It’s not often you hear about a former emir dying, because most emirs only become former emirs upon their death. But Khalifa b. Hamad Al Thani, the former Emir of Qatar and the grandfather of the current emir, Tamim b. Hamad Al Thani, had kind of an unusual regal experience, all things considered. And since I once lived in Qatar, I figured I should note his passing yesterday at the age of 84.
Khalifa succeeded his cousin, Ahmad b. Ali Al Thani, in a bloodless coup (remember that term, we’ll see it again) on February 22, 1972. Khalifa had previously served as Ahmad’s heir apparent and variously as his prime minister and finance minister, and he was really the one running the country on a day-to-day basis. So the coup, carried out while Ahmad was away on a hunting trip in Iran, created a minimal amount of disruption. Khalifa’s reign saw a fairly significant reconstruction of the Qatari government, as the cabinet was expanded at the expense of much of the traditional powers of the heir apparent–this is the royal example of climbing the ladder and then trying to pull it up after you, I guess. His reign also coincided with dramatic expansions in the Qatari oil and gas industries, and while this was certainly good news for the Qatari economy, it’s also where things eventually went wrong for Khalifa.
Although he tried to shrink the heir’s role in actual statecraft, when he named his son Hamad as heir apparent in 1977 he did begin giving the kid some actual jobs to do in order to prepare him to one day become emir. One of those involved running the Qatari Supreme Planning Council, which was responsible for setting the country’s economic direction. Obviously, with all those energy resources to play with, this was a very powerful position for the prince. And while this arrangement worked fairly well for several years, ultimately it was probably a move by Khalifa to take some of Hamad’s growing authority away that sparked the bloodless coup (told you) that ousted Khalifa in 1995. As in 1972, the action started when the emir had left the country, in this case for a vacation in Switzerland. Citing unnamed “circumstances” (i.e., the internal power struggle, plus it’s likely that Khalifa was a bit too enamored with intoxicating beverages), Hamad announced that he was seizing power. This went off without a hitch, mostly because it seems like everybody in the Qatari government except for Khalifa was fully aware of what was happening and most of them approved. Khalifa wasn’t a very active ruler anymore (hey, booze is a hell of a drug), and apparently most of the royal family believed that the country was better off in Hamad’s hands.
When now-Emir Hamad called him in Switzerland to break the news (“hey, dad, so you’ll never believe what happened today…”), Khalifa was understandably enraged. There followed what must have been a pretty hilarious attempt at a counter-coup to put Khalifa back on the throne:
Six hundred Bedouin tribesmen, recruited by Khalifa loyalists, crossed into Qatar from Saudi Arabia, but once across the border many became lost. Meanwhile a band of French mercenaries, hired as a “seaborne invasion force,” left their five-star hotel in Doha and went to the beach, but they couldn’t find their boats. And there were stories like this, from a man who had been sitting in his garden when he heard a rumble “rather like a tank.” He tiptoed to the garden’s edge and looked out beyond the gate. To his astonishment he saw a Land Rover filled with half a dozen large Bedouin men, their red-and-white-checkered kaffiyehs dancing in the wind. “They were arguing among themselves,” he told me, “and they were clearly lost. How is it possible to get lost in Doha?” he shook his head. “One of them was shouting ‘Where’s the palace?’ into his mobile phone.”
Seriously, though, Doha was impossible to get lost in when I was there, in the mid 2000s. I can’t imagine how much harder it would have been 10 years earlier. Anyhow, after the crew of the USS Dipshit finished getting lost, Hamad rounded many of them up and put them in jail (I’m being too lighthearted here; I’m pretty sure there were some executions that came out of this plot), then decided to demand that his father return the billions in oil money he’d taken (I’d say “embezzled,” but for an absolute monarchy like Qatar the term doesn’t really apply) from the state. Khalifa did return some money, though not so much that he wasn’t able to live a rewarding exile life.
Normally that would be the end of the story, and we’d note that Khalifa died yesterday in comfy exile in Paris or wherever. But there’s actually a final twist to this story. In 2004, not long after returning to Qatar to attend his wife’s funeral, Khalifa was allowed to return permanently. When Hamad abdicated in 2013 in favor of his son Tamim, this put Qatar in the highly unusual position of having three current and former rulers all living in the country together at once. Now they’re down to two.