Emir of Qatar abdicates, handing power to his son

Sheik Tamim has little international profile, and has focused almost entirely on domestic issues

The emir of Qatar went on national television Tuesday to publicly confirm that he was handing over power to his son in a brief speech that praised the virtues of youth and assured his subjects that his successor was ready to rule them. The 61-year-old emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, did not specify exactly when his fourth son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, 33, would assume the office, but a Qatari official said the new emir would make a speech to the nation on Wednesday, after which he would choose a new government.

The handover had been the subject of orchestrated leaks to al Jazeera but not officially confirmed. It was widely expected here that the current prime minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, would step aside in a cabinet reshuffle. He has been foreign minister since 1992 and prime minister as well since 2007.

“I declare that I will hand over the reins of power to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and I am fully certain that he is up to the responsibility, deserving the confidence, capable of shouldering the responsibility and fulfilling the mission,” the emir said. Sheikh Tamim had been made the heir apparent by a decree of his father after a constitutional change made that possible, and his eldest son renounced his claim on the throne. He is the second son of the second of the emir’s three wives.

“You, our children, are the munitions of this homeland,” the emir said. “We have always thought well of you, by virtue of your genuine eagerness and sincere achievements have proven to be ready to lead and take our confidence.” It was unclear if he was speaking to youth generally, to his son, or both. 

Sheikh Hamad took power himself in 1995 at 43 when he staged a bloodless coup against his own father. His speech was largely absent of political content, aside from a statement of his strongly held Pan-Arabist views. “We believe that the Arab world is one human body, one coherent structure, that draws its strength from all its constituent parts.” He spoke vaguely about taking on a new role himself, but did not say what that would be.

His decision came as Qatar’s hand — more precisely its chequebook — can be felt throughout the Middle East, raising questions about whether the son will continue Qatar’s high-profile interventionist policy. In recent days, Qatar has let the Taliban open an office in Doha and has helped keep the Syrian rebels armed. And while it is allied with Washington, it has also raised the West’s ire by financing radical Islamist rebels in various arenas.

Sheik Tamim, has little international profile and has so far concentrated almost entirely on domestic issues. At the same time, the prime minister who is to be replaced, who is widely known as HBJ to distinguish him from the emir, aggressively pushed Qatar onto every world stage possible, first as foreign minister beginning in 1992 and then as both foreign and prime minister since 2007.

“I’ve never seen any evidence that Sheik Tamim has a particular desire to focus internationally,” said David Roberts, the director of the Qatar branch of the Royal United Services Institute, a prominent British research centre. “It’s never been in evidence.”

Bloodless coup

Eighteen years ago, Sheik Hamad, then in his early 40s, deposed his own father in a bloodless coup that began the transformation of Qatar from a well-heeled backwater into a fantastically rich modern country. Since then, the Qataris have wielded their great wealth to, as the scholar F. Gregory Gause III of the Brookings Institution put it, “punch above their weight.”

Sheik Hamad’s 180-degree turn took a country that has fewer citizens than Reno, Nev., has residents and used its deep pockets to influence events from Morocco to the Philippines. It also won a controversial bid for the 2022 World Cup; dragged I M Pei out of retirement to make the Museum of Islamic Art a world-class institution rivaling the Louvre, at least architecturally; and most recently hosted an office for peace talks with the Taliban that some claim is costing $100 million. Along the way, Qatari military aid helped topple an old friend of the emir’s, Col Muammar el-Qaddafi, and is now taking aim at another former friend, Bashar al-Assad of Syria. 

 Now that he is set to become the new emir, the absolute ruler of Qatar, what possibly can Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani promise to the citizens of a tiny, incredibly rich country that seems to have everything? In Qatar, the unemployment rate flirts with zero (it is 0.1 percent); infants have a per-capita income over $100,000; health, housing, low interest loans and educations are all provided. Qataris have a world-class television network in Al Jazeera, will host the World Cup in 2022, are building an airport that will eclipse the one in nearby Dubai and hope to soon be self-sufficient in food production. But they do not have democracy.

Some people here cautiously hope that the surprise decision of the outgoing emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, 61, to hand power to his fourth son, Sheik Tamim, 33, may signal the governing family’s intention to offer Qataris a taste of expanded personal freedoms, even if democracy is not explicitly on the agenda.

There are some hints that already have at least a few Qataris excited. (For most, a beneficent feudal monarchy appears just fine, thanks, and they demonstrated their appreciation by lining up by the thousands, on foot and in their Mercedes and other luxury cars, to visit the two emirs, incoming and outgoing, in their palace on Tuesday and pledge their allegiance.)

The outgoing emir already promised parliamentary elections by the end of the year — a constitutional requirement that is long overdue. Nauimi is among those agitating for amendments to the Constitution that would let that Parliament appoint the prime minister, paving the way for a constitutional monarchy inching closer to the British model and away from the autocratic style of the Persian Gulf states.

It would be the first such example in any of the gulf’s monarchies, and one of the few in the Arab world. “I’m optimistic,” Nauimi said. Optimistic, but not absolutely sure — in part because the governing family has consistently demonstrated that it has no tolerance to being challenged, or even criticised indirectly. In the absence of any sort of public agitation, change will come from the top down, not from the bottom up.

But what can the new emir change? Many analysts say that Qatar’s aggressive interventionist foreign policy has become too integral a part of its national character to be rolled back. The betting is that the new foreign minister may be Khalid al-Attiyah, the deputy foreign minister, who is close to the emir and a supporter of his many international ventures.

“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,” the emir said. That of course could mean anything — or everything.

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