The Gulf is abuzz with talk of Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ali Al Thani, the mysterious Qatari royal who came out of nowhere and is suddenly being groomed as an emir-in-waiting, ready to fly back home and assume the throne when the present ruler, Tamim Bin Hamad, is overthrown.
King Salman of Saudi Arabia received Abdullah Bin Ali at his summer residence in Morocco on 17 August and he was also given an audience with the powerful Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman. Saud al-Qahtani, who is chairman of the Saudi Media Studies Center and a royal adviser, stated that Arab kings have nothing but respect for the emir, and Saudi activists on Twitter launched a hashtag, “Glory to Abdullah Bin Ali.” One journalist even tweeted: “History will recall that amid the Qatari crisis, there was a wise man named Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ali.”
Since the present crisis in the Gulf erupted in early June, Saudi Arabia has been trying hard to find a replacement for Emir Tamim, a young and flamboyant ruler who happens to be at daggers drawn with Saudi Crown Prince Salman and his Abu Dhabi counterpart Mohammad Bin Zayed. Both men are furious with Tamim for cuddling up to Iran and for hosting notorious figures from the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood in Doha, such as Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal and the organization’s spiritual godfather, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi.
An aging Egyptian cleric with paramount influence throughout the Muslim World, Qaradawi has been living in Qatar since the 1960s and has cast a magical spell on Tamim and his father and predecessor Hamad Bin Khalifa. Not only has Tamim refused to expel him but he actually received Qaradawi at his palace in June, and was photographed kissing his hand — an act of blind obedience in the Arab World. Additionally, he has refused to close down or even alter the editorial policies of al-Jazeera TV, as demanded by Saudi Arabia, and has denied any connection to jihadi groups operating in Syria and Iraq. The Saudis are convinced that he is lying to them and are seemingly bent on getting rid of him.
Shortly after his appearance, arm-in-arm, with King Salman, Abdullah Bin Ali set up a Twitter account, which, in less than two weeks, has whipped up an impressive 305,000 followers, although the emir himself has made no more than 16 tweets. Officially the account is to facilitate the travel of Qataris to Mecca for the annual hajj pilgrimage that starts on September 1. The Saudi border had been closed to Qatar and Qatar Airways banned since early June, making the mandatory hajj impossible for 20,000 Qatari pilgrims. As a gesture of goodwill toward Abdullah Bin Ali aimed at elevating his standing within Qatari society, King Salman has re-opened the border crossing for the hajj period and facilitated travel to Mecca — although not on Qatar Airways. “What I did was only for the good of Qatar,” tweeted Abdullah, adding a note that Qataris ought to return home quickly as the grace period offered by the Saudi King ends on September 5.
Abdullah Bin Ali hails from a prominent branch of the Qatari royal family. The Saudi channel al-Arabiya says his ancestors are well known “for their good governance and administration of the country.” Abdullah’s grandfather, father and brother were all former emirs, which probably explains his own thirst to assume the title. His grandfather, Abdullah Bin Jassem Al Thani, ruled Qatar from 1913 to 1949, abdicating in favour of his eldest son, Ali Ibn Abdullah (father of the new emir-in-waiting), who ruled until 1960. Power then went to Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ali’s brother, Ahmad Bin Ali, who ruled from 1960 until 1972, when he was toppled by Emir Tamim’s grandfather, Hamad Bin Khalifa.
During the reign of Ahmad Bin Ali, Qatar declared its independence, in 1971, and significant oil fields were discovered, helping to gradually relax the country’s crippling dependence on Saudi Arabia. Abdullah watched his brother assume the throne and probably expected that it would one day pass to him. The 1972 coup ended that ambition —seemingly forever — until the current crisis erupted in June, injecting Abdullah with new confidence and hope. Both his brother and father died in exile and were flown back to Doha, where they were given royal funerals. And that’s probably how Tamim Bin Hamad planned to treat Abdullah when he died — never expecting an earlier comeback, likely through a bloodless palace coup engineered by Saudi Arabia.