Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
17 October 2005

The Emir of Qatar

10 people - Sholto Byrnes on the leader who is showing the Middle East a different route to modernit

By Sholto Byrnes

It has been described as “the voice of terrorist groups” and is the medium that will enable Sir David Frost to continue to bid us “hello, good evening and welcome”. Al-Jazeera has undoubtedly been the media sensation of the past five years. All the more unlikely, then, that the man who has given Frost a comfortable retirement job (on al-Jazeera International, an English-language channel to be launched next year) and Osama Bin Laden a platform should be the ruler of a tiny Middle Eastern state that most people would still be hard pushed to find on a map.

Since deposing his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, has steered a different course from the gerontocrats and playboy princes who make up the majority of rulers in the Gulf. In his little state, jutting like a thumb off the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, the Emir has balanced the need to keep his conservative, Wahhabist subjects happy with his plans to modernise and gently liberalise Qatar, in a way that could provide a template for the region.

The best-known of the Emir’s initiatives, al-Jazeera, became a familiar name when Bin Laden chose the station to send his video messages to the west, but suffered as a result from western perceptions that it was an al-Qaeda propaganda tool. In fact the channel is far more open than some in the west realise. Interviewing Israeli Zionists, as it has, is a big step for a Gulf channel. When Saudi Arabia launched an English-language station in the mid-1980s, its presenters referred to Israel only as “the Zionist entity”.

By signing up names such as Frost, al-Jazeera is signalling the internationality and breadth of its content. With broadcasting centres in Washington DC, London and Kuala Lumpur, and bureaux around the world staffed by roughly 90 employees of 30 different nationalities, al-Jazeera International will provide an alternative, more local, perspective than its established western rivals. Owing no allegiance to the western media hegemony, it will challenge both western assumptions and Middle Eastern censorship. That it is likely to upset both east and west is a sign of the welcome independence of its views.

The Emir has been equally bold on the domestic front. His wife, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser al-Missned, has an unprecedented role in public life as chairperson of the Qatar Foundation, which runs the Doha Debates. Modelled on the Oxford Union debates, they are chaired by the former host of BBC World’s Hardtalk, Tim Sebastian, and do not shy away from topics of considerable regional controversy.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. Your new guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture each weekend - from the New Statesman. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

In May the participants of one debate voted 86 per cent in favour of the motion that “women in the Arab world should have equal status with men”. Such open discussion would be astonishing, were it not that Qatar’s new constitution, endorsed by 96 per cent of voters in a referendum, enshrines the principle of universal suffrage. A female cabinet minister was appointed in 2003, and a fully elected parliament is promised for the future.

The Sandhurst-educated Emir, 54, is forward-looking indeed. It helps that Qatar has the third-largest gas reserves in the world, and billions of dollars are being spent on development. It also helps that the vast petroleum revenues benefit Qataris not only through public buildings, such as the Museum of Islamic Art, which the renowned architect I M Pei was tempted out of retirement to design, but also because the al-Thani clan is so large that sharing the wealth with his family is a form of popular distribution on the part of the Emir.

Not all is liberty and light, however, as the Emir’s cousin Sheikh Saud al-Thani discovered recently. Suspected of lining his own pockets while spending hundreds of millions of dollars to fill the Museum of Islamic Art, he was summoned home and thrown in jail, with only a bed (as opposed to roll matting) as a concession to his royal status.

None the less, in moving towards democracy and equality between the sexes, and eschewing the footballers’ wives paradise of Dubai in order to emphasise art and culture, Qatar is showing that there is a different route to modernity in the Middle East. Let’s make it a very warm “Hello, good evening and welcome” to the Emir of Qatar – or ahlan wa sahlan (a thousand welcomes), as Frost may soon learn to put it.