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Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani

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.

New strategy

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.

Father Emir and Emir on National Day

QNA/Instagram

Father Emir and Emir on National Day

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.”

Panama Papers

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.

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani

Video Still / Charlie Rose

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani

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.

‘I’m rich’

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.”

For illustrative purposes only.

George Rex / Flickr

For illustrative purposes only.

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.”

Thoughts?

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani

In a new interview, Qatar’s outspoken former prime minister has denied any wrongdoing in the country’s bid for the 2022 World Cup and asked why Russia – which will host the football tournament four years earlier – is not being placed under the same scrutiny.

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, who left his post as PM approximately two years ago, told Fox News this week that residents in the region believe the criticism is fueled in part by racism.

“If you see how (critics) talk about Russia and how they talk about Qatar … it is all about Qatar. Is it because (Qatar is) an Arab Islamic small country?” he said yesterday on the Fox program Sunday Morning Futures.

He added that he supports Russia’s right to host the 2018 World Cup.

While some have questioned whether it’s appropriate to hold the World Cup in Russia in light of its invasion of Ukraine, such discussions have been overwhelmingly overshadowed by reports of migrant worker abuse and bribery allegations in Qatar.

New investigation

Last week, the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland announced it was launching criminal proceedings as part of an investigation into “irregularities” into the awarded of the allocation of the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar.

The investigation is looking into allegations of “criminal mismanagement and of money laundering” related to the selection process for the football tournaments.

FIFA headquarters

MCaviglia/Wikimedia

FIFA headquarters

The announcement came the same day that Swiss police, acting on behalf of US authorities, arrested several FIFA executives.

Officials say that more than $150 million in bribes and kickbacks were paid or agreed to by US and South American sports executives for media and marketing rights to international football tournaments since the 1990s.

The Swiss police statement said the two investigations were separate and the US Department of Justice did not mention the 2018 or 2022 World Cup in a lengthy statement that explained the indictment.

The dramatic move came two days before Sepp Blatter was re-elected as FIFA president for a fifth term and fueled perceptions that Qatar bribed members of FIFA’s executive committee to help secure support for its bid.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Doha Stadium Plus Qatar/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

In response, Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy – which is overseeing the country’s construction of World Cup stadiums and training facilities – said in a statement last week that there was nothing untoward about its winning submission:

“We conducted our bid with integrity and to the highest ethical standards,” the SCDL said in a statement.

Al Thani echoed that position yesterday and hinted that international media and some of the losing bidders were responsible for “flaring” the issue.

“We dealt with this in a fair competition. There was no corruption … (It) shows the ugly face of the other party when they did not win a fair competition.”

Past involvement

Al Thani – widely known by his initials, HBJ – held several senior government posts under former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani including prime minister, foreign minister and chairman of the Qatar Investment Authority, where he oversaw the country’s sovereign wealth fund.

He was sidelined when Sheikh Hamad abdicated his position as Emir to his son Sheikh Tamim in 2013, and largely disappeared from public view for a year.

HBJ re-emerged in mid-2014, conducting an hour-long television interview with US journalist Charlie Rose and making several multibillion-dollar financial investments.

He was also photographed alongside Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani last October at the funeral of Christophe de Margerie, the CEO of French oil firm Total.

However, Al Thani downplayed his current connection to the Qatar government during his Fox interview by underscoring that he was speaking as an individual, and not on behalf of the country.

Syrian Embassy in Doha

Nora Basha/Twitter

Syrian Embassy in Doha

Much of this week’s discussion focused on regional security issues such as the influence of ISIS, which Al Thani attributed to a failure of the US and other military powers to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as advocated by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and other states in the region.

He added that ISIS has been strengthened by the perceived exclusion of Sunnis from Iraq’s government in recent years.

More broadly, HBJ said the region’s instability has been fueled by decades of “bad policy” and suggested some rulers in the Middle East are primarily concerned with holding onto their own positions rather than improving the lives of their citizens:

“We have dictatorships which have stayed 40 years, most think about themselves how to stay in power. They do not talk about jobs and development.”

Thoughts?

Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

After spending nearly a year out of the public spotlight, Qatar’s colorful former prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, is garnering international attention with a series of blockbuster financial deals funded in part by his vast personal fortune.

In recent months, companies controlled by Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim – widely known by his initials, HBJ – has bought UK-based Heritage Oil and purchased a stake in Germany’s Deutsche Bank in deals worth billions of dollars.

The businessman – who was also the country’s foreign minister and former CEO of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA) – played a major role in the government of former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, but was sidelined when the nation’s previous ruler abdicated to his son last summer.

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim was replaced by Ahmad Al Sayed as head of QIA last July, a move the Financial Times at the time said “seals the demise” of HBJ.

That prediction may have been premature. Less than a year later, the same newspaper has proclaimed that HBJ has rejoined the global dealmaking stage, although his attention appears to now be on his personal finances, rather than those of the country.

“He always did these deals in the past, for himself and the government,” a senior Qatar banker said, as quoted by FT. “Now he is more focused on himself.”

‘I’m rich’

Earlier this month, HBJ gave his first media interview since leaving public office to American journalist Charlie Rose. During the wide-ranging discussion, the former prime minister – recently ranked the 125th richest person in the UK by the Sunday Times with a personal fortune of $1.35 billion – said his wealth came from his family and work as a merchant, rather than his former political position.

“Yes, I am not poor,” he told Rose. “I’m rich.”

As head of QIA, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim oversaw Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund and led it to purchase stakes in foreign property, hotels, retail chains and automotive manufacturers, among other acquisitions – many of them high-profile.

He also personally co-invested in some of the deals, 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.

Some months after leaving his government positions, HBJ quietly cashed out one of his major investments – and exited one of this country’s flagship businesses and strategic industries – by selling his near 50-percent stake in Qatar Airways to the government for an undisclosed amount earlier this year.

But the divestiture was quickly followed by this spring’s £924 million ($1.56 billion) acquisition of Heritage Oil, which controls fields primarily in Nigeria. That purchase was made by Al Mirqab Capital, where HBJ is the chief executive.

Earlier this week, Paramount Holdings Services – also controlled by HBJ – invested €1.75 billion ($2.4 billion) in Deutsche Bank as the German financial institution looked to bolster its balance sheet with fresh capital.

In an analysis of the deal, Forbes noted that shares of Western banks are still trading below their pre-financial crisis highs, making such firms an attractive long-term investment for those with patience.

Banking is also a sector that HBJ knows well. Along with the Barclays investment, QIA – through its direct investment arm, Qatar Holdings – holds shares in Credit Suisse, Bank of America and the Agricultural Bank of China.

Additionally, HBJ likely forged strong ties with Deutsche Bank during his time at QIA, said Victoria Barbary, the director of London’s Institutional Investor’s Sovereign Wealth Center, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

“I suspect the relationship they had was with HBJ, so it makes perfect sense it would be the kind of thing he would be doing,” Barbary said. “He’s going to be an active investor in his own right rather than using the QIA.”

QIA without HBJ

The WSJ notes that activity at the QIA appears to have slowed down since HBJ departed.

Citing figures from Barbary, it reported that the QIA recorded roughly $4.3 billion in direct deals in the first six months of last year while HBJ was still at the fund. That dropped to less than $1 billion in the second half of the year.

However, the newspaper adds that bankers say the fund is still searching for direct investments, but in the meantime has shifted to a less-splashy strategy of investing in equities and stock market indexes.

Thoughts?