PARIS – Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, is a man, to quote rock geopoliticos Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, “of wealth and taste”. Not to mention his second wife, the ravishing Sheikh Moza, one of the most powerful women in the Middle East. It goes without saying that the Qatari royal couple had to be bitten by the Francophilia bug, super-villa in Cannes included (not to mention the duplex near Place de la Concorde).
But in terms of global power couples, few rival the complicity between the emir of Qatar and adrenalin junkie and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. After all, Sarko Le Premier (Sarko the First), as cynics call him in France, could not find a better partner to anchor France’s Arab foreign policy. At the Elysee Palace, very cozy relations with a key Persian Gulf actor are considered ultra-strategic. Especially if the actor in question holds the third-largest proven gas reserves in the world, only behind Russia and Iran.
The emir and Sarko are so close that whenever there’s business to be done – and that’s a lot of business – the emir calls Sarko directly, bypassing the usual diplomatic channels. Not for nothing the Qatari royal couple are regular guests of honor in the traditional French parade of July 14.
The emir is indeed a fascinating character. Faithful to the (previous) empire, he studied at the British military academy in Sandhurst. In June 1995 he applied a bloodless palace coup and snatched power from his own father, who happened to be living la dolce vita in Europe. Once again flirting with iconoclasm, the emir then not only famously begged to differ from the House of Saud in virtually all matters but got into no-holds-barred journalism by launching a made in Arabia 24-hour news channel, al-Jazeera.
The emir holds no grudge against the West. Far from it; the best example may be the muscular influence of the Rand Corporation in Qatar. He is now carefully cultivating the profile of an international mediator – as in the Doha accords that led to the 2008 Lebanese presidential election.
When in doubt, invest
The power love affair between the emir and Sarko was born when Sarko was still France’s minister of interior – or, critics say, “top cop”, at a time when agreements were basically reached under the “war on terror” framework. Now everything is at play – especially Qatari investments in France, such as the renovation of the ultra-chic Hotel Lambert, owned by the emir’s brother, as well as the inevitable multitude of villas in the Cote d’Azur. No wonder in February the French parliament approved a bill exempting from taxes any investments made by the emir or his public entities in the French real estate market.
Inevitably this is a matter of a monster, US$80 billion sovereign fund, the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), created in 2005 to diversify a monoculture economy until then dominated by oil and gas. QIA simply eschews any opportunities demanding less than 100 million euros (US$142.4 million). Europe accounts for one-third of the investments of Qatari Diar, the company in charge of the financial transactions for the fund.
QIA won’t blink to place 7 billion euros to get 25% of Porsche. It already controls 15% of the London Stock Exchange, 8% of Barclays, 2% of Credit Suisse and 8% of the top bank in China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.
Certainly more piles of cash are invested in London, but the emir’s heart beats for Paris. Qatar is literally taking over rows and rows of office buildings between Opera and Madeleine in central Paris. Why real estate? It’s because what Qataris know best. Even the mayor of Paris, the colorful Bertrand Delanoe, is now in full campaign to make the Qataris invest in other, less pricey, Parisian neighborhoods.
Qatar’s dream is not exactly to become a real estate powerhouse. The emirate wants to be respected as a model of regional development. That’s where Moza Bent Nasser al-Misned, the emir’s wife, jumps in.
The Qatar Foundation, over which she presides, finances a host of humanitarian and cultural projects – such as the recent ecology awareness global blockbuster Home; the movie’s director, Yann Arthus-Bertrand, received 1 million euros from the foundation. The emir’s wife is now in the French Academy of Beaux-Arts.
She is also vice president of Qatar’s Supreme Council for Education, and directs a giant campus (the general plan was designed by superstar architect Arata Isozaki) where six American universities are already shelling out diplomas (60% of them to women). Sheikh Moza is an extremely active campaigner for education as the path for feminine emancipation in the Middle East. Quite striking, when one knows how the Qatar peninsula has been for a long time heavily marked by intolerant Wahhabism.
As in all Gulf emirates that have been propelled in less than half a century from a subsistence economy based on fishing to untold oil and gas wealth, culture is not exactly a priority. “Culture” in the region could be defined as the cement of a social cohesion that still has to be invented.
So yes, when they hear the world “culture”, Qataris wave their checkbook. Qatar didn’t get the new Louvre – it was snatched by Abu Dhabi. But Qatar got the architect of the Grand Louvre.
The architects come from the rich north, the laborers from the poor south. This symbiotic apotheosis is more than evident at the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, launched in November 2008. Cost: only $350 million. The architect had to be a genius, Chinese-American I M Pei – who, as the emir well knew, built the Louvre Pyramid. The museum is a sensational mix of cubes and curves erected over an artificial island away from the Doha corniche, facing from a distance a spectacular 21st-century skyline. The collection, as a former expert from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London put it, is also spectacular, covering 1,300 years of history in three continents.
And “culture” does not stop here. Qatar is also building a Museum of National History (the architect is another superstar, Jean Nouvel); a Museum of Natural History; a National Library (by superstar architect Arata Isozaki); a Photography Museum (architect Santiago Calatrava); and a Museum of Contemporary Art.
The glass pyramid
Anyway, “culture” in Qatar remains predominantly business. And business is definitely booming for Alcatel, Alstom, Areva, GDF Suez, Total – all the big names of French big business. Vinci, for instance, is building no less than the number one bridge in the world between Doha and Bahrain, 43 kilometers long. GDF Suez is installing a desalinization plant in the middle of the desert.
Business is also booming in European territory. Qatar spent over $2 billion this year on five A-380 Airbus jets, not to mention the $17 billion spent two years ago for 80 A-350s. Add to it the 1.5 billion euros for 20 Tigre military helicopters from Eurocopter (a branch of the giant European consortium EADS). The French arms industry especially simply can’t get enough of Qatar – betting all its chips on a commercial war against the Americans already doing business with Doha. EADS sold to Qatar their system of border surveillance as well as radars; now the emir wants an anti-missile system.
Qatar is indeed Paradox Central. In the tiny emirate of only 11,000 square kilometers, one finds only 900,000 people – 80% of them expatriates – as well as al-Jazeera, a mega-American military base key for the US Central Command and the wife and daughters of Saddam Hussein. On top of it, Qatar finances Hamas in Palestine. Annual per capita gross national product is a ridiculously high $74,000. Crisis? What crisis?
Qatar’s love affair with all things French does not exactly include “liberty, equality, fraternity”. Everything in what is technically a constitutional monarchy is in the hands of the al-Thani clan. Socially, it’s a hardcore pyramid. What’s the place of “Western liberal democracy” in all this ocean/desert of cash? The emir and his ultra-pro team have been skillfully projecting Qatar’s global image as an extremely modern country. In Qatar everything seems to be diluted in the overwhelming liquid modernity flux of services, banking and smooth efficiency. As much as Dubai in the United Arab Emirates copied to the hilt the Singaporean model, Qatar is re-mixing the Dubai copy. A haven of social justice it ain’t.
France and the European Union for that matter – can live with it. Most of Qatar’s gas – the country is the number one exporter of LNG (liquefied natural gas) – goes to Asia. Last year, France bought only 85 million euros in oil and 20 million euros in gas from Qatar. The possibilities of expansion, not only for France but the EU as a whole, are limitless. Especially because Brussels’ dream is to escape from the Russian energy stranglehold. The holy grail is North Pars, the largest gas field in the world, which Qatar shares with Iran. Forget about villas in the Cote d’Azur; it’s big – energy – business in this node of Eurabia that will be booming for a long time to come.