QATAR’S ruler has formally handed power to his 33-year-old son, capping a carefully crafted transition that puts a new generation in charge of the Gulf nation’s vast energy wealth and rising political influence after the upheavals of the Arab Spring.
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, 61, used a televised address yesterday to note repeatedly the importance of shifting leadership to more youthful hands – an indirect acknowledgment of the demands for reforms opened by the uprisings that have swept the region.
Qatar, with a population of only two million, has been a major player in the regional turmoil, using its riches to support rebels in Libya and Syria. It also has broken ranks with other Gulf states to offer help to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
The Western-backed Gulf Arab dynasties have managed to remain in power, but they have displayed their insecurity by launching crackdowns that have included arrests over alleged anti-state plots and for social media postings deemed insulting to the leadership.
“The future lies ahead of you, the children of this homeland, as you usher into a new era where young leadership hoists the banner,” the outgoing emir said as he announced the anticipated transition to the British-educated crown prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
Qatar has given no official explanation for the transition, which had been widely expected for several weeks, but Sheikh Hamad is believed to have chronic health problems.
Sheikh Tamim has been closely involved in key decisions since 2003, when he became the next in line after his older brother stepped aside. The outgoing emir is expected to remain a guiding force from the wings.
“Sheikh Tamim will be driving his father’s car, which is already programmed on where to go,” commented Mustafa Alani, a political analyst at the Gulf Research Centre in Geneva.
The transition also sends a message the wider Middle East – it appears to be a sweeping response to the Arab Spring upheavals and their emphasis on giving voice to the region’s youth, and it reinforces Qatar’s bold-stroke political policies.
The outgoing emir said: “The time has come to turn a new leaf in the history of our nation where a new generation steps forward to shoulder the responsibility with their dynamic potential and creative thoughts.”
Under Sheikh Hamad, who took power from his own father in a bloodless coup in 1995, Qatar has transformed into a political broker and a centre for global investment with a sovereign wealth fund estimated to be worth more than $100 billion. Its portfolio covers property, including London landmark Harrods, luxury brands and a powerful presence in the sporting world, successfully bidding to host the 2022 football World Cup and taking over the French team Paris Saint-Germain.
Qatar has also played a role as mediator in conflicts such as that in Sudan’s Darfur region and regional disputes including Palestinian political rifts. Qatar this week hosted a Syrian opposition conference. But the country has faced criticism from rights groups for joining the Gulf-wide crackdowns on perceived dissent since the Arab Spring.
Christopher Davidson, an expert in Gulf affairs at Durham University, believes some of the tough measures by Qatari officials reflect internal squabbles with hard-liners trying to exert their influence. Such groups could be among the first targets by the new emir, he predicted.
“Tamim is seen as focused on domestic issues first. One of the main tasks will be to establish a new social contract with the population … What kind of opposition is allowed and what is not will be part of that.”