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France

Continuity trumps change on Hollande’s Qatar visit

© AFP

Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-06-22

French President François Hollande arrived in Qatar Saturday amid reports of a transition in the Gulf kingdom. But power transitions in neither Paris nor Doha look likely to alter the economic underpinnings of Franco-Qatari relations.

French President François Hollande arrived in Qatar on Saturday at the end of a week that saw the oil-rich Gulf kingdom in the international spotlight once again following the opening of a Taliban office in the capital, Doha.

Hollande’s entourage includes top French business leaders as well as Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, who will attend a meeting of the Friends of Syria group.

Participants at the Friends of Syria meeting include US Secretary of State John Kerry, who arrives in Doha weeks after the White House announced that the US would begin sending arms and ammunition to Syria's rebels.

Qatar, along with Saudi Arabia, is believed to be among the biggest suppliers of light arms and ammunition to the Syrian rebels although the two Gulf states have never publicly confirmed their involvement in shipping arms.

Hollande is expected to discuss the Syrian uprising with Qatar's Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani during his two-day visit, according to French officials.

But the focus of Hollande’s visit is boosting economic ties between the two countries – a continuation of the policies of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, that have made the wealthy Gulf emirate a key player on France’s economic stage.

Over the past five years, Qatar has invested – directly or indirectly – around $15 billion in France, according to the French Foreign Ministry. This does not include the private investments of the Emir and his family.

Supporting Arab uprisings, crushing dissent

With a GDP of $183 billion and a population of 1.9 million, Qatar has the highest per capita income in the world. The oil wealth and lack of public consultative forums have largely kept a lid on public dissent across the kingdom.

But there have been rumblings about the lack of openness on the country’s considerable oil wealth, which critics note is often regarded as part of the ruling family’s assets.

Over the past two years, Qatar’s support for the Arab uprisings has raised questions over the absence of democratic reforms in a country where political parties and trade unions are banned.

In the wake of the Arab uprisings, Qatari authorities have banned a book, published in Beirut last year, by a group calling themselves Qataris for Reform that criticises the lack of transparency and access to information in the kingdom.

But on the Internet – especially social media sites – there have been growing attacks against the tiny, but disproportionately influential nation, particularly over the kingdom’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood across the Arab world.

A son set for the throne, a cousin as prime minister

The rumblings mounted earlier this month amid reports that the Emir is preparing to hand over power to his son, 33-year-old Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad.

“The rise of Prince Tamim is not surprising, since he was designated heir to the throne in 2003,” said Karim Sader, a political analyst specialising in the Persian Gulf nations, in an interview with FRANCE 24 last week. “Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, whose health has been shaky, wants to take the lead in his son’s succession.”

According to Sader, the succession plan is part of a longstanding competition within the six-member GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) between tiny Qatar and GCC giant, Saudi Arabia.

“We must not forget that Doha has been trying for years to compete with Saudi Arabia’s regional and religious claims by differentiating itself from Riyadh and its gerontocracy, which is entangled in dynastic quarrels,” said Sader, referring to the Saudi line of succession from brother to brother among the now-ageing sons of the first Saudi monarch, Ibn Saud.

“This rapid transition is being driven by Qatar’s fierce commitment to embody a modern and dynamic regional power led by a younger generation of princes,” said Sader.

Emir Hamad himself was among the region’s young ruling set when he overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1995 at the age of 43. While the young emir had the support of various al-Thani factions, his ousted father returned from an overseas trip determined to cling to power, but was thwarted in his attempt to launch a counter-coup.

Analysts believe the current monarch is determined to avoid the turbulence of his own accession.

The son of the emir’s favourite wife, Sheikha Mozah, Crown Prince Tamim has featured more prominently in the official press than his cousin, Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, a powerful figure who is considered the architect of the modern Qatari economy.

Sader himself believes there will be little substantive changes in Qatari economic and foreign policy if and when a new king takes over. “Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani remains a pillar of the regime and will continue to play a key role in the corridors of power because if he is sidelined, it could lead to serious friction within the ruling dynasty.”

Encouraging Qatari ‘shopping sprees’

If continuity is on the cards in Qatar’s corridors of power, there has also been surprising consistency in France’s bilateral policy with Qatar under the Sarkozy and Hollande administrations.

The former French president was widely viewed as having close ties to the al-Thani family. In 2008, Sarkozy signed a fiscal convention exempting Qatar state-owned entities from capital gains taxes on property in France. Three years later, he facilitated the sale of the top French football club PSG (Paris Saint-Germain) to Qatar, lobbying on both sides to reach an accord, according to a Financial Times report.

Despite disquiet over what the French see as Qatar’s multi-million-dollar “shopping sprees” - which has seen Qatar increase its stakes in French hotels, real estate and the luxury goods sector – Hollande is set to try to boost bilateral economic ties and push France's commercial interests in Qatar.

Following an Indian bid on a $15 billion Rafale sale, France is once again hoping to push for the sale of the French fighter jet during Hollande’s trip to Qatar.

According to the French Ministry of Foreign Trade, France has attracted 10% of Qatari investments abroad – in large part due to the capital gains tax exemptions introduced under the Sarkozy administration.

During his visit to Qatar, Hollande is expected to push Qatari buyers to invest not just in real estate and luxury goods, but in the French technology sector as well.
 

Date created : 2013-06-21

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