|Biographical detail : ||The Emir of Qatar who is the beating heart of 21st century Araby.
Led by a bold, reformist emir, Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani, Qatar has been transformed from a sleepy backwater into the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas. Part of that windfall is being invested overseas, particularly in luxury brands and real estate, largely through a huge sovereign wealth fund established only a few years ago to save for future generations.
During the 1940s, Qatar transformed itself from one of the Gulf’s poorest states – once the centre of pearl fishing – into one of its richest by exploiting the nation’s oil and gas reserves. A former British protectorate, (though the country that has been ruled by one family since the mid-19th century), was formally declared its independence in 1971.
The young Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani believes that a wind of change is blowing through the Middle East. The Emir has put his tiny country on the map by sponsoring al-Jazeera TV as a powerful engine propelling changes in the Arab world.
Since deposing his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, Sheikh al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, has steered a different course from the gerontocrats and playboy princes who make up the majority of the rulers in the Gulf. The current Emir, belonging to the Thani family that has ruled Qatar since 1850s, has balanced the need to keep his conservative subjects happy with his plans to modernise and gently liberalise Qatar, in a way that could provide a template for the region.
When the al-Jazeera satellite channel began its broadcast in 1996 from the Persian Gulf state of Qatar, more than a digital revolution was born. For the first time, Arabs, hungry for freedoms and democracy, were able to watch news programmes and talk shows in their own language and assembled by independent journalists rather than by government propagandists.
The Emir, Sheikh Hamad, has shouldered the political burden and financial cost of sponsorship al-Jazeera. With an estimated 50 millions viewers, the network is being imitated across the region. When Al-Jazeera English started in 2006, it was 50 countries and 80m households, and by the end of 2010 it reached 130 countries and 260m households, and has more than 3,500 employees, according to the channel. Al-Jazeera has angered Arab governments by giving airtime to rebel movements and freedom advocates and tackling taboo topics like polygamy and apostasy.
Arab opinion has been immeasurably influenced by al-Jazeera’s coverage of the Palestinian intifadeh and the US-led illegal invasions in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Emir insists that al-Jazeera channel reflects a wind of change blowing through the Middle East – embracing globalisation, turning themselves into cultural forces, and recognising the importance of education.
Qatar that has a population of 1.7 million (only 300,000 of whom are nationals) with its new skyscrapers, university buildings, research labs, sports arenas and museums along with restored bazaar illustrate the legacy the emir aspires to build. The emir believes that Qatar’s future lies in education. One ambitious project, run by the Sheikha’s Qatar Foundation is the establishment of American university campuses in Doha and investment in research in areas such as healthcare and information technology.
In his forward-looking policies, al-Thani the emir of Qatar, the country that has the third-largest gas reserve in the world, and billions of dollars are being spent on development, is showing the Middle East a different route to modernity – the beating heart of 21st century Araby.
Known for a keen desire to get Qatar punching above its weight, be that in regional politics, on the world stage or in overseas investment, the emir shows towering abilities of a leader. In 2008 the emir flew Lebanon’s squabbling political parties to Doha and worked with the US, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria on an agreement that ended two years of political stalemate and brought Beirut back from the brink of civil war.
A thick-set, moustached man who enjoys hunting with falcons and diving, the emir is a blunt talker in a region that see little of that. He revels in following an independent foreign policy that often goes against mainstream Arab states’ position but wins him plaudits among more radical non-state actors.
The Emir shocked the Arab world in June 2013 by abdicating in favour of his son, Crown Prince Tamim. It is common in the Gulf for ageing rulers to hang even if no longer able to rule, paralysing decision-making and provoking infighting and intrigue within their royal families.