The ending of the golden era for Qatar?
If ever there was a hard act to follow among the Gulf leaders then it would be Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Emir of Qatar who bowed out gracefully yesterday in a peaceful transition of power to his son.
In his 18 years of rule the GDP of Qatar surged from $30 to $200 billion, and the nation flourished, investing in everything from Islamic art to football clubs and Harrods. Sheikh Hamad was the gas man who really delivered.
Under his control this tiny Gulf State became the world’s largest exporter of liquified natural gas, a huge undertaking funded by massive borrowing and using the latest advanced technology.
Other countries have the gas too, like Iran, but putting it diplomatically the rest of the world does not have the confidence to do business with them. Sheikh Hamad made it all happen, winning the right friends and going for the big prize.
The next generation led by his son Shiekh Tamim will not have the same opportunity to prove its metal. It can be just as tricky safeguarding an inheritance as making it.
For LNG the future is particularly unclear as the US develops its shale gas deposits. The price of gas has already tumbled in the US and will plummet as exports start. This is not good news for Qatar.
There is also the problem of the debts racked up by the tiny state in recent years. It has been on a Dubai-style investment binge financed at every possible turn by borrowed money.
Investment bankers always joke that you cannot go to the Qataris with a proposal without a finance package, and they always go for maximum leverage. Dubai has its debt crisis in 2009. Is that where Doha goes next?
The signs of hubris are legion: the massive, loss-making airline, the much delayed new airport, the 2022 World Cup with air-conditioned stadiums, Doha Metro and endless office, hotel and apartment buildings despite the lack of a clear role in regional commerce.
Yields on Qatar Government bonds have spiked higher since the Federal Reserve signaled liquidity tightening last week. Even the richest country in the world has limits on how much the market will let it borrow.
Every emerging market success story has its pattern of boom and bust, and Qatar’s rise has been particularly outstanding. But the golden era may now be coming to an end, with tougher times ahead for the new leadership.
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