Published: March 2003

Qatar: Revolution From the Top Down

By Mary Anne Weaver
Photographs by Robb Kendrick
A young man teams up with his kid brother to send a remote-controlled hot rod tearing through the gravel outside their home in Doha. Passionate about cars, Qataris are ardent drivers, averaging tens of thousands of miles a year. That's made easier with gasoline running about 50 cents a gallon (four liters). A further nicety: no self-service. As a motorist sits behind the wheel in this torrid country, attendants pump gas, sometimes while the engine, and air conditioner, keep running.

The story of modern Qatar began the old-fashioned way: When a son dethroned his father. It happened near the end of June in 1995, as dawn broke over the splendid teak and marble royal palace in the seaside capital of Doha. The aging emir, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, was en route to a holiday in Switzerland, leaving his firstborn son, Hamad, 45, to run the country in his absence. By 5:30 a.m., Sheikh Hamad, who'd been up all night, stood before an assembly of royal courtiers and representatives of Qatar's most influential families and major tribes and announced that he was taking over. No one protested or even evinced surprise, for in keeping with Bedouin tradition, Hamad had consulted them in advance. All that remained was for them to swear allegiance, and so the dignitaries—a hundred men in flowing white kaffiyehs and brown robes trimmed in gold—came forward to kiss him, depending on their kinship, on the head or shoulder or cheeks or nose.

Weeks earlier, a council of the ruling al-Thani family had agreed with Sheikh Hamad that his father, who had developed an unseemly fondness for opulence and alcohol, was unfit to continue at the helm of Qatar's hereditary monarchy. This consensus enabled Hamad, who was crown prince, to legitimately assume power that morning in June. So by the time the sun was full over the palace, Sheikh Khalifa's 23-year reign had come to an end.

Shortly thereafter, the new emir—his father's fair-haired boy, the first of his five sons—telephoned his father in Switzerland to break the news. Forewarned, an outraged Khalifa refused to take the call.

That wasn't the end of it. Eight months later Sheikh Khalifa, backed by many of his fellow monarchs in the Persian Gulf, attempted to regain his throne by launching a countercoup, an undertaking doomed from the start.

Six hundred Bedouin tribesmen, recruited by Khalifa loyalists, crossed into Qatar from Saudi Arabia, but once across the border many became lost. Meanwhile a band of French mercenaries, hired as a "seaborne invasion force," left their five-star hotel in Doha and went to the beach, but they couldn't find their boats. And there were stories like this, from a man who had been sitting in his garden when he heard a rumble "rather like a tank." He tiptoed to the garden's edge and looked out beyond the gate. To his astonishment he saw a Land Rover filled with half a dozen large Bedouin men, their red-and-white-checkered kaffiyehs dancing in the wind. "They were arguing among themselves," he told me, "and they were clearly lost. How is it possible to get lost in Doha?" he shook his head. "One of them was shouting 'Where's the palace?' into his mobile phone."

When the coup d'état failed, Sheikh Hamad arrested more than a hundred conspirators and demanded that his father—who lives in the south of France when he's not in London—return several billion dollars to the state. (He returned around a billion dollars in 1997.) As important, in a region where egos are elaborate and the rituals of power baroque, Sheikh Hamad began to reign in a manner that his fellow monarchs—whose average age was 68—considered heretical, by declaring a series of political and social reforms that in a few short years have transformed this tiny sheikhdom into a vastly different Qatar than the one his father had ruled.

One of the smallest and least known countries in the Arab world, Qatar is, after Saudi Arabia, the most conservative and most traditional society in the Persian Gulf, where Wahhabism, a strict interpretation of Islam, is the official religion and falconry and camel racing are national pastimes. Rich in oil and natural gas, Qatar (pronounced KUT-ter) is one of the wealthiest nations on Earth. It is also, under its relatively young emir, the Arab world's most revolutionary.

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