Sheikh Tamim, and the UK's dwindling power in Qatar

The new Emir of Qatar is the latest Middle Eastern monarch from Sandhurst or Oxbridge.

The name "Doha", scholars believe comes from the Arabic ad-dawha, "the big tree". The capital of Qatar was so called, as the idea goes, because "the big tree" was the most significant aspect of the then fishing and pearling village on in the Persian Gulf. It was not all that long ago – perhaps 100 years – when Al Thani built the next significant feature: the Al Koot Fort.

 Today "Doha" means something entirely different. It means Al Jazeera, Qatar Airways, the 2022 World Cup, Museum of Islamic Art, Doha Cultural Festival, Qatar Investment Authority and capital of the nation with the world’s highest GDP per capita. But it also means arms for Syria, headquarters of the Taliban, ally of the Muslim Brotherhood and banker to the Arab Spring. 

 In other words, this tiny country, mostly sounded by sea and ruled by a monarchy, has turned financial might into world dominance, notwithstanding a touch of controversy. Familiar? Sounds perhaps a little like the UK a few hundred years ago?

But this is possibly not a coincidence. Today’s announcement by The Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani to abdicate in favour of his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani is of surprising relevance to Britain. Aside from being ruled by Britain until 1971, both Tamim and his father were educated at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and through the Qatar Investment Authority, they own quite a few chunks of the UK: most notably Harrods, The Shard, much of Sainsbury’s, Canary Wharf Group and much of Barclays.

Of all the diplomats trying to win an audience with Qatar’s young new ruler, Tamim, the British will be racing to be among the first. Assuringly, they may find much in common, aside from their thoroughly British educations. The new ruler is thought to have a clear liberalising agenda as chair of the 2030 Vision project. He is also interested in sport, having backed the World Cup in 2022, the failed bid to host the Olympic Games and the purchase of a Paris St Germain football club.

So those questioning the UK’s influence in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Arab Spring should see Tamim as one of many Middle Eastern rulers inheriting a very British doctrine. He will join Sultan Qaboos of Oman, King Abdullah II of Jordan and King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain as one of the remaining monarchs educated at either Sandhurst or Oxbridge. Only this time – less than 50 years later – the tables have turned and Qatar now rules more of the UK, than the UK of it.

Qatari Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. Photograph: Getty Images

Oliver Williams is an analyst at WealthInsight and writes for VRL Financial News

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David Blunkett compares Labour membership to failed revolution “from Ukraine to Egypt”

The Labour peer and former home secretary says new members need a “meaningful political education”, and accuses unions of neglecting their “historic balance”.

There are three sorts of opposition. There’s the civil society opposition, with people campaigning in their own specific areas, people who’ve got an interest group or are delivering social enterprise or a charity. I don’t think we should underestimate that because we're going to have to hang on to it as part of the renewal of civil society.

The second is the opposition formally, within the House of Commons: those who have agreed to serve as the formal shadow ministerial teams. Because of what I’d describe as the turmoil over the last two years, they’ve either not been able to be impressive – ie. they’re trying very hard but they don't have the coherent leadership or backing to do it – or they’ve got completely different interests to what it is they’re supposed to be doing, and therefore they’re not engaged with the main task.

Then there’s the third, which is the informal opposition – Labour linked sometimes to the Lib Dems and the SNP in Parliament on the opposition benches as a whole. They’re not doing a bad job with the informal opposition. People getting on with their work on select committees, the departmental committees beginning to shape policy that they can hopefully feed to the National Executive Committee, depending on the make-up of the National Executive Committee following this year’s conference. That embryo development of coherent policy thinking will be the seed-bed for the future.

I lived through, worked through, and was integrally involved with, what happened in the early Eighties, so I know it well. And people were in despair after the ‘83 election. Although it took us a long time to pull round, we did. It’s one reason why so many people, quite rightly in my view, don't want to repeat the split of 1931 or the split of 1981.

So they are endeavouring to stay in to argue to have some vision of a better tomorrow, and to persuade those of goodwill who have joined the party – who genuinely believe in a social movement and in extra-parliamentary non-violent activity, which I respect entirely – to persuade them that they’ll only be effective if they can link up with a functioning political process at national level, and at townhall and county level as well.

In other words, to learn the lessons of what’s happened across the world recently as well as in the past, from the Ukraine to Egypt, that if the groundswell doesn’t connect to a functioning party leadership, then, with the best will in the world, it’s not going to achieve its overall goals.

How do we engage with meaningful political education within the broader Labour party and trade union movement, with the substantially increased rank-and-file membership, without being patronising – and without setting up an alternative to Momentum, which would allow Momentum to justify its existence as a party within a party?

That's the challenge of the next two years. It's not just about someone with a vision, who’s charismatic, has leadership qualities, coming forward, that in itself won’t resolve the challenge because this isn't primarily, exclusively about Jeremy Corbyn. This is about the project being entirely on the wrong trajectory.

A lot depends on what the trade unions do. They command effectively the majority on the National Executive Committee. They command the key votes at party conference. And they command the message and resources that go out on the policy or programmes. It’s not just down to personality and who wins the General Secretary of Unite; it’s what the other unions are doing to actually provide their historic balance, because they always have – until now – provided a ballast, foundation, for the Labour party, through thick and thin. And over the last two years, that historic role has diminished considerably, and they seem to just be drifting.

I don’t think anybody should expect there to be a party leadership challenge any time soon. It may be that Jeremy Corbyn might be persuaded at some point to stand down. I was against the challenge against him last year anyway, purely because there wasn't a prepared candidate, there wasn't a policy platform, and there hadn’t been a recruitment drive to back it up.

People shouldn’t expect there to be some sort of white charger out there who will bring an immediate and quick end to the pain we’re going through. I think it’s going to be a readjustment, with people coming to conclusions in the next two years that might lead the party to be in a position to fight a credible general election in 2020. I’ve every intention of laying down some good red wine and still being alive to drink it when the Labour party is elected back to power.

David Blunkett is a Labour peer and former home secretary and education secretary.

As told to Anoosh Chakelian.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition