Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani: Little brother in an Arab family feud

Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in the Qatari capital Doha on Dec 7, 2017.
Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in the Qatari capital Doha on Dec 7, 2017.PHOTO: AFP

DOHA, Qatar (NYTIMES) - For the emir of Qatar, there has been little that money can't buy.

As a teenager he dreamed of becoming the Boris Becker of the Arab world, so his parents flew the German tennis star to Qatar to give their son lessons. A lifelong sports fanatic, he later bought a French soccer team, Paris St.-Germain, which last summer paid US$263 million (S$345 million) for a Brazilian striker - the highest transfer fee in the history of the game.

He helped bring the 2022 World Cup to Qatar at an estimated cost of US$200 billion, a major coup for a country that had never qualified for the tournament.

Now at age 37, the emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, has run into a problem that money alone cannot solve.

Since June, tiny Qatar has been the target of a punishing air and sea boycott led by its largest neighbours, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Overnight, airplanes and cargo ships bound for Qatar were forced to change course, diplomatic ties were severed, and Qatar's only land border, a 40-mile stretch of desert with Saudi Arabia, slammed shut.

Not even animals were spared. Around 12,000 Qatari camels, peacefully grazing on Saudi land, were expelled, causing a stampede at the border.

Qatar's foes accuse it of financing terrorism, cosying up to Iran and harbouring fugitive dissidents. They detest Al-Jazeera, Qatar's rambunctious and highly influential satellite network. And - although few say it openly - they appear intent on ousting Qatar's young leader, Tamim, from his throne.

Tamim denies the accusations, and chalks up the animosity to simple jealousy.

"They don't like our independence," he said in an interview in New York in September. "They see it as a threat."

The boycott turned out to be the first strike of a sweeping campaign by the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, that has electrified the Middle East. Obsessed with remaking his hidebound country and curbing the regional ambitions of its nemesis, Iran, the young, hard-charging Saudi has imprisoned hundreds of rivals at a five-star hotel in Riyadh, strong-armed the prime minister of Lebanon in a failed stab at Iran and stepped up his devastating war in Yemen.

The Saudi prince has shaped the Trump administration's approach to the Middle East and his endeavours could have far-reaching consequences, potentially driving up energy prices, upending Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and raising the chances of war with Iran.

The Qatar dispute is perhaps the least understood piece of the action, but it has a particularly nasty edge.

In September, at a normally soporific meeting of the Arab League in Cairo, Saudi and Qatari diplomats exchanged barbed epithets like "rabid dog" and heated accusations of treachery and even cruelty to camels. "When I speak, you shut up!" yelled Qatar's minister of state for foreign affairs, Sultan bin Saad al-Muraikhi. "No, you are the one who should shut up!" his Saudi counterpart shouted back.

The highly personalised rancour has the unmistakable air of a family feud. Qataris, Saudis and Emiratis stem from the same nomadic tribes, share the same religion and eat the same food. So their dispute has shades of quarrelling cousins, albeit ones armed with billions of dollars and US warplanes.

The crisis took an alarming turn last week when the Emirates accused Qatar's warplanes of harassing two Emirati passenger airliners as they crossed the Gulf. Untrue, said Qatar, which fired back with its own accusation that Emirati warplanes had breached its airspace twice.

'PEOPLE HOPED FOR OIL'

That the other Gulf countries even care about Qatar enough to despise it is a relatively new development.

For much of the 20th century, the country was a barren Persian Gulf backwater where pirates once lurked. Its people were desperately poor, typically diving for pearls in the summer and herding camels in the winter. For decades they lagged far behind their Saudi neighbours, who were in the midst of a heady oil boom. The ruling al-Thani family was riven by vicious internecine squabbles and periodic coups.

Then, in 1971, Qatar struck gas.

The discovery of the world's largest gas field was initially a source of bitter disappointment. "People hoped for oil," said Ahmed bin Hamad al-Attiyah, a former energy minister. But by the 1990s, new technology allowed gas to be liquefied and exported in tanker ships.

The emir, Tamim's father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, took a huge gamble. Ignoring naysayers, he poured US$20 billion (S$26.2 billion) into a sprawling liquefaction plant at Ras Laffan, on Qatar's north coast, with help from energy giant Exxon Mobil. The company was then headed by Rex Tillerson, who is now secretary of state.

The bet paid off spectacularly. Gas boomed, and by 2010 Qatar accounted for 30 per cent of the global market.

Since then, Qatar's citizens, today numbering 300,000, have become very rich, very fast. Their average income of US$125,000 is the highest in the world, over twice that of the United States or Saudi Arabia. The state cocoons them with free land, cushy jobs and US universities. Gleaming supercars and limousines cruise along Doha's palm-lined corniche. Poor Qataris are hard to find.

To Saudi Arabia and the Emirates - and Bahrain and Egypt, who have joined them in the boycott - Qatar is a nation of vexatious meddlers, intoxicated by its own wealth, that needs to be cut down to size.

Three duelling, headstrong royals are at the centre of the dispute.

Saudi Arabia's Mohammed bin Salman, 32, is leading a campaign to overhaul and energise his stultified society, including with outlandish proposals such as a US$500 billion city on the Red Sea run by robots. He has a staunch ally in SheikhMohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, 56, the hawkish crown prince of the Emirates, who has built a formidable military and shares his Saudi counterpart's deep hostility toward Iran.

Both princes are arrayed against Tamim, the emir of Qatar. A towering man with a diplomatic mien, Tamim is in many respects a classic Gulf potentate: educated like his father at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in England, he has three wives and 10 children, and lives in several luxurious palaces in Doha, a futuristic city of glass towers and curling highways.

His rise to power in 2013, at the age of 33, offered a stark contrast with the gerontocracy of Saudi Arabia, where rulers clung to their thrones till reaching their deathbeds. And his easy manner belies a stubborn streak that his neighbours see as the mark of a dangerous gadfly.

The baroque feuding among the three leaders - a twisting tale of cyberespionage, propaganda salvos, palace intrigue and high-stakes desert hunts - is worthy of an ancient Gulf power drama. Played by rich men in flowing white robes known as thobes, it has been called the "Game of Thobes." But it also represents a profound moment of reckoning for the glimmering city-states of the Gulf.

Having largely avoided the turmoil of the Arab Spring in 2011, they find themselves hurtling toward an uncertain new economic and political order. At the centre of the tumult is Qatar, the Lilliputian contender that for years punched above its weight and is now thrust into the fight of its life.

ROYAL SWAGGER

For more than a century, Qatar's rulers were plagued by insecurity, usually at the hands of their own relatives.

Tamim's grandfather toppled a cousin as emir in 1972, only to be pushed from the throne himself by his son, Hamad, in 1995. The ousted emir, who learned of his fate while on vacation in Switzerland, denounced his son as an "ignorant man" and then retreated into exile.

Once gas billions flowed, starting in about 2000, family tensions eased, paving the way for an ambitious, reform-minded cast of royals.

Tamim's mother, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned, 58, is one of the most famous people in the Arab world, known for her glittering gowns, ageless looks and advocacy of education and social issues. Sheikha Mozah, as she is known, behaves like a Western-style first lady, speaking at UN conferences and touring refugee camps in safari wear with a lightly bound scarf over her head.

She carved out her own power base through a multibillion-dollar foundation that created a philharmonic orchestra by recruiting musicians from 30 countries, built an US$8 billion research hospital, and brought branches of US universities, including Georgetown, Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon and Texas A&M, to Qatar.

Tamim's younger sister, Mayassa, is Qatar's culture czarina - an art world behemoth who, at the age of 30, had an estimated annual budget of US$1 billion. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York typically spends about US$30 million on new acquisitions.)

In 2008, she cajoled architect I.M. Pei out of retirement to build the acclaimed Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, and later snapped up major works by Gauguin, Francis Bacon and Damien Hirst. When she bought Cézanne's "Card Players," with its un-Islamic scene of drinking and gambling, for an estimated US$250 million in 2011, it was the world's most expensive painting.

In the Middle East, though, Qatar's rulers have deployed their wealth to assert their independence from their larger neighbours.

For decades, Saudi Arabia, which is 186 times as large, treated Qatar as a virtual vassal state. In the 1940s, Saudi rulers took a slice of Qatar's modest oil revenues; later they nibbled at Qatar's territory and dictated its foreign and defense policy.

Tamim's father, Hamad, accused the Saudis of trying to oust him in a failed coup in 1996 - a bitter episode that has framed the decades of simmering rivalry ever since.

Striking out on their own, the Qataris at first played the role of regional peacemaker, turning Doha into a sort of Geneva-on-the-Gulf where protagonists from wars in Sudan, Somalia and Lebanon could hash out their differences in five-star hotels. They embraced the United States, hosting a vast air base since 2003, the year of the Iraq War, and won popular influence through Al-Jazeera, whose provocative style irked just about every Arab government.

The Qataris hosted leaders from the Palestinian militant group Hamas, causing Israeli officials to call Doha a "Club Med for terrorists." But it was the Arab Spring in 2011 that truly set Qatar apart. As grass-roots movements rose up against the established order across the Middle East, the Saudis and Emiratis were alarmed by the growing strength of political Islamists, like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which they feared could spread chaos in their own countries.

Qatar supported the Islamists.

"We stood by the people," Tamim told "60 Minutes" in October. "They stood by the regimes. I feel that we stood by the right side." The emir could afford to be bold. Qatar had vast wealth, a sprawling US air base just a few miles from his palace, and no domestic opposition to speak of.

"There was a feeling they could do anything they wanted, as long as they threw enough money at the problem," said Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, author of "Qatar and the Arab Spring." "Their self-confidence was at a peak." But in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, frustration was brewing.

A PAIR OF PRINCES

Fittingly, the alliance between the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, and his Emirati counterpart Mohammed bin Zayed, was cemented with a falcon hunt, a cherished rite of Gulf royalty that involves elaborate entourages and great expense - a single hunting falcon can cost US$250,000.

In February 2016, the two princes travelled to the eastern desert of Saudi Arabia on a hunting safari, followed by summer shooting expeditions in France and Wales, trips that bonded the hyperactive 32-year-old Saudi and the older, like-minded Emirati. As well as a modernising vision for their countries, they share a penchant for Shakespearean drama.

After Mohammed bin Salman ousted his rival for the throne in June, royal photographers filmed the prince kissing his rival's hand, then his knee, in a sign of respect. Hours later the man was locked in his palace.

Their military alliance has drawn accusations of overreach. In Yemen, where they lead a devastating yet ineffective air war against the Iran-aligned Houthi faction, their forces face accusations of committing war crimes and stoking famine.

"They are two peas in a pod who see the need for unusual action in unusual times," said David B. Roberts, a Gulf expert at King's College London.

They are also united by a desire to put Tamim in his place.

At its core the rivalry is political. It matters little that Qatar lost its Arab Spring bets: Across the region, Islamist forces bankrolled by Doha are vanquished or in retreat. Still, Qatar's neighbours view it with near pathological suspicion.

That mistrust burst into the open in 2014 when Saudi Arabia and the Emirates withdrew their ambassadors from Doha, setting off a diplomatic crisis that ended nine months later with a smooth reassurance from Tamim that he would meet their concerns.

Then last year, without warning, those tensions spiked again.

A FIGHT'S ORIGINS

The crisis that set off the Gulf's biggest confrontation in decades started with a series of random, seemingly unrelated events. And in vintage 2017 fashion, they involved fake news and the new US president, Donald Trump.

In March, a sulfurous dispute erupted over the fate of Alaa Alsiddiq, an Emirati dissident who has been living in Doha since 2013. After she published an article on Al-Jazeera's website about women's rights in the Gulf, the Emiratis, who had cancelled her passport, renewed long-standing demands that Tamim send her home.

The emir refused, telling one Western ambassador that he feared she could be tortured or killed. Emirati fury grew.

A second instance involved a huge ransom payment. In April, a private Qatari jet carrying US$300 million landed in Iraq to free a party of 26 Qatari falcon hunters, including nine royals, who had been kidnapped by a pro-Iranian militia. Although who ultimately benefited remains shrouded in mystery, Tamim's critics pointed to the episode as proof of his willingness to recklessly indulge extremists.

It also offered a powerful talking point with the new US president.

Even before Trump landed in Saudi Arabia in May, on the first foreign trip of his presidency, he appeared to be firmly in the Saudi camp. For months, the Saudi and Emirati leadership had cultivated a close relationship with Jared Kushner, the president's adviser and son-in-law.

Kushner, a foreign policy neophyte, absorbed the princes' views on the region, including their hostility to Qatar, a senior State Department official said, describing the relationships as very close.

In Riyadh, Trump signalled his burgeoning relationship by posing alongside 81-year-old King Salman with their hands on a glowing orb - an image that was meant to project solidarity but which gave them the appearance of movie villains, and inspired a rash of internet memes.

Trump also met with Tamim, and the Qatari leader thought it went well. But two days later, back in Doha, the emir was shaken from his sleep with disturbing news: Someone had hacked the state-run Qatar News Agency and posted on its website a report of the emir calling Iran a "superpower," lauding Hamas and speculating that Trump might not last long in power.

The report was pure fiction, but Qatar's neighbours pounced on it as the real thing. Within minutes, pundits at Emirati and Saudi television stations were expounding on the perfidy of Qatar and issuing heated denunciations. Tamim frantically called his ministers and had the article taken down.

Thinking the problem solved, he settled in to watch a big National Basketball Association game, the Golden State Warriors and the San Antonio Spurs. In fact, his troubles had just started.

Over the following weeks, Emirati and Saudi news outlets accelerated their attacks on Qatar, accusing it of threatening Gulf stability. Several conservative think tanks in Washington joined the chorus. Then on June 5, without warning, the four-country boycott crashed onto Qatar.

Trump was eager to take credit.

"During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology," he wrote in a tweet the next day. "Leaders pointed to Qatar - look!" US intelligence officials determined that the planting of the fake news story had been orchestrated by the Emirates, which had been quietly pushing for a boycott of Qatar since 2016, a US official told The New York Times.

"The smoking gun leads to Abu Dhabi," the seat of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, he said, citing briefings from intelligence officials. "There is no ambiguity."

Moreover, the official said, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, had prior knowledge of the ruse and had signalled his approval.

Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirates' ambassador to Washington, said his country "categorically denied" any involvement in the hack. The Saudi government did not respond to a request for comment.

THE BOYCOTT

The boycott has inflicted some pain on Qatar. With its only land border closed, its ships blocked from passing through Emirati ports, and its planes restricted from flying over neighboring airspace, import costs have soared.

The stock exchange lost one-fifth of its value last year. Foreign workers, unable to party in Dubai on weekends, grumble about the claustrophobia of buttoned-up Doha. And the travel bans have torn apart families, whose relatives have straddled borders for centuries.

But for the most part, daily life in Doha is largely unchanged. Pricey wine flows in five-star hotels, work continues on a new metro system, and a striking National Museum, shaped as a series of giant intersecting discs, is set to become the city's latest architectural marvel.

On weekends, young Qatari men go "dune bashing" - riding tricked-out four-wheel drive vehicles at high speed along mountainous dunes, sometimes flipping over. Qatar's central bank says it has a US$340 billion war chest to help weather the crisis.

And the boycott has backfired in some respects. The trade restrictions have forced Qatar into deeper economic ties with Iran, while Tamim has become the object of a fervent personality cult. The emir's image adorns billboards draped off skyscrapers, and he is lionised in saccharine songs hailing his steely leadership. "He's the embodiment of the philosopher king," said Dana al-Fardan, one such balladeer.

His ministers, making a virtue of necessity, are developing new trade and transportation links. To make up for lost Saudi milk, they created a new dairy industry from scratch in the desert. In a surreal tableau one day in July, German cows toddled down the ramp of a Qatar Airways Airbus at the Doha airport, the first arrivals of around 4,000 cattle flown in from Europe, Australia and California.

A strident nationalism has displaced the old talk of "brotherly" ties between the countries. Qatari pilgrims claimed they had been prevented from travelling to Mecca in Saudi Arabia, and showing sympathy for Qatar has become a criminal offence in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.

Any hopes that the Trump administration could end the crisis were scuppered by its chaotic policy. Mediation efforts by Tillerson, who had decades of experience in Qatar as an energy executive, were repeatedly undercut by Trump, who at a Washington fundraiser mocked the way that Qatar is pronounced.

Although Trump has since stopped his attacks on Qatar, presenting himself as a mediator, some senior advisers continue the fight. Breitbart News Network, which until recently was run by Trump's onetime ideological firebomber Stephen Bannon, has published dozens of articles attacking Qatar as a rogue ally.

COLD WAR IN THE DESERT

For Tamim, the ultimate aim of his neighbours is to oust him from power. In the interview with The Times, he cited as precedent the 1996 Saudi-sponsored coup attempt against his father. "This was always the warning at the back of our heads," he said.

His fears may be justified. In the early days of the boycott, two US officials said, Saudi and Emirati leaders mulled possible military action against Qatar. The precise details were unclear, but the talk was deemed serious enough for Tillerson to personally warn the Saudi and Emirati leaders against precipitous action. Trump later repeated that advice in a call to Saudi leaders.

Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to Washington, denied in an interview that there was ever a military plan. "We never contemplated it," he said.

But even the suggestion of military action highlighted how the old rules have been shattered in the Gulf. The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, the regional body that is supposed to resolve such disputes, has been invisible during the crisis. Instead the Saudis have promoted a string of exiled Qatari businessmen as potential political rivals to Tamim.

The Qataris appear to have returned fire on the hacking front. For months US news media outlets have received stolen emails intended to embarrass Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador. The emails appear to come from Russia, but Saudi media reports say Qatar was behind them.

Qatar denied any involvement in the hacking. "Qatar, as a matter of policy and principle, does not engage in cyber crimes or traffic in 'fake news,'" the government said in a statement to The Times on Sunday.

Both sides are bolstering their militaries. Since June, Tamim has ordered 36 F-15 warplanes from the United States, 24 Typhoon jets from Britain and 24 Rafale fighter jets from France - a sevenfold increase for an air force that has just 12 aircraft.

In December, his foes announced a new Saudi-Emirati military and economic alliance that further sidelines the Gulf Cooperation Council, which includes Qatar.

Days later, Tamim hosted a lavish banquet for President Emmanuel Macron of France at Idam, a French restaurant on the top floor of the Museum of Islamic Art that offers a shimmering panorama over the Doha skyline.

Over a sumptuous meal prepared by celebrity chef Alain Ducasse, the two leaders toasted the deals they had signed that morning. The emir had ordered another 12 French fighter jets.