Qatar ruler hands power to son to mark 'new era'

6/25/2013
ASSOCIATED PRESS
A man watches a televised address by Qatar's Emir Sheik  Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in Doha, Qatar, today.
A man watches a televised address by Qatar's Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in Doha, Qatar, today.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates  — Qatar’s ruler formally handed power today to his 33-year-old son to cap a carefully crafted transition that puts a younger generation in charge of the Gulf nation’s vast energy wealth and rising political influence after the upheavals of the Arab Spring.

The 61-year-old emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, used a televised address 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.

The Western-backed Gulf Arab rulers have managed to remain intact, but have displayed their insecurity by launching crackdowns that have included arrests over alleged anti-state plots and social media posts 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 emir said as he announced the anticipated transition to the British-educated crown prince, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

As part of taking on the mantle, Sheik Tamim will begin the process of putting together a new government that may be in direct contrast to the old guard leaders across the Gulf. Qatar has given no official explanation on the transition — which had been widely expected for weeks — but Sheik Hamad is believed to be suffering from chronic health problems.

Sheik Tamim is not expected to make any immediate policy shifts for Qatar, which has used its riches to become one of the world’s most politically ambitious countries. It has served as a powerful player in the Middle East, giving key support to rebels in Libya last year and now in Syria. Qatar also has broken ranks with other Gulf states to offer help to the Muslim Brotherhood, which rose to political dominance in Egypt.

In an important sign of continuity and shared goals, the outgoing emir and Sheik Tamim stood shoulder to shoulder and greeted members of the ruling family and others following the address.

Sheik Tamim has been closely involved in all key decisions since 2003, when Tamim became the next in line to rule after his older brother stepped aside. The outgoing emir is expected to remain a guiding force from the wings.

“Sheik Tamim will be driving his father’s car, which is already programmed on where to go,” said Mustafa Alani, a political analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Geneva.

But the transition — a rarity in a region where leadership changes are nearly always triggered by deaths or palace coups — also sends a message the wider Middle East. It appears a sweeping response to the Arab Spring upheavals and their emphasis on giving voice to the region’s youth, and reinforces Qatar’s bold-stroke political policies.

“The time has come to turn a new leaf in the history of our nation,” the outgoing emir said in his address, “where a new generation steps forward to shoulder the responsibility with their dynamic potential and creative thoughts.”

Under Sheik Hamad, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1995, Qatar has been transformed into a political broker and a center for global investment with a sovereign fund estimated to be worth more than $100 billion. Its portfolio includes landmark real estate, luxury brands and a powerful presence in the sporting world. Tiny Qatar also defeated rivals including the U.S. to win the rights to host the 2022 World Cup.

Qatar has played a role as mediator in conflicts such as Sudan’s Darfur region and regional disputes including Palestinian political rifts. Qatar this week hosted a Syrian opposition conference attended by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and is the venue for possible U.S.-led peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban.

In another sign of Qatar’s risk-taking policies, it allowed an Israeli trade office — effectively a diplomatic outpost — for years before ordering its closure following Israel’s incursions into Gaza in late 2008.

But Qatar has faced criticism from rights groups for joining the Gulf-wide crackdowns on perceived dissent since the Arab Spring. In one of the most high-profile cases, Qatari authorities have jailed a poet whose verses included admiration for the uprisings. In February, the sentence for the poet, Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, was reduced from life to 15 years.

Christopher Davidson, an expert in Gulf affairs at Britain’s Durham University, believes some of the tough measures by Qatari officials reflect internal squabbles with hardliners trying to exert their influence. Such groups could be among the first housecleaning targets by the new emir, he predicted.

“Tamim is seen as focused on domestic issues first,” said Davidson. “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.”

In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araghchi told reporters that Iran supports any moves by Qatar that bring “peace and tranquility” for the region. Relations between the two nations have deteriorated over Syria, where Tehran remains strongly on the side of key ally Bashar Assad.