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Los Angeles Times Interview

Sheik Hamad ibn Kalifa al Thani

Taking the Lead--and the Heat-- for Political Reform in Qatar

June 22, 1997|Robin Wright | Robin Wright, author of "Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam" (Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster), covers global issues for The Times

WASHINGTON — In 1995, Sheik Hamad ibn Khalifa al Thani became the first of the younger generation of princes in the Persian Gulf sheikdoms to assume power. He did it, to the consternation of leaders in key neighboring states, by overthrowing his father. And that was only the beginning.

He has since challenged convention, policy and even political taboos in the cloistered and ultraconservative emirates by gradually opening up Qatar, the tiny peninsula near Saudi Arabia that was one of the world's most closed societies, and implicitly daring others to follow suit. The first elections are around the corner.

"The new world order gave Qatar two choices: either to move forward with the changes brought by this order or be paralyzed by these new challenges," Hamad told an audience at Georgetown University during his first U.S. visit this month. "If we steadfastly resist these changes, the pressure will build and great instability will result. As your President John Kennedy once said, 'Those who make peaceful revolutions impossible will make violent revolutions inevitable.' "

Not all reforms have been universally welcomed, especially since some threaten the opulent lifestyle synonymous with petrodollar wealth. As he distributes the political franchise, Hamad plans to cut back public economic perks such as a free university education, housing and virtually automatic and highly paid government jobs. "Not everything I do is popular," he conceded with a laugh during a conversation after talks at the White House, State Department and Pentagon--and before flying to Disney World with his 7-year-old son.

Hamad has moved just as boldly in the region, dealing openly with all sides, even old enemies. Qatar has negotiated the sale of gas to Israel and its envoys host their Israeli counterparts, while Iraqi and Iranian diplomats are warmly received in Doha, the ultramodern capital. U.S. warplanes have also been temporarily based in the sheikdom, while U.S. military equipment is positioned there in the event of future threats to the region. No state in the oil-rich peninsula--indeed, in the world--has been as accommodating to all four countries. The modest reforms and diplomatic openings have led to Hamad's billing as the first emir for the 21st century.

Having resources helps. The population of Qataris totals a mere 550,000--there are more foreign residents than native citizens--yet Qatar boasts the third-largest natural-gas reserves in the world, after Iran and Russia.

But Hamad's most striking characteristic may be his style. In contrast to his illusive and stiff counterparts, as well as his own training at Britain's Sandhurst Military Academy, Qatar's emir is refreshingly informal and candid. He engages in repartee and laughs easily and often. He volunteered that his son was really just an excuse for the Disney World trip and said he wanted to make the visit without bodyguards or VIP passes "to get the American experience," an idea that later backfired somewhat when it was discovered he had no advance reservations. And when pressed on women's rights in a region that is one of the world's last male bastions, he took a reporter by the hand to chat with his wife. "Find out for yourself," he said. "She has quite a mind of her own."

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Question: You've been described as an emir for the 21st century. Why?

Answer: We are trying our best to develop our country and catch up with the democratic world. We opened the Doha Stock Exchange a month ago and soon we will open a development bank to promote domestic industry outside of the energy sector. Our intention is to build heavy industry which has a lot of high-tech. We are also trying to have Western [style] universities. We would like to see Qataris pushing themselves forward to take responsibility for such development.

The modernization of our economy has brought new thinking to other parts of our society. Just as we cannot run our economy as we did in the past, so we cannot expect our social and political systems to remain static and unchanged. We are laying the groundwork for the 21st century by planting the seeds for individual freedoms and participatory democracy. I have issued a decree abolishing our ministry of information and censorship and introducing freedom of the press. I admit I am not comfortable with everything I now read in our newspapers and see on television. Freedom of the press causes us a lot of problems. But criticism can be a good thing. We have to suffer at the beginning, but in the end I think we will be a healthier country with a free press.

Q: What political reforms are you planning or trying to introduce in Qatar?

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