Lower energy revenues haven’t been entirely bad for Qatar, the country’s outspoken former prime minister has said.
In a recent wide-ranging interview with the Financial Times, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani said it was healthy for Qatar to reexamine its spending and that some retrenchment is necessary:
“Sometimes I thank God that from time to time we get hit by the oil price. Because we get spoiled,” he told the newspaper.
His comments come as officials from major oil-producing countries gather in Doha today to discuss ways of boosting energy prices.
The former prime minister is often referred to by his initials, HBJ. He left his position nearly three years ago, when long-time former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani handed power to his fourth son, Sheikh Tamim.
Under HBJ – who also headed the country’s sovereign wealth fund and served as foreign minister – Qatar struck an assertive stance abroad and attempted to influence the outcome of conflicts in Libya and Syria by supplying money, arms and diplomatic support to certain groups.
However, those costly efforts failed to turn the tide in either country and at times left Qatar at odds with other GCC nations. Since coming to power, Sheikh Tamim has taken a more quiet approach to foreign policy.
HBJ acknowledged the contrast, but defended his actions in the FT interview:
“It’s a different approach. Maybe when we were doing this, we created a lot of jealousy, a lot of enemies … But I was a soldier in the government and doing things at that time was necessary for Qatar to be recognized, either politically or economically.”
While HBJ kept a low profile immediately after leaving office, he has since given several interviews in which he’s discussed the 2013 power transition and defended Qatar’s bid for the 2022 World Cup.
More recently, HBJ’s vast personal fortune landed him in the headlines of Forbes magazine, which estimated that the former politician is worth at least US$1.2 billion.
Forbes’ investigation was assisted, in part, by the release of the Panama Papers – a massive trove of documents belonging to a law firm based Central America that helped its customers establish offshore companies and bank accounts.
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published short profiles on several clients of the Panama law firm, including HBJ and Father Emir Sheikh Hamad.
According to the consortium, HBJ acquired a company in the British Virgin Islands and three additional companies in the Bahamas in 2002.
“Through these companies, (HBJ) held shares and mooring spaces in the Spanish port of Palma, Mallorca, and managed his super-yacht, the $300 million Al Mirqab,” the ICIJ stated.
It also stated that HBJ acquired four Panamanian companies to hold bank accounts in Luxembourg in 2011. He co-owned two of those firms with Sheikh Hamad.
The Panama Papers contain few other details about the two powerful Qatari men.
There are legitimate uses for offshore companies, foundations and trusts, and there is no suggestion that either man acted improperly or broke any laws.
Offshore accounts in certain jurisdictions can be used as havens to avoid paying tax or to conceal illicitly obtained funds.
However, Qatar has no income tax and HBJ has made so secret of his personal wealth, which he previously said came from his family and work as a merchant, rather than his former political position.
“Yes, I am not poor,” he told American journalist Charlie Rose in 2014. “I’m rich.”
As head of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) – a position he also left in 2013 – HBJ personally co-invested in many of its acquisitions, such as investing £533 million (US$897 million) in British bank Barclays through his personal firm, Challenger, alongside QIA’s £1.76 billion ($2.96 billion) stake.
While the Financial Times suggested this blurred the line between personal and state investments at time, the newspaper quoted HBJ as dismissing any suggestion that it represented a conflict of interest:
“If you tell Qataris, ‘Don’t do business if you work in the government,’ you might not find anyone in a job.”