Shibley Telhami writes: Nothing was trivial about the moment: Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani gave up his post as emir of Qatar to his son at the pinnacle of his influence, in an act as rare and surprising as his ascending to power through a bloodless coup against his own father in 1995.
The very brevity of the emir’s abdication speech and the remarkable absence of boasting about his transformation of Qatar was itself a rarity in an Arab world accustomed to long, windy addresses on even trivial matters.
What drove the policies of the outgoing emir? What will come next?
The fact that the world is paying attention is a testament to the central role that this small, previously sleepy nation now plays on the world stage. The story of what drove the outgoing emir — and his key partner, Foreign and Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani (HBJ) — tells much about the driving forces in the Arab world. One hint appeared in the announcement’s sparse wording: “We believe that the Arab world is one human body, one coherent structure, that draws its strength from all its constituent parts.”
The outgoing emir, who grew up in the Pan-Arab era of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, once described himself to me as a “Nasserist.” He described his Prime Minister HBJ as a “Sadatist” — or admirer of the pragmatic, pro-Western Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who succeeded Nasser and made peace with Israel.
From this perspective, one of the emir’s most important contributions to Arab politics, the pan-Arab Al Jazeera TV, was the modern — and more credible –version of Nasser’s Sawt Al Arab radio, which itself had revolutionary impact on the Arab world in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Indeed, Al Jazeera has played a key role in the Arab world, hosting Arab nationalists as regular commentators, including Mohammad Hassanein Heikal, Nasser’s confidant. But Qatar, and Al Jazeera, also host Islamists, especially Sheikh Yousuf Al Qaradawi, one of the most influential Sunni religious authorities.
Beyond any pan-Arab aspiration, the outgoing emir’s strategy was in the long-term interest of Qatar. Yet at the core of his — and Al Jazeera’s — success is understanding the Arab and Islamic aspirations of the millions of people they tried to reach. Which is why they paid so much attention to Palestine, as the prism of pain through which Arabs viewed the outside world.
Even at the moment of abdication, Al Jazeera went immediately from Qatari commentators to Palestinian commentators in the West Bank and Gaza. Consider, in the new emir’s inaugural speech, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani followed by singling out his commitment to the Palestinian issue — of all the international issues facing Qatar and the Arab world.[Continue reading…]