A Game of Thrones in the Gulf

There has been a lot of leadership change in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) of late, from the ousting of Tunisia’s Bin Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Yemen’s Ali Saleh, to the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and the ongoing attempt to unseat Syria’s Bashar Assad. We can now add to that list Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, ousted in a military junta last week.

These ousted dynastic wannabes were not royalty, however, albeit they acted like pharaohs. Royal dynastic change has been more limited of late – just Saudi Arabia and Kuwait in the past several years.

Who succeeds is, of course, an important question in the MENA’s monarchical countries – the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Jordan and Morocco – with royal intrigue the fodder for many a historical drama series.

In Saudi Arabia, who is next in line when King Abdullah and the last of the “Sudairi Seven” passes away? (Crown Prince Sultan is 88, and the youngest of the seven, Prince Ahmad, was born in 1941). Who will take over from the childless Sultan Qaboos in Oman? (Born in 1940). What impact is the so-called Arab Spring having on these successions, if at all?

Such questions are rarely publicly discussed, certainly in the kingdoms, sheikdoms and sultanates. But the news in early June that the Qatari leadership was set for change had Gulf watchers all atwitter, even though the outcome was known unlike elsewhere in the GCC.

Speculation ran rife for weeks that Crown Prince Tamim, 33, was either to replace his sick father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifia Al Thani, 61, or take over the job of Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim. On June 25, the Qatari Diwan went public on Al Jazeera, announcing the transfer of power to Crown Prince Tamim. While the Qatari public had no say in the transfer, everybody in the country was entitled to a day off to celebrate the choice of “the right man for the right job.”

The peaceful transfer is one of the region’s few cases where a monarch seemingly stood down freely, not dying on the throne or ousted in a palace coup – as happened with the outgoing Emir, who orchestrated a coup in 1995 against his father, who in turn had carried out a coup against his cousin.

However, there is speculation that Sheikh Tamim’s appointment, albeit that he was groomed for it, was a coup of sorts, with the ailing Emir considered to take too independent a line in the GCC, especially towards the region’s political behemoth Saudi Arabia, while his son is seen as being more pro-Saudi.

Sheikh Hamad had being trying to undermine Riyadh’s regional influence through Qatar’s aggressive foreign policy over the past decade – from mediating in Lebanon and Sudan, to involvement in overthrowing Gaddafi and funding, to the tune of some $3 billion according to the Financial Times, the rebels in Syria. Sheikh Hamad could have stuck around, sick or not, and allowed the Crown Prince to have been the de facto ruler, as happened in Saudi Arabia, with the late King Fahed, who was incapacitated by a stroke, letting the Crown Prince run the show.

What is somewhat ironic about Qatar’s transfer amid so many challenges and changes to MENA leadership is that Sheikh Hamad, in what is essentially his abdication speech, spoke of the next generation: “The time has come to open a new page in the journey of our nation that would have a new generation carry the responsibilities…with their innovative ideas.”

In much of the MENA that next generation is challenging and overturning the older order. Further irony is that Qatar’s current foreign policy has been supporting the overthrow of leaders like Mubarak, Gaddafi and Assad for not being accountable to their peoples.

To borrow from the Emir, an “innovative idea” would be – to use real politik – to introduce a constitutional monarchy, which, for the longevity of ruling Gulf families, would be in their interest, politically and economically.

However, we know that such a possibility, like democracy, is not very likely to happen. Qatar, like the rest of the GCC – bar Saudi Arabia and with Bahrain the exception – has a small population that generally enjoys a high standard of living. As President Barack Obama put it in an “open mic” slip at a fundraiser in 2011, Qataris high per capita income would “dampen a lot of conflict.”

Furthermore, any dissidence is crushed. Bahrain is a case in point, with the protests that kicked off in 2011 – and bubbling to the surface ever since – cracked down on by the GCC’s Peninsula Shield force, which was a motley crew of Saudi, Kuwaiti, Emirati and Qatari forces, along with hired Pakistani mercenaries.

Indeed, the prime reason for the establishment of the GCC in 1981 came following a proposal by Riyadh for an internal security pact among the Gulf monarchies after the armed uprising in Mecca in late 1979 and the start of the Iran-Iraq war. In-palace coups are one thing, but challenging a monarchy is viewed as a collective threat.

Challenges are there though, seen lately in protests in Saudi Arabia and Oman, and a lot of action in Kuwait’s parliament. The uprisings in the MENA are having an affect. Tensions under the surface are apparent, even if the dynasties try to hide them, with news surfacing over the past fortnight of attempted coups in Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Back in April, former deputy Defense Minister Prince Khaled bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz was placed under house arrest for involvement in an attempted coup with military officers and the prince and former governor of Saudi’s Eastern Province Mohammed bin Fahad bin Abdul Aziz. In the UAE, courts last week convicted and jailed 94 Emiratis – including Sheikh Sultan bin Kayed Al-Qassimi, a member of the ruling family of the small Emirate of Ras al-Khaimah, human rights lawyer Mohammed al-Roken, and academics – for an attempted coup. What exactly transpired is not clear, as reporters were not allowed to cover the court proceedings.

Qataris have also been speaking out. Last year, Qataris for Reform was published in Beirut, calling for, among other things, “revision to the 2004 constitution, implementing a democratic system, and electing a constituent assembly according to democratic elections.”

If change is likely to happen in the GCC, it will most likely come through coups from within by members of the Gulf elite – as the cases in Saudi Arabia and the UAE highlight. With the exception of Bahrain, and possibly Saudi Arabia given its size and internal discontent, mass uprisings are not likely, even if millions of migrant workers took part.

Despite all the change afoot in the MENA, it looks like we will be watching a Gulf version of the Game of Thrones for some time  to come, while the very real torture and sexual depravity going on in the Gulf that the HBO series so revels in, is all off-camera.

Paul Cochrane is an journalist living in Beirut. Read other articles by Paul.