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Mysterious Qatari sheikh pushed into Gulf crisis spotlight

Analysts have dismissed Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassim al-Thani as unimportant despite apparent contacts with senior Saudis
Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali bin Abdullah bin Jassim al-Thani (@abdullahthanii)

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 17 August, it was announced that Saudi's King Salman had ordered the reopening of the Qatar border crossing 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 5 June, was apparently taken after the Saudi 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 holiday 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.

On Sunday, he tweeted that Qatari should allow the passage of pilgrims to Saudi Arabia following a dispute over landing rights at King Hamad International airport:

Translation: Brothers and sons: I am sorry you have been prevented from travelling through Saudi aircraft from Doha to perform Hajj, and I hope that the brothers in Qatar cooperate to facilitate pilgrimages to citizens.

Not part of inner circle

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 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 of the 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 5 June, added Krieg.

"It is unusual that someone like him gets an official audience with the king and the crown prince," said Krieg.

"But the Saudis exploited the situation and presented this meeting with a lot of fanfare in their media.

"It was certainly done to put pressure on the royal family."

Regime change ruled out

Another analyst, Mathieu Guidere, a professor of Arab geopolitics in Paris, agrees.

But both rule out any chance of regime change in Qatar.

"If they were really working for regime change, the Saudis would not have made this mediation public," said Guidere.

And Krieg says any such attempt would prove futile.

"It would be foolish to think that regime change is possible. Saudi Arabia knows that," he said.

"The lineage of the current emir has made Qatar the richest country in the world with one of the biggest wealth funds and arguably the most resilient economy in the region.

"The loyalty of Qataris to Tamim is therefore unconditional."

Certainly the crisis, which has seen Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt cut ties with Doha over accusations that it backs extremism - charges Qatar denies - has bolstered the current emir's popularity at home.

His image now appears everywhere, and emphasising this on Sunday, Qatar unveiled an exhibition of 30 murals depicting "Tamim the Glorious" in a central Doha park.

In another development on Sunday, Saudi Arabia said Qatar had refused to allow its aircraft to land in Doha to transport Qatari Muslims to Mecca for the Hajj.

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