On landing at the Doha Hamad International Airport, the traveller is struck by its magnificence and beauty. For years the airport has won the award for the best airport in the world.
The immense wooden vault of the departure lounge was a tribute to “sustainability” even before the word was invented. The triumph of satin steel (kilometres of finishes made by the Italian group Permasteelisa) adds a taste of Italian design. Qatar Airways planes arrive and depart continuously. Once an unknown airline - in fact it was just the private carrier of the royal family of Doha - Qatar Airways has become one of the largest airlines in the world. Like its "cousins", Emirates and Etihad, in addition to the investment of billions, geography has played a significant role. The Persian Gulf is at the centre of the new global economy that emerged in the early 2000s. It is halfway between Europe and Asia, and on the North-South link between China and Africa. Stopovers at one of the airports in Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha has become very convenient (and economical, compared to the few direct flights available between the two continents).
Hamad International Airport
Qatar is a small country, a sort of thumb that protrudes upwards from the immense desert platform that is Saudi Arabia. But that small peninsula floats above huge deposits of gas. And under the Emir Al Thani it has become a world economic power: gas has made Qatar rich, and now even more so with the price spikes in raw materials and the Ukraine crisis. Emir is one of the most prestigious “noble” titles in the Middle Eastern Islamic hierarchy. Only the Sultan ranks above it, but this is a figure that has nearly died out. There are only two in the world today: the Sultan of Oman and the Sultan of Brunei.
The Doha waterfront is the best curriculum vitae that Al Thani can present. In the seventies it was a strip of sand, with dhow boats, the typical fishing boats, stranded on the shore. The shape of the Sheraton Grand, the first and only Western hotel in the whole country, loomed up like the Cheops Pyramid. Today the hotel looks minuscule, surrounded by hotels and skyscrapers that are 10 times larger, but it is still the most luxurious hotel and its immense marble hall is still impressive. The waterfront, for centuries bare and deserted, has been renamed Al Corniche, with a Frenchified name reminiscent of Monte-Carlo. Today it is a succession of grandiose palaces and skyscrapers. Dhow boats are no longer the boats of poor fishermen but host tourists for romantic sunset tours. And perfectly in keeping with Arabic culture, an abundance of money results in an excess of kitsch: the emir has also rebuilt the old souk, the centuries-old city. However, after its facelift, it looks like the Venice Hotel in Las Vegas - the ugly copy of an authentic souk. The most emblematic monument of the reign of Al Thani, which says a lot about his personality, is at the end of the modern promenade: it is the remarkable Islamic Art Centre. It is the first “modern” and “Western” museum in an Arab country. It is dedicated to Muslim art, a concept which is in itself heretical: the Islamic world sees art as a “sinful” activity. Al Thani is a Wahabi Muslim, the most orthodox sect in Islam, but he is also a businessman and a great strategist. He is planting strong roots in Europe and he acts like a Westerner. For its part, the Old Continent, like those penniless nobles of the nineteenth century, has a great coat of arms, but these last ten years it has been in fact bankrupt and needs liquidity to maintain the standard of living of an ageing population.
To design the beautiful multifaceted cube that houses the museum, Al Thani commissioned renowned Chinese-American architect IM Pei, just as is done in the West. It is said that the Louvre of the Arab world was wanted by Sheikha Mozah, the mother of Al Thani. The Qatari royal family has very clear ideas. The 42-year-old emir now owns half of Europe. Arab countries still use patronymics: Bin Hamad means Hamad's son, his father, the one who laid the foundations of the country's boom. When his son Tamil was born, in 1980, Qatar was little more than a marginal Persian Gulf country, with an unliveable climate and very few inhabitants. At the beginning of the twentieth century, they were poor desert Bedouins who lived around the oases scattered in the desert, a tribal country ruled by clans.
Museum of Islamic art in Doha By I. M. Pei
The rise of Al Thani began in 2003, when his older brother Jasim renounced his claim to the throne, leaving Tamim the role of crown heir. Then, when his father Emir Hamad abdicated in 2013, Al Thani took full power, becoming one of the richest men on the planet. He already had clear ideas. The first move on the international stage was to assert the country through sport. The children of the eighties remember the Tiger's Den, the villains from the Tiger Man cartoon, who want to conquer the world by controlling sport. It seems a fantasy from child’s anime, but Al Thani made it a real, winning policy. He created the QSI (Qatar Sports Investments) sovereign fund that bought Paris Saint-Germain. Thanks to the Emir's millions, the historic French football club has become a world-renowned Dream Team followed by millions of new fans: Messi, Neymar, Mbappè and Donnarumma. All the world's greatest footballers wear the PSG jersey. Football is today the greatest political power and consensus lever. Fans always love teams (and, by association, the presidents) that spend money to hire the best players on the market; and the global entertainment industry – Sky, Amazon, Netflix – is willing to pay out billions to win the rights of the most famous ones.
However, the PSG superstar is nothing when compared to Al Thani's big hit in sport: the World Cup. In December, the World Cup, the world's largest and most important sporting trophy, will be held for the first time in history in Qatar. It is a great success that will project the country onto the international stage. In order not to be unprepared, works started years ago and have been over for some time. We Build, the Italian construction giant owned by Pietro Salini, has built some stadiums and Doha's subway. However, all that glitters is not gold: there is a suspicion around the World Cup, and this is somewhat more than a suspicion, that Al Thani corrupted UEFA and its President Michel Platini to obtain the assignation. True or not, it will be the first time that the World Cup will be played in the middle of winter, because it is too hot in Qatar in the summer. The rules have been bent to the emir's needs: all European championships will have to stop for the World Cup to be played in a place where nobody would have thought of holding it. Not satisfied with having his country host the World Cup, which will be a unique and unprecedented showcase, Al Thani had also tried to get his hands on the 2020 Olympics, but in the end Tokyo beat him to it. Where power, relationships of the highest levels, and near-infinite assets do not suffice, fate steps in. The infamous 2020 games, postponed for a year because of Covid, were a tremendous flop for Japan, between costs and revenues.
Al Thani's true power and opulence can be touched, with a drink on the 31st floor of the Aqua Bar, the super-luxury restaurant at the top of the Shard, from where one can see the whole of London. There, one has the feeling of being master of the city. The futuristic skyscraper in the shape of an acute-angled triangle – designed by renowned architect Renzo Piano, but which the British, with their mixture of snobbishness and understatement, call “the salt cellar” – is owned by QIA, the Qatar Investments Authority. Al Thani's sovereign wealth fund, which has a net worth of 600 billion dollars, owns half of London and Britain. He owns Harrods, the prestigious department stores where even the Queen is said to go shopping. Al Thani bought the world’s most famous department stores from Mohammed Al Fayed, the Egyptian entrepreneur who became famous because his son Dody died with Lady Diana in the infamous car crash under the Alma Bridge in Paris in 1997. The emir saved Barclays, the third-largest English bank (after HSBC and NatWest) after the Lehman crisis; he is the largest shareholder in Heathrow Airport, and has shares in Sainsbury’s supermarkets and in the Shell oil company. The latest acquisition was the Ritz Hotel: the fund also took over the luxury six-star hotel in Piccadilly, in one of whose rooms Margaret Thatcher died, one of London's most prestigious properties.
The love for Britain is a legacy of adolescence. Tamim was sent by his father Hamad to further his studies at Sherborne School in Dorset, where he graduated in 1997. He then attended the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst, where he earned his degree.
His passion for Italian football (he admitted to being a fan of SS Lazio, even though his Qatar Airways sponsors their rival A.S. Roma) also led him to get a grip in Italy: he saved the Porta Nuova project in Milan, the grandiose UniCredit skyscraper and piazza Gae Aulenti real estate project, that had ended up on the verge of collapse. Also in Milan, he took over the historic Hotel Gallia, in front of the Central Station. His attention turned to tourism, buying from the American-Lebanese financier Tom Barrack the exclusive Costa Smeralda complex in Sardinia, which includes the Cala di Volpe hotels and the Pitrizza golf club. To ingratiate himself with the local community, he also bought the former San Raffaele Hospital in Olbia, saved from the crack of the Don Verzè group. He was less fortunate with the airline Meridiana, which was part of the Costa Smeralda package: transformed into Air Italy, it failed miserably last year.
The plutocrat Al Thani also enjoys life: he has 3 wives, because the Koran allows polygamy, and 8 children (but, anyway, he has no problems providing for them). And it is said that he bought the Italian luxury label Valentino from the Permira fund (which in turn had taken it from the Marzotto family), as a birthday gift to his youngest wife, Noora. There are those who give their wife a dress and those who buy her the entire label. He and his brother Ja have a vast collection of luxury cars, which would make Cristiano Ronaldo envious: a Koenigseg CCXR Special One worth one million euro, three Lamborghinis worth over 300 000 euro each, the inevitable Ferrari (in their case a Fiorano worth 260 000 euro), and a Pagani Zonda Uno (700 000 euro). He has no problem with fines: he owns the country. And in any case, he also has his own Formula One circuit where he can drive them at full speed.