Two months into a bitter Gulf crisis, Saudi Arabia’s use of a previously unknown Qatari royal family member has opened a new — and bizarre — front in the conflict. On August 17, it was announced that Saudi’s King Salman had ordered the reopening of the Qatar border to allow pilgrims from the emirate to join the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The decision, at first glance an apparent thawing in a crisis ongoing since June 5, was apparently taken after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met an obscure member of Qatar’s ruling dynasty, Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassim al-Thani. Notably, it was the first public high-level encounter between the nations since the crisis erupted. Saudi Arabian authorities highlighted the role of the mysterious Qatari in reopening the border. Then it was reported that King Salman had received Sheikh Abdullah at his residence in Tangier, Morocco.
And straight afterwards, a Twitter account was set-up in the sheikh’s name, gaining more than 250,000 followers in just two days and nine tweets. “What I did was only for the good of Qatar,” he wrote in one tweet. But far from playing a conciliatory role, the emergence of Sheikh Abdullah may have aggravated matters. Doha was quick to point out that he was in Saudi Arabia on a “personal” mission, not for the government, and angry social media users in Qatar claimed the Twitter account was “fake”. It also prompted speculation that the sheikh, the brother of a former emir, was being used to undermine or even replace the current Qatari leadership. Unlikely, say analysts.
“Sheikh Abdullah… is not part of the very inner circle of the ruling elite in Qatar today,” said Andreas Krieg, a strategic risk analyst and assistant professor at King’s College London university and who knows the workings of the state apparatus in Qatar. “He lives abroad but is not exiled.” The sheikh belongs to a branch of the Al-Thani royal family which may have seen its power eroded in recent years, but is still very well-connected. He is a cousin of the Father Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, who seized power in 1995, overseeing a transformation of his country into an economic powerhouse until stepping down in 2013 to give power to his son and current leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani.
Sheikh Abdullah is also the son of a former emir deposed by the grandfather of Sheikh Tamim. The meetings in Saudi Arabia and Morocco were meant to put pressure on Qatar’s so far unyielding leadership, since the crisis began on June 5, added Krieg. “It is unusual that someone like him gets an official audience with the king and the crown prince,” said Krieg.