By their friends shall you know them
Backed to the hilt by the west, tiny Qatar is a monarchical dictatorship. Yet, observes Eddie Ford, it is also an enthusiastic supporter of the Syrian revolution so lauded by the SWP
Last week saw the smooth transition to a new ruler in Qatar. A tiny state smaller than the Falkland Islands, it is a absolutist dictatorship that has been ruled over by the Al Thani family since 1825 and controlled and propped up by imperialism ever since. It goes without saying that there was no democratic input whatsoever into the carefully controlled process of governmental change from above - it was a family affair, quite literally.
Hence on June 25, the 66-year-old sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who has been emir since overthrowing his father in a 1995 palace coup - traditional ‘family values’ at their best - announced his decision to hand over to his son, the 33-year-old sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Tamim is the fourth son to his father’s second wife out of a total of 24 children - that includes 13 daughters, who obviously do not count in terms of succession.
Naturally, the new emir is British-educated - Harrow, Sherborne School in Dorset, then, almost inevitably, Sandhurst military academy, a training ground for autocrats the world over. He is deputy commander of the armed forces and chairs the Qatar 2022 supreme committee, which is in charge of hosting and organising the World Cup for that year (some claim that Doha got the games through bribery). If that was not enough, in 2005 he founded Qatar Sport Investments - which owns Paris Saint-Germain FC among many other things - and the year after he chaired the organising committee of the 15th Asian Games in Doha. Without any irony Egypt’s Al Ahram newspaper voted Tamim the “best sport personality in the Arab world”.
In his TV address, Tamim hypocritically said that Qatar would “avoid sectarianism” and “respect” all religions in the region and the world as “we are not part of any regional trend against any other” - even though Qatar is funnelling huge sums of money and lethal weapons to the Sunni-based, anti-Assad forces in Syria. Laughably, Tamim declared that Qatar “aligned itself with the Arab peoples and their aspiration to live free of corruption and nepotism” and in a further display of hypocrisy stated that the “development and training” of “human capital” was key to Qatar’s success - he wants, apparently, to increase the wellbeing of the whole people, not just the wealthy. Strangely enough, he did not announce he was going to donate any of his vast personal fortune to that end.
There were other changes at the top, the most significant being the departure of the joint prime minister (and also foreign minister), Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani - another family member, his great-uncle being Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, regarded as the founder of modern-day Qatar. Just as importantly, perhaps more so, he was the chief executive officer and chairman of the Qatar Investment Authority, the country’s sovereign wealth fund - which is estimated to have assets between $100 billion and $200 billion. The QIA’s new CEO is Ahmad Al-Sayed and sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani was named vice chairman - also becoming the new prime minster and interior minister. Tamim himself will take over the role of chair, to guarantee that the QIA remains almost entirely within the family. Of course, there is no nepotism and corruption in Qatar.
No change of direction or policy is expected. There were rumours that Tamim might introduce partial elections to the 45-member advisory shura council next year under a plan approved way back in 2003. But on the eve of the power transfer, Hamad issued a decree which effectively extended the term of the shura indefinitely. He obviously decided that there had been enough change for now. No point rocking the boat. Therefore, all the body’s members will continue to be directly appointed by the emir.
If anything, Tamim is expected to be even more conservative or cautious than his father. Time will tell. During the Arab spring in 2011, when all the regimes in the region suddenly started to look precarious, he attempted to buy support for the royal family - in his capacity as crown prince - by dramatically raising salaries for state employees. The military got a whopping 120% increase and there was also a substantial hike in pensions and social allowances. Overall the new salaries and benefits cost the Qatar treasury (ie, the Al Thani family) some $8.2 billion. But worth every penny to avoid an uprising. Tamim could possibly herald his rule with another public-sector wage increase. No austerity in Qatar if you are lucky enough to be part of the state machine.
Qatar may be a tiny country of 1.7 million, but it is very wealthy. Formerly one of the poorest Persian Gulf states, and a British protectorate until it gained formal independence in 1971, the mainly barren country was noted mainly for fishing and pearl-hunting. Nothing special. In fact, a bit of a sleepy and underdeveloped backwater. However, in 1940 oil was discovered and with the post-1973 oil price hike the economy was transformed, especially under the rule of emir Hamad - Qatar becoming a global financial power. Hamad helped set up Al Jazeera, when he provided a loan of QAR500 million ($137 million) to sustain the network through its first five years. The QIA has invested billions in various British business enterprises, owning large stakes in Barclays Bank, Sainsbury’s, Harrods and Europe’s tallest building, the grotesque Shard.
Today, Qatar has the third-largest reserves of natural gas in the world and is the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas. It is estimated that the emirate will invest over $120 billion in the energy sector in the next 10 years. There is no personal income tax and the official unemployment rate in June 2013 was just 0.1%. Indeed, according to the 2012 edition of the CIA World factbook - normally a very reliable source of information - Qatar has the second highest GDP per capita income ($102,800 purchasing power) in the world.1 Or, to put it another way, if you say that US citizens have a purchasing power of 100, then we in the UK have 75.7 and Qataris have 187.1.
But, of course, this economic affluence is confined purely to the indigenous population - to the degree you can even use the term in such an artificial, freak society. Qatar relies overwhelmingly on foreign labour, its own nationals comprising a mere 15% (around 250,000) of the total population, whilst migrant workers comprise 94% of the workforce - the influx of male labourers has completely skewed the gender balance and women now make up just one quarter of the population.
The division of labour is quite simple. The high-skilled and handsomely paid work is done by people from the USA or Europe and the grunt-work is done by workers mainly from other Arab countries, the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines. Hardly surprisingly, Qatar has the highest ratio of migrants to citizens/nationals in the world.
With total predictability, the expatriate grunts have next to no rights and are ruthlessly exploited - working endless hours for often cruel and violent bosses under near feudal conditions. The position of female domestic workers is even worse - many are subject to sexual violence and rape. Qatar has one of the most restrictive kafala (sponsorship) systems in the Persian Gulf region, which ties a migrant worker’s legal residence to his or her employer (or ‘sponsor’).2 Migrant workers cannot change jobs without their employer’s consent, except in very exceptional cases with permission from the interior ministry. To even get a driver’s licence, rent a home or open a bank account they need their boss’s permission. If a worker leaves his or her ‘sponsor’, even if fleeing physical or sexual abuse, the employer can report the worker as ‘absconding’ - possibly leading to deportation. On the other hand, if they want to leave the country they cannot do so without the sponsor’s permission.
No wonder that Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, described migrant workers in Qatar as “fundamentally slaves”.3 The local Qatari owns you. Of course, it will be migrant workers that build the state-of-the-art football stadiums and the transport infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup - as well as working in the hotels, restaurants, etc. As many as one million extra workers will be flown in for the competition. Enjoy the games on telly. Having said that, you probably would not enjoy watching them so much in Qatar, as the supply of alcohol is severely limited, even for western workers. There are just two off-licences in Doha and to buy alcohol in one you need a letter from your boss confirming what you earn each month, only a limited percentage of which may go on booze.
Given the transparently despotic and foul nature of Qatar society, you would think concerned voices would be raised in the west, perhaps talk of a crusade for democracy. But when was the last time you heard The Daily Telegraph or The Sun, David Cameron and William Hague - or even Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, for that matter - utter a word of criticism? The Al Thanis, it seems, can do no wrong.
Sheikh Tamim, just like his father, is known to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood and recently hosted a delegation of the Afghan Taliban - which opened an office in Doha in preparation for an expected revival of talks with the United States. Tamim is believed to have played a key role in securing Qatar’s support for the Libyan fighters who ultimately ousted and killed Muammar Gaddafi. He has also provided substantial financial and material support to organisations such as the al-Qassam Brigades (the military wing of Hamas), Ansar Dine in Mali, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa - and the Salafist Al-Nusra Front in Syria - which has been responsible for murderous, sectarian assaults on non-Sunnis, especially ‘apostate’ Alawis.
All of which poses an obvious question. Why is the dictatorship in Qatar supporting the “Syrian revolution”, as our comrades in the Socialist Workers Party have insisted on calling it? Fabulous wealthy despots do not tend to back popular uprisings. Yet as recently as June 18, comrade Judith Orr was worrying in Socialist Worker that “open” western military support for the anti-Assad forces “spells disaster” because “the revolution” will end up “becoming a pawn for imperialist powers”. Comments echoed, or repeated, in the same issue by comrade Bassem Chit of the Socialist Forum organisation in Lebanon - warning that if western intervention goes ahead then the “revolutionary struggle” in Syria would become “collateral damage”, the US doing everything it can to “suffocate” revolutionaries.
In reality though, the west has thrown its weight behind the anti-Assad movement, however you care to define it, almost from the beginning of the crisis - even if this was done under the cover of supplying advice and non-lethal items such as mobile phones, body armour and power generators. You did not have to be much of an armchair general to work out what the opposition would do with their ‘non-lethal’ mobile phones - to find out the location, size and composition of enemy forces then move against them with US and British made weapons delivered to them by agents of Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
No one can seriously deny the popular nature of the original protests movement against the Assad dictatorship. Only a fool or Assad apologist would beg to differ. But even then things changed and Sunni Islamists took the lead turning the democratic struggle in Syria into a sectarian civil war. All sorts of overseas Jihadists flocked into Syria, much to the concern of the US and Britain. Not that that has stopped the Obama administration committing itself to openly arming the Free Syrian Army (not a coherent force; rather a loose umbrella organisation). However, surely the ‘By their friends shall you know them’ motto applied long ago. The fact of the matter is that the US has being fighting a proxy war in Syria - its main target is Assad’s main regional ally, Iran.
Thankfully, there are signs that the SWP may be shifting its position - even if you have to strain hard to detect it. A recent issue of Socialist Worker made a passing reference to the “sectarian battles” that have broken out in Lebanon after Hezbollah threw its weight behind the Assad regime - the latter trying to “hold onto power against what began as a popular revolution” (my emphasis, June 25). Therefore, presumably, there is no longer a “popular revolution” or “Syrian revolution”. We await further clarification.