Interview: Qatar's Sheikh Mohamed AJ Althani

An author, historian and former economy and trade minister, Qatar’s HE Sheikh Mohamed AJ Althani questions whether Arabs are doing enough to retain their culture, and explains why the state cannot play a central role in the diversification of local economies forever
Interview: Qatar's Sheikh Mohamed AJ Althani
By Courtney Trenwith
Sun 20 Oct 2013 02:30 PM

Sifting through his string of prayer beads, Qatar’s HE Sheikh Mohamed AJ Althani is lamenting today’s “spoiling era” — a time when modern technology, fashion and the English language are casting tradition and custom into the shadows, risking national identity.

Arab parents are now speaking in English with their children, sports fans are masquerading with flags of another country, while Qatar’s history — albeit short — is being more and more condensed in schools, he tells Arabian Business.

“It’s a spoiling era for the children,” he says. “It’s just that the world has become more convenient for students now, with the internet and the reach of iPhones.

“I used to travel with my wife and see families around us from the Middle East. They all spoke Arabic. But now they deliberately speak with their children in English. That’s a big problem.

“We all now take our children to a Western-influenced school. But if it was up to me I would leave the first years for children to really remember this part of the world; religion and culture are very important and if they miss out on that they get lost later as they grow up, so it’s a big challenge.  And that’s something I’m worried about.”

The issue has become a passionate topic during our interview hours before Sheikh Mohamed launches his second book, a biography of his grandfather, Sheikh Jassim Bin Muhammad Bin Thani, the acclaimed founder of modern-day Qatar.

One hundred and fifty years ago, Sheikh Jassim was a young and rebellious 23-year-old when he began a legacy of fending off the British, the Ottomans and Bahrain to protect a coastline linked closely to the pearling industry, and started on his vision to create what is now the wealthiest state in the world according to gross domestic product per capita.

All this at a time when Arabs still wended their way through the desert with little more than intuition and spiritual guidance.

“For a gentleman who thought ‘this place can be a country’ and look at what it is today, I think is intriguing,” Sheikh Mohamed says, explaining his motivation to write Jassim The Leader: Founder of Qatar.

“When I went deeper and deeper [into the research], I always remembered, this place [Qatar] could have been gone. It wasn’t there; [throughout history] it was part of Saudi Arabia or part of somewhere...but there were no borders for Qatar. Oman was more or less structured, Kuwait was there, Saudi was divided but it was there...but Qatar was never even considered to have a future, but when Jassim came it was in his mind, he had this vision.”

It was nearly a century later before the first oil deposits were found off the coast of the country he created. And it was another few decades before the spoils were really earned and Qatar began to splash money at all things modern, building a skyline Sheikh Jassim could never have imagined.

The Qataris, like the majority of Arabs, inevitably became sucked up in globalisation, with the young in particular grasping technology and striving for what they saw outside.

And that is where the delicate balancing act comes in.

“There is a spoiling factor here, where people forget the basics and I think the foundations of basics are very important,” Sheikh Mohamed says.

“They do learn [the country’s history] but I don’t think it’s enough. During my education around the 1970s and mid 1980s there was more history about this region than now. People have taken the — I would say — false perception that you need to be in this fast internet age and unless you have a Western kind of education you will be behind. I think that’s not true.

“It’s happening in the whole region.

“Technology and the way people have perceived this world [are to blame]. All these advances that we see are coming from the Western, English, Anglo-Saxon dominance...  that is the influence.”

“We have to realise that today there are no barriers, you cannot stop your children or your people from knowing and seeing and hearing what’s going on in the world, so the best way is to embrace it but try to be ready for it and try to educate your population, your children, your people, that this is coming and we have to live with it,” he says.

“We cannot just close our doors. In fact, I would like to see more innovation here that would match this.”

Sheikh Mohamed is a keen advocate for opening up opportunities for entrepreneurs, particularly those in creative industries, to allow them to flourish. Their success is what will drive Qatar’s economy in the future — not oil and gas — he says. “Before we didn’t see Qatari designers, but today we see Qatari designers and they came because they see there’s a vacuum here, people want something Arabic. We didn’t see artists, now there are artists. Two days ago there was an auction — I was surprised that Qatari art was very expensive, extremely expensive.

“We cannot, of course, compete with China in manufacturing... but for example, just opening up things to allow people to innovate or to show their abilities. If we create the environment for them and let them do it [they will].”

Sheikh Mohamed was trade and economy minister from December 2003 until March 2006 — when Qatar’s GDP was one quarter of what it is today. He expected the state would enjoy an oil and gas boom, but not so long and sustained as the past decade has proven to be.

“Only if the oil went above about $70 [per barrel],” he says. “When I was there, even in 2002, after I left, I could see that Qatar could sell this much LNG [liquefied natural gas]... [but] I never imagined the oil to stabilise at $100 because if you go into the history of oil in the 1960s it was at $1 then it went to $3 and then to $10; it never stayed at the top.

“What keeps it at the top — and people do not realise — is the boom in the information technology and how the world has learned about each other and people have managed to improve their standard of living. You have China, you have India, and now Africa, rising. The Far East is a booming economy again. And you have the Middle East. The Saudis maybe in 10 to 15 years will consume half of their production. So there will not be enough oil and that’s why the world is calculating this every day.

“Yes, the US will produce shale oil, it will produce shale gas, but still the world will need more.”

This is precisely when the word “diversification” is dropped into any conversation discussing the future of oil-reliant economies. It almost makes Sheikh Mohamed shudder.

“Diversification is a very buzz word, anyone who comes will say it,” he says. “I heard diversification when I was in high school in the 1970s. In 1978, I heard... ‘oh, Qatar, this country will not live on oil alone, we will make these steel plants, and petrochemicals...’

“Let me tell you, no one has ever succeeded in diversifying in the Gulf, because if you want to succeed in diversification you need to create the platform and the legal structure and the rule of law to make sure that private sectors and the innovators have access to the money — to whatever they need, a plot of land, a lease, a port, an airport — to diversify the economy.

“The state cannot diversify the economy; the state can make the major projects, yes, the billions of dollar projects, fine, but the state cannot go into the diversified world. If you look at, for example, England, it’s a services economy but it’s a huge economy,  and it’s all based on the innovations of entrepreneurs.

“The state cannot put its hand up and do everything, but in the Gulf the weight has always been taken by the state: I will do it, they cannot do it.”

Encouraging entrepreneurship has been a key theme of Gulf business in recent years, with others also calling for easier access to finance from banks, a stock exchange dedicated to small and medium sized businesses and a bankruptcy law that allows companies to fail.

While the number of entrepreneurs remains low in the region, Sheikh Mohamed is confident there is an underlying desire that is not yet being met.

“Most of the entrepreneurs want to do their own thing. The guy has a plan to make a small petrochemical project but he cannot do it because the state wants to do it and he falls back and does something else,” Sheikh Mohamed says.

“But if you allow people to do it, they will do it. Even China now is realising this... that’s why you have a boom in China. That’s how the United States became what it is.

“This is the best time and maybe the last time for us to allow the entrepreneurs to lead the economy. This will make a big difference and you will see a lot of innovation and competition with the rest of the world.”

Yet Sheikh Mohamed believes the Gulf is leading the way in the Arab world when it comes to supporting new business ventures.

“I think they have learned now. If there’s a place in the Arab world, the best one to do it and the easiest to do it are the Gulf states,” he says. “If you look at the Gulf states today they have proven to be a source of the Arab world. We see big changes in the mind of the young generations.

“Even if 1 percent [of the population are entrepreneurs] there are enough to make the others follow. But if we don’t give them a chance, that is a problem.

“It’s okay for the state later to say, okay I take 5 percent of your profit as a tax, or 10 percent; it’s fine. But give them this and... you will see how the world changes overnight.”

And change the world has. While Sheikh Mohamed advocates opening up the private sector, he is confident the Gulf has turned a corner in its quest for modernity and is somewhat retracing its steps, recapturing its past.

“You would be surprised how people are keen to keep their cultures,” Sheikh Mohamed says. “We just want to make sure they have passion for their culture, they have passions for their history. What will take you everywhere is your education and your heritage and belonging to a place.

“We just want the people to belong to a place and feel proud of the country they belong to. If you are from a country you should be proud and if it’s not making you proud then make it make you proud. It’s your country, you were born here, you learned here.

“[Teaching this] is the biggest challenge and my book hopefully will... show people that today you learn in this beautiful, air-conditioned building — [but] how did we get this? Jassim believed that there is a place here to be a country and he pursued it. He didn’t know Qatar would have the wealth of today; the whole income was thousands at that time, there was only pearl diving. That’s all. But they still could make a living, they had a farm, they had a beach house and they were happy.

“Of course we will change. You hardly saw anyone wearing trousers and a shirt in Qatar, now it’s normal. It’s okay; as long as his thinking is correct and good for his country and his people, it’s fine. I’m happy with this change, but I would like people to know their history and to build on it. It’s a balance and it’s a different tweak to it.”

Sheikh Mohamed uses Japan as a model for achieving the balance between tradition and technology.

“In Japan ... the whole modernity of life is there but they are Japanese and when they become Japanese they become Japanese, but when they become innovators and [with] everything they produce, education, even in medicine, they do it their way, why not?” he says.  “You don’t want to come from Australia [to the Gulf] and find a similar deeper thinking like you and speaking with an accent like you but they have different features. The world is too boring this way.”

Much of the Arab world has been looking at itself in the mirror in recent years in light of the Arab Spring that has toppled the regimes of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, has caused a two-and-a-half year civil war in Syria and led to tensions boiling over in other states, in particular Bahrain.

But Sheikh Mohamed, who wrote the book The Arab Spring & the Gulf States: Time to Embrace Change, says this historic period has produced some positivity amidst all the violence and death.

“We’ve seen the catastrophes going on whether we like it or not, whether we see it that way or not, in Syria, Libya and so forth, but we have to realise that the Arab Spring has brought some positive changes,” Sheikh Mohamed insists.

“We were living as Arabs under a status quo situation where we will never change; you live and die and you are the same. Second, people have realised their weakness. People thought their countries were moving into becoming a superpower but the country was deteriorating.  When you open this can of worms they realise that their countries are not as they used to be. They wanted to do this and that [but] they are not capable to do this. They didn’t have the economy, they didn’t have the army, they didn’t have the basic things. So this superficial country that they lived in has been completely wiped out.

“And they realised that they could be massacred by their own system if they revolted against it, so people were crying and saying we only went to the streets. There was no discrimination; they killed anybody who did this.

“People did not think about these things before, so the Arab Spring exposed these leaders. In the Gulf you don’t see such a thing; it’s ruled more by families, which gave it more stability. Even now we see families coming back, a tribal kind of thing, in Libya.”

Similar revolutions in Europe during previous centuries prove that the Arab world can recover to become a prosperous region, if the right tools are provided by the state, he says.

“They had the foundations of education and intellectuals to bring it back,” Sheikh Mohamed says. “If you look at the history of the Black Death [the plague that played havoc with European populations in the fourteenth century] and the wars that waged in Europe you’d think it would never be what it is today but they managed.”

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