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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 5    Issue 15   16-31  December 2010

Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani

Ian Black

Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani is a big man, whether wearing a business suit or the flowing robes of a traditional Gulf ruler, and he wore his very broadest smile in Zurich on Thursday when Qatar won its quest for the 2022 World Cup a crowning achievement for one of the world's smallest, richest and hottest countries.

TV footage of the big moment captured the emir's delight and his warm hug with his son Sheikh Mohammed, who headed the Qatari bid. On hand too, equally pleased, was his consort Sheikha Mozah, elegant and stylish in purple silk, who embraced her son and husband before mounting the podium with them to accept the golden trophy.

Qatar, it is widely agreed, tackled its two-year campaign to persuade Fifa of its merits with the same flair and determination it has shown in translating its enormous wealth into a unique brand an Arab statelet in one of the world's most volatile regions but one with global ambitions and a hard-headed sense of political and economic realities.

Football is certainly a genuine passion for Sheikh Hamad a sporty youngster and a devoted Arsenal fan since his days as a Sandhurst cadet in the 1970s. Now 58, he still also enjoys diving and falconry and is known in private for a joshing and self-deprecating sense of humour.

Money is definitely not a problem. The emir's personal worth is around $2.4bn though since the country has neither political parties nor national elections he also effectively controls its $100bn sovereign wealth fund. But he was still chuffed to be presented with a signed Gunners strip during a state visit to Britain in October and flattered by being hosted by the Queen at Windsor rather than over the shop at Buckingham Palace.

"If he is relaxing in private the chances are that he will have several TV screens up showing different matches, Qatari and international even when he is in the desert," says a friend. To be the first Arab or Muslim country to host the World Cup is a personal and patriotic dream come true.

Qataris and foreigners alike argue that the key to understanding Sheikh Hamad's focus on the 2022 bid is his vision the word is used often and without irony of how to develop the tiny and then nearly bankrupt country he took over from his father in a palace coup in 1995. Sport and youth are key elements. "Qatar is already extremely rich and it's going to get richer and richer," predicts Simon Collis, a former British ambassador to Doha. "Sheikh Hamad recognises the self-evident pitfall of cradle-to-grave social security and an overall lack of 'oomph' in the system. He knows that whatever motivates Qataris it's not going to be money."

Ordinary Qatari kids compete in athletics, tennis, soccer, volleyball, basketball, karate, gymnastics and judo. The Asian Games in 2006 were a sensational success with real verve and risk-taking in the organisation. Sheikh Mohammed carried the torch on a horse in a sudden rare rain shower that was taken as a sign of good fortune.

The disappointment was real when Doha failed to make even the short list for the 2016 Olympics. So joy at the World Cup win last week was unconfined. "Everyone is happy to see that we have been recognised," said an ecstatic Hassan Al Ansari, editor-in-chief of the Qatar Tribune. "We are still absorbing the news."

Absolute rulers do tend to attract praise, at least from those seeking their patronage, or from their subjects not willing to offend. But there seems to be genuine recognition of the emir's lobbying and above all his leadership. "He is a motivator, but he also delegates," says the Algerian lawyer Sa'ad Jabbar. "He is a good listener who knows how to use expertise. He knows what he wants. He rolls up his sleeves and keeps pushing."

The decision to give the tournament to Qatar did, however, provoke plenty of criticism from those concerned about what can most gently be described its "chequered" human rights record. This was neatly captured in a report by Amnesty International, detailing issues ranging from routine discrimination against women, the illegality of homosexuality, and sentences of flogging. Amnesty also called on Qatar to "lift restrictions on the rights to freedom of opinion and expression and to take steps to promote freedom of the press".

Then there is the less than benign conditions enjoyed by many of its foreign workers. There's a population of around 800,000 the rest of the 1.7 million residents are foreigners, many Asian construction workers.

The country certainly gets things built. The capital's tallest building is the aptly named Aspire Tower in Sports City. Then there is the beautiful Islamic Museum designed by IM Pei. Other eye-catching achievements include the al-Jazeera satellite TV network, still the freest media outlet in the Arab world even if it does not focus too closely on Qatar's internal affairs.

Surplus revenues from the world's third largest deposits of natural gas have gone a long way. The Qatar Investment Authority has invested in German car maker VW/Porsche and the Brazilian unit of Spanish bank Santander. Trophy acquisitions include Harrods, the US embassy building in Grosvenor Square and other chunks of prime London property.

Admirers see a clear link between Sheikh Hamad's independent position, Qatar's business acumen, and his ability to get his way on other fronts. Politically, he manages to maintain good relations with the US hosting the US Fifth Fleet and with Iran. Still, Tehran is unlikely to be surprised by WikiLeaks's cables revealing that he told an American senator in February: "Based on 30 years of experience with the Iranians, they will give you 100 words. Trust only one of the 100."

Qatar has also maintained discreet contact with Israel though more openly than its Gulf neighbours inviting then foreign minister Tzipi Livni to one of Doha's many international conferences. Qatari mediation has become a staple of the region's many conflicts in Sudan, Yemen, Lebanon and between rival Palestinian factions. Qatari cash helped re-build south Lebanon after the 2006 Israeli-Hezbollah war. The emir also offered to pay for reconstruction in Gaza if Israel agreed to lift its siege.

Conservative and poorer Arab states bridle at Qatar's role. Jordan and Qatar have been embroiled in a furious row since it was revealed that al-Jazeera which had a monopoly on last summer's World Cup TV rights had its broadcasts from South Africa jammed from Jordanian territory. The Saudis and others ban the channel or regularly close down its offices. Egypt's Hosni Mubarak privately called the Qataris "sycophants" another WikiLeaks gem.

Football is a far less serious business than politics, but the World Cup carries a big political message too. Qatar's bid was carefully pitched in an attempt to improve the atmosphere and image of change in a region overshadowed for so long by rivalries, injustice and hatred. Prince Mohammed's winning speech in Zurich contained this Obama-style message: "Thank you for believing in change, for believing in expanding the game, for giving Qatar a chance." Israel is unlikely to qualify but Israeli fans will be able to attend.

Securing the World Cup was billed by the communications strategists as a national mission. "This was truly a bid that involved an entire nation," said John Watts, of Brown Lloyd James, consultants for Qatar 2022. "The royal family, the organisation, the general public. Part of what made the bid so compelling was that you had this sense of unanimous political, financial and moral support. A groundswell really."

Yet victory was no foregone conclusion. "It was written off as a joke at the beginning," Watts added, "but they believed in it. They really believed that 700 million people needed the power of the World Cup to bring them together."

Qataris did wonder whether this was a dream too far. But the country's track record of delivery and its huge cash reserves proved a winning combination. "True, there's a lot to do, and even the Qataris can't change the climate," laughs Collis. But if anyone can solve the problem of playing football in 45-50 degree heat, they can. And the generosity of building and then dismantling staggeringly expensive air-conditioned stadiums to send to developing countries was a novel and powerful legacy argument.

"People do ask sometimes why the emir does certain things whether it's his diplomacy in the Middle East or having al-Jazeera here," admitted Hassan Al Ansari. "But we are blessed in having a leader like him. He has brought honour and attention to a small country. When you have a vision and a leader and all these resources you can accomplish something. We thank God for it. This is a huge thing. It's more than soccer. It's not just a game. It's a message. How often do you hear good news from this part of the world?"


Born In 1952 in Doha, Qatar, the eldest son of Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani and his second wife. Sheikh Hamad was educated in Qatar before joining the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in the UK, graduating in July 1971. The second of his three wives, Sheikha Mozah, is his close companion.

Best of times Since seizing power from his father while he was away on holiday in Switzerland in 1995, Sheikh Hamad has set out to modernise his tiny country, aided by a $100 billion sovereign wealth fund. A passionate football fan and supporter of Arsenal since his time at Sandhurst, last week's success in securing the 2022 World Cup will be the cherry on the cake.

Worst of times The year after deposing his father, Sheikh Hamad was forced to defend his position as ruler against a counter-coup. He foiled the plot in part by freezing his father's revenues. Last year's public spat with Prince Charles over the Qatar funded redevelopment of London's Chelsea Barracks lead to embarrassment all round and the collapse of the multi-million pound project.

He says "For us...this is an opportunity that will not be repeated in the next 20 years." In an interview with Der Spiegel last year after buying stakes in J Sainsbury, Barclays Bank and Credit Suisse.

(Source: The Observer, December 5, 2010)

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