Hereditary rulers confirm Sheikh Saud as Ras al-Khaimah's ruler, as the exiled older son returns to mourn him but still asserts his legal right to the throne.

A multimillion-dollar public relations campaign run from London and California aimed at seizing control of a strategically sensitive Gulf emirate entered its endgame on October 27 with the death of the leader of Ras al-Khaimah (RAK), Sheikh Saqr bin Mohammad al-Qasimi, the world's longest-serving ruler.

Sheikh Saqr, 92, passed away at dawn after a long illness, sparking a final struggle between his two sons to succeed him. RAK is the smallest of the seven that make up the United Arab Emirates but is considered its most Islamist, and the Sheikh's oldest son, Sheikh Khalid bin Saqr al-Qasimi, who has been living in exile in London and Oman, had launched an intense PR and political lobbying campaign suggesting that it has fallen under Iranian influence, as well as stating his case that he is the legitimate successor. His campaign has featured claims, disputed by RAK, that the emirate has even acted as a port for smuggling parts for weapons into Iran.

Sheikh Khalid hired an English solicitor, Peter Cathcart, to oversee the PR campaign, which involved lobbying Hilary Clinton, the Israeli ambassador to London and publishing critical reports on the military and the political direction of RAK's leadership.

However, his claim on power received a major setback on October 27 when the government of the UAE issued a statement of condolence through the state news agency WAM, which stated that Sheikh Khalid's younger half brother, the crown prince Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi, has succeeded as ruler.

Sheikh Khalid's response

Sheikh Khalid's response, meanwhile, was to assert his legal right to the throne in a statement and video message, announcing that he would lobby the emirates supreme council, made up of the seven hereditary rulers of the emirates. “In the coming hours and days, I look forward to meeting with family, friends, members of the supreme council and rulers of the emirates to discuss our shared vision for Ras al-Khaimah and its great people,” he said. “Until then, we will mourn together as a family, a community and a nation.” Sheikh Saud, RAK's recognised ruler, has announced 40 days' mourning, during which flags in the emirate will be flown at half mast and radio stations across the UAE switched to playing recitations of the Koran and classical music. Sheikh Khalid is understood to have crossed into RAK as soon as he heard of his father's death and is currently at the presidential palace where, according to unconfirmed reports, there is a military presence including armoured cars and water cannon.

A UAE barometer, says expert

The outcome of the tussle for power will provide a barometer of the direction of the UAE, according to Dr. Christopher Davidson, an expert in the region at Durham University in the U.K. He said the most powerful emirates are the broadly pro-western Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and they should, in principle, be sympathetic to Sheikh Khalid's argument about the danger of Iranian influence in RAK. However, they must be careful not to alienate the emirate's poorer population and that is the reason many observers believe Sheikh Saud will prevail.

The attempt to take control of RAK by Sheikh Khalid has taken some bizarre twists. In Cathcart, he appointed an unlikely figure to lead a coup. The partner in a family law firm is a minature steam railway enthusiast and parish council chairman who lives on the fringes of the west London suburb of Ickenham. However, he emerged as a key player in Sheikh Khalid's strategy and has been responsible for investing at least $3.7m of Khalid's money in a network of highly paid U.S. PR consultants, Washington lobbyists and former U.S. special forces strategists. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

More In: Comment | Opinion