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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

The Qatari royal close to the Saudi leadership

Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali has become a frequent guest of the Saudi royal court quickly elevating the royal’s status as an integral figure in the three-month old crisis

Saudi King Salman, left, meets Qatari Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali, at the monarch's vacation home in Tangiers, Morocco. Saudi Press Agency via AP
Saudi King Salman, left, meets Qatari Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali, at the monarch's vacation home in Tangiers, Morocco. Saudi Press Agency via AP

Photos of a smiling Saudi king and a Qatari royal holding hands after securing Hajj for thousands of Qatari’s was a far cry from the crisis tarnishing the two country's relationship over the summer.

Just weeks before the pilgrimage, King Salman met with the Qatari Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali. A few days earlier Sheikh Abdullah and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held discussions, which were widely seen as the reason behind why Saudi Arabia opened the doors for Qatari pilgrims amid an economic and travel boycott of the country.

Since then, Sheikh Abdullah became a frequent guest of the Saudi royal court quickly elevating the royal’s status as an integral figure in the three-month old crisis.

The breakneck speed with which he has become known is represented by his Twitter account, which was created a day after his meeting with Prince Mohammed and grew to have more than 300,000 followers in less than two weeks.

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Read more:

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Qatar crisis: What you need to know

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Sheikh Abdullah’s role as a representative of the Qatari royal family was denied in Doha but the Saudi Arabian government moved along with his role as emissary nonetheless.

After that first meeting in August with the Crown Prince, he flew to Tangiers, Morocco by invitation of Prince Mohammed’s father, the King Salman.

Upon their first public meeting, Sheikh Abdullah kissed King Salman on the nose, a Bedouin greeting denoting respect towards an elder.

His frequency at Prince Mohammed’s side supports the idea that Saudi Arabia is reminding Qataris and others of how the current emir, Sheikh Tamim, came to rule Qatar.

Sheikh Abdullah’s grandfather, father, and brother were all rulers of Qatar.

Sheikh Ahmed bin Ali, Sheikh Abdullah’s half-brother, was toppled by Emir Tamim’s grandfather, Khalifa bin Hamad. The Qatari palace witnessed another coup when Sheikh Hamad, his son, ousted the now deceased ruler ending his 23-year rule.

Professor Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute, said that it is more likely that Sheikh Abdullah's sudden reappearance in public life is connected to the Qatar crisis than anything else.

The sheikh left his post as the founder and chairman of the Qatar Equestrian Foundation in 1988 and has lived in Saudi Arabia for decades.

“For this reason, among others, there is general bemusement in Qatar at Sheikh Abdullah's sudden rise to prominence", Mr Ulrichsen said. In turn, the government of Qatar has organised various events in the past three months to have people publicly rally around the emir.

Salman Al Ansari, head of the Washington-based Saudi American Public Relation Affairs Committee, has been vocal in supporting the sheikh.

“I urge the anti-terror quarter to recognise Shaikh Abdullah bin Ali Al Thani as the only legitimate Emir of Qatar,” said Mr Al Ansari.

Support for the unknown Sheikh is also growing in Saudi Arabia with a number of young Saudis on Twitter embracing Riyadh’s line against Qatar.

Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Adel Al Jubeir said that the Qatar crisis, which has seen Arab countries cut ties with Doha, is likely to continue for some time.