Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ali al-Thani becomes Qatar’s man to watch

Directly descended from the founder of modern Qatar, Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ali al-Thani is the grandson, son and brother of previous Qatari rulers.

An obscure Qatari sheikh has become in less than a week one of Arabia’s best-known figures.

Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ali Bin Abdullah Bin Jassim al-Thani was reported by the official Saudi Press Agency on 16 August as having met Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman in Jeddah. The agency said King Salman had announced that the blockade on transport links between the kingdom and Qatar in force since 5 June would be lifted for Muslim pilgrims travelling for the hajj which starts at the end of this month. He ordered that Qatari pilgrims could fly from Al Ahsa and Dammam airports in the kingdom’s Eastern Province to Jeddah or Medina for free.

The following evening, Sheikh Abdullah was received by King Salman in in his summer holiday in Tangier and thanked for playing a role in lifting the air blockade.

The next day, he launched a Twitter account. Within hours, he had more than 200,000 followers.

The meeting between the Saudi king and an unknown member of Qatar’s ruling Al-Thani family looks inconsequential. Building a Twitter following greater than the number of adult Qatari nationals, however, suggests there is more to this story than meets the eye.

As indeed there is.

Sheikh Abdullah is no less than the grandson, son and brother of previous Qatari rulers. He’s directly descended from the man seen as the founder of what became the Qatari state. And his late brother Sheikh Ahmad Bin Ali Bin Abdullah Bin Jassim al-Thani, deposed as Qatar’s ruler in 1972, was married to Meryem bin Rashid al-Maktoum, elder sister of UAE Vice President and Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed, Dubai’s ruler.

Meryem’s home occupies a prime site on Dubai creek close to the British consulate.

Since the breach between Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Arab states in June, there’s been speculation that the only solution acceptable to Riyadh is a change at the top in Qatar.

This would involve its ruler Sheikh Tamim stepping aside and a complete end to the influence on Qatari policy of his father Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa, Qatar’s ruler from 1995 until 2013, and of former Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim.

Saudi Arabia and its anti-Qatar partners have dismissed this possibility. But little is inconceivable in Arabian politics – so long as power is retained by ruling families.

Hence Sheikh Abdullah’s sudden fame. He’s a contender.

Sheikh Abdullah’s brother was deposed by Sheikh Ahmad’s cousin Sheikh Khalifa Bin Hamad in 1972 in circumstances similar to those that surrounded the replacement of Sheikh Khalifa himself by his son 23 years later.

Sheikh Abdullah’s father Sheikh Ali, was the eldest son of Sheikh Abdullah Bin Jassim al-Thani, Qatar’s ruler from 1913 until 1949. It was in this period that the UK recognised the Al-Thanis as the ruling family of Qatar which became in 1916 a signatory of a treaty that made it effectively part of the British Empire until 1971.

Shaikh Khalifa’s father Sheikh Hamad was Sheikh Abdullah Bin Jassim’s second son and had been named heir. From 1940 until his premature death in 1948, Sheikh Hamad was Qatar’s effective ruler.

Sheikh Abdullah by then was 69. He largely stepped aside the following year in favour of his Sheikh Ali. Sheikh Abdullah died in 1957.

Sheikh Abdullah Bin Ali Bin Abdullah Bin Jassim’s sudden prominence is the result of three discontinuities in the rule Al-Thani dynasty since the end of the Second World War:

  • The premature death of the heir apparent Sheikh Hamad Bin Abdullah in 1948
  • The deposition of his brother Sheikh Ahmad Bin Ali in 1972 by Hamad Bin Abdullah’s son Sheikh Khalifa, Sheikh Abdullah’s cousin
  • The deposition of Sheikh Khalifa by Sheikh Hamad.

Sheikh Abdullah’s position in the Al-Thani family is underpinned by the fact that his grandfather Sheikh Abdullah was Qatar’s undisputed ruler for 36 years.

Sheikh Abdullah’s father Sheikh Jassim, ruler from 1878 until 1913, is known as “The Founder” because of his role in establishing Qatar’s autonomy with the Al-Thanis as its dominant clan.

The schism with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is the result of decades of differences between Doha and its Arab neighbours.

Nothing that’s happened in the past two months suggests it can end without Doha making big concessions to the kingdom and the emirates.

Qatar has huge financial resources and a vital role in regional and global energy markets. It’s supported by Iran and Turkey and can cope with the economic consequences of the blockade, for years if it wants to.

But the affair is exposing fissures within the Al-Thani family that history suggests can prove decisive.


The seven rulers of Qatar since 1878

Sheikh Jassim Bin Mohammed al-Thani, ruler 1878-1913 (succeeded on his death by his son)

Sheikh Abdullah Bin Jassim al-Thani, ruler 1878-49 (stepped aside in favour of his son)

Sheikh Ali Bin Abdullah Bin Jassim al-Thani, ruler 1949-60 (deposed with British connivance though the official record shows he stepped aside because of ill-health in favour of his son)

Sheikh Ahmad Bin Ali Bin Abdullah Bin Jassim al-Thani, ruler 1960-72 (deposed by his cousin)

Sheikh Khalifa Bin Hamad Bin Abullah Bin Jassim al-Thani, ruler 1972-1995 (deposed by his son)

Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalilfa Bin Hamad Bin Abdullah Bin Jassim al-Thani, ruler 1995-2013 (stepped aside for his son)

Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Bin Khalifa Bin Hamad Bin Abdullah Bin Jassim al-Thani, ruler 2013 to present day.

For more about the modern history of Qatar and the Gulf, see The New Gulf: how modern Arabia is changing the world for good by Edmund O’Sullivan.