x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Qatar's cabinet shuffle puts focus on regional relations

Competence and continuity are at the fore in the ministerial changes announced this week in Doha.

The handover of power in Qatar is now complete: the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, addressed the nation on Wednesday in a 15-minute speech, followed by an announcement of his first cabinet that will assist Qatar's leader as he begins his work.

Although there was not much in the way of political substance, Sheikh Tamim's speech was still an impressive one. He exuded gravitas and appeared open-minded and inclusive.

In a region beset with political problems and divisions, the new emir's words signified a genuine desire to work on relations with neighbouring countries within the framework of the Gulf Cooperation Council, while rejecting sectarian and religious discrimination.

"The speech appears to speak to all of us," one Qatari political commentator remarked to me. Certainly, Qataris have had an emotional two days and the speeches of both Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, the former emir, and Sheikh Tamim have filled them with pride. The speeches also had a calming influence on a nation nervous about the prospects of transition during a turbulent period in Middle East history.

But running a country is not just about speeches. The cabinet appointments allow us to see a little more clearly the expected direction of Qatar in the immediate future.

Following the departure of Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani (HBJ), Qatar's charismatic former prime minister and foreign minister of 18 year standing, and Qatar's face in Arab regional politics, debate surrounded who, and indeed, how he could be replaced.

The appointment of Abdullah bin Nasr Al Thani as prime minister is seen as a positive sign both inside and outside of Qatar. Minister of state for interior affairs since 1995 and de facto interior minister in all but name, Sheikh Abdullah is seen as a competent, respected official who has worked closely with Sheikh Tamim on many fronts.

"It is a signal to the locals that a man who took his ministry to the next level is being rewarded," said a Qatari government source, indicating that the message of the new administration is that competency is the most valued asset for any senior Qatari minister.

It should be noted that the removal of the previous interior minister is a step that has been viewed very positively by Qatar's western allies, owing to questions surrounding his political beliefs and associations.

This step indicates moderation and inclusiveness, and is certainly a welcome move.

Sheikh Abdullah's appointment signals that a competent official, well-versed in domestic affairs, will lead the drive to focus on internal development and the social cohesion of the country.

A more obvious appointment was that of Dr Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah as the foreign minister. In the last year, he has been particularly active, working extensively with the Syrian opposition's National Coalition and in Yemen and at the Arab League.

At the March summit of the Arab League in Doha, he was clearly visibly seated to the right of the previous emir as Qatar took up the League's chairmanship for the years 2013 and 2014. Dr Al Attiyah's highly visible role led many to the expectation that he would take over from HBJ should he ever step down.

His appointment indicates that Qatar is unlikely to change its main foreign policy tracks any time soon: commitments to Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, which have been both time consuming and expensive, will likely continue.

Most importantly, the Syrian file will see little change. The fact that both Dr Al Attiyah and Sheikh Tamim expended considerable energy on this issue means that the policy they helped to build will remain in place.

It should be noted that the Syrian embassy in Doha is in the hands of the opposition, and Qatar has worked to build the legitimacy of this political body while working actively against Bashar Al Assad's regime on the ground in Syria. There will be no change to this current policy track in the immediate future.

Another interesting appointment has been that of Dr Hessa Al Jabr as the minister of information technology. Although it is not the first time Qatar has appointed a female minister, Dr Al Jabr comes with a high pedigree and considerable reputation from her former post as secretary general of the Supreme Council of Information and Communication Technology.

Qatar has faced numerous threats against its cyber security infrastructure in recent months. The country is in need of a steady hand to face these growing and serious threats against its security. Dr Al Jabr's appointment indicates how seriously the leadership takes this threat.

Other ministers remain in their jobs and have both positive and negative marks in their careers that attract a mixture of grumbling and indifference from Qataris who have had many years of experience of dealing with them.

There is little in the way of surprise or great change in Qatar's junior ministries.

Additionally the new emir's mother, Sheikha Moza, remains the chairperson of Qatar Foundation, with a remit over education and social development. And her influence on domestic politics is as strong as ever.

All in all, the cabinet appointed by the new emir signals continuity while sending out signals that the leadership is focused on appointing capable and established ministers to its senior posts.

Qatar's future looks to be one of stable engagement in the foreign policy arena, with renewed hope for closer GCC integration, while simultaneously placing greater importance on domestic issues as the country prepares for World Cup 2022 and addresses the growing pains associated with Doha's rapid expansion.

 

Michael Stephens is a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute Qatar

On Twitter: @MStephensGulf