazeera a real broadcast network, not reflecting Qatar’s fitful ambitions and political amusements, but embodying the values of a real country.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).