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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The allegations of abuse in sport are serious – but we must guard against hysteria

This week in the media, from Castro and the student rebels, hysteria over football coaches, and Ed Balls’s ballroom exit.

From the left’s point of view, the best that can be said of Fidel Castro, who has died at 90, is that – to echo Franklin D Roosevelt on the Nicaraguan dictator Anatasio Somoza – he may have been a son of a bitch but he was our son of a bitch. Denying Castro’s dreadful record on human rights is pointless. According to the highest estimates – which include those who perished while trying to flee the regime – the death toll during Castro’s 49 years in charge was roughly 70,000. His immediate predecessor, Fulgencio Batista, whom Castro overthrew, murdered, again according to the highest estimates, 20,000 but he ruled for a mere seven years. For both men, you can find considerably lower figures, sometimes in the hundreds. It depends on the politics of the estimator, which shows the absurdity of such reckoning.

 

Murder is murder

What is certain is that Batista ran a corrupt regime with close links to the American Mafia and presided over outrageous inequalities. Even President Kennedy, who ­approved a failed military invasion of Cuba in 1960, said that, on Batista’s record, “I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries”. Castro, on the other hand, created a far more equal society where illiteracy was almost wiped out, and free health care brought life expectancy up to levels comparable to those in the US and western Europe. You could say that the numbers saved from early deaths by Cuban medicine under Castro easily exceeded the numbers that faced firing squads.

But nothing excuses torture, murder and political imprisonment. There isn’t a celestial balance sheet that weighs atrocities against either the freedoms from ignorance and disease that the left favours or the freedoms to make money and hold private property that the right prefers. We should argue, as people always will, about which freedoms matter most. We should be united in condemning large-scale state brutality whatever its source.

 

Spirit of ʼ68

Though his regime became an ally (or, more precisely, a client) of the Soviet Union, Castro wasn’t a communist and he didn’t lead a communist uprising. This point is crucial to understanding his attraction to the mostly middle-class student rebels in Europe and America who became known as the ’68ers.

To them, communist rulers in eastern European were as uninspiring as the cautious centrists who hogged power in Western democracies. They were all grey men in suits. Castro had led a guerrilla army and wore battle fatigues. As the French writer Régis Debray explained in Revolution in the Revolution? – a book revered among the students – Castro’s band of revolutionaries didn’t start with a political programme; they developed one during “the struggle”. Their ideology grew organically in the mountains of Cuba’s Sierra Maestra.

This do-it-yourself approach seemed liberating to idealistic young people who didn’t want to bother with the tedious mechanics of bourgeois democracy or the dreary texts of Marxism-Leninism. They had permission for “direct action” whenever they felt like it without needing to ­formulate aims and objectives. They couldn’t, unfortunately, see their way to forming a guerrilla army in the Scottish Highlands or the Brecon Beacons but they could occupy a university refectory or two in Colchester or Coventry.

 

Caution over coaches

Commenting on Radio 5 Live on the case of Barry Bennell, the Crewe Alexandra coach convicted in 1998 of sexual offences against boys aged nine to 15 (the case came to fresh attention because several former professional football players went public about the abuse), an academic said that 5 per cent of boys reported being sexually abused in sport. “That’s one boy on every football pitch, every cricket pitch, every rugby pitch in the country,” he added.

This is precisely the kind of statement that turns perfectly reasonable concerns about inadequate vigilance into public hysteria. The figure comes from an online survey carried out in 2011 by the University of Edinburgh for the NSPCC. The sample of 6,000 was self-selected from emails to 250,000 students aged 18 to 22, who were asked about their experiences of physical, emotional and sexual harm in sport while aged 16 or under. “We do not make claims for the representativeness of our sample,” the researchers state.

Even if 5 per cent is accurate, the suggestion that abusers stalk every playing field in the land is preposterous. After the Jimmy Savile revelations, just about every DJ from the 1960s and 1970s fell under suspicion – along with other prominent figures, including ex-PMs – and some were wrongly arrested. Let’s hope something similar doesn’t happen to football coaches.

 

Shut up, Tony

Brexit “can be stopped”, Tony Blair told this magazine last week. No doubt it can, but I do wish Blair and other prominent Remain supporters would shut up about it. The Brexiteers have spent 20 years presenting themselves as victims of an elite conspiracy to silence them. Committed to this image, they cannot now behave with the grace usually expected of winners. Rather, they must behave as though convinced that the prize will shortly be snatched from them, and treat any statement from Remainers, no matter how innocuous, with suspicion and resentment. Given enough rope, they will, one can reasonably hope, eventually hang themselves.

 

Strictly Balls

Perhaps, however, Nigel Farage et al are justified in their paranoia. As I observed here last week, the viewers of Strictly Come Dancing, in the spirit of voters who backed Brexit and Donald Trump, struck more blows against elite experts by keeping Ed Balls in the competition even after judges gave him abysmal ratings. Now it is all over. The BBC contrived a “dance-off” in which only the judges’ votes counted. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage