New generation of leaders in Qatar

Like the new emir, these leading ministers have been groomed for their new jobs.

Qatar’s response to the Arab Spring was to pre-empt its possible arrival on the shores of the tiny Arab Gulf emirate and transfer power to a new generation of leaders carefully groomed to perform specific duties.

 
The retiring emir, who ousted his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, used the country’s fabulous oil and natural gas resources to transform Qatar—a tiny West Asian backwater that secured independence from Britain in 1971 - into a regional and international financial and political player. This transformation was achieved through strategic planning and investment in infrastructure, schools and universities, and public services as well as lucrative foreign firms and projects.

Since 1996, Qatar has gained stature and notoriety through al-Jazeera, an Arabic language satellite channel that has transformed broadcasting in the Arab world. A decade later, al-Jazeera English emerged as the globe’s first Third World international broadcaster.

Both are controversial as they circumvent censorship and promote a Qatari line on political developments. Instead of hanging onto power unto death as other Arab rulers do, the retired emir, Shaikh Hamad, 61, whose health is said to be failing, carefully choreographed a smooth, seamless transition. This was achieved by a televised announcement that his son Shaikh Tamim, 33, would rule. He is the eighth emir from the al-Thani family which assumed power in 1825. His job is to reign over the richest country in the world with a sovereign wealth fund of $100 billion and where 250,000 nationals have a per capita income of $100,000, free education and health care.

Most powerful

Shaikh Tamim is the second son of the former emir and his second wife, Shaikha Moza, a Qatar University educated commoner who has become one of the most powerful and high profile members of the ruling family.

It is significant that her son has succeeded his father rather than either of the two sons of his first wife. Shaikha Moza’s first born was originally named heir apparent but in 2003 abdicated in favour of his younger brother. Shaikh Tamim was educated at a British public school and attended the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, a popular destination for Gulf princes. After being commissioned in the Qatari armed forces, he was groomed to rule by working in security and economics posts.

Over the past decade he has assumed an active role in domestic and regional affairs. He pressed for reconciliation with Saudi Arabia and support for Libya's rebels who overthrew Muammar Gaddafi. He chairs the board of the Qatar Investment Authority which has invested billions of the emirate's petrol and natural gas revenues in Barclay's Bank, Sainsbury's and Harrods department stores, Germany's Volkswagen and France's major petroleum company Total.

On Wednesday evening, Shaikh Tamim announced the appointment of Shaikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa al-Thani, 43, as prime minister and interior minister. Since Shaikh Abdullah has served in the cabinet as minister of state for interior affairs and has a police and security career background, he is likely to focus on domestic affairs.  His task will be to keep the so far peaceful emirate safe from spill-over from West Asia's deadly and destructive unrest. The second key appointment was of Khalid bin Mohamed al-Attiyah, 46, to the post of foreign minister.  He served as minister of state for international cooperation from 2008-11 and from 2011 as minister of state for foreign affairs. He has been a strong supporter of Syrian rebels.

Like the new emir, these leading ministers have been groomed for their new jobs. They replace the powerful Shaikh Hamad bin Jassem, 53, who has been Qatar's prime minister for the last six years and foreign minister for 18 the past years. During his time in these two posts he has played the role of conciliator in Yemen, Darfur, and Palestine but he has also been a strong backer of Syria's opposition seeking to topple the country's government. If he had stayed on, he would have overshadowed the young emir's new team. Shaikh Tamim, who is said to be more socially conservative and less of a risk taker than his father, is expected to come under urgent pressure from Saudi Arabia and the West to reduce Qatar's support for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and radical fundamentalist jihadi groups like al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, the most effective militia fighting in Syria regarded as a "terrorist organisation" by the US, Qatar's main ally.

Qatar has been the chief provider of funds and arms to jihadi groups with foreign connections which are, in general, better paid and armed than than the Western-favoured Free Syrian Army, which has fundamentalist components.  This does not bother Qatar as the emirate follows Saudi Arabia's ultra-conservative Wahhabi doctrines. Emir Tamim has said Qatar will continue to follow his father’s line and not "take direction" from outsiders.

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