Tomorrow morning’s scheduled announcement by the Emir of Qatar, HH Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, that he will step down as the ruler of his country has ended months of speculation and raised further questions at this critical time in the region. After leading his country for 38 years -eighteen of them as Emir and twenty as Crown Prince – Sheikh Hamad’s announcement will be met with huge interest both at home and abroad. This in itself is testimony to the achievements of a man who took a small, relatively poor Gulf state into the big league of regional and global politics, diplomacy, media, sports and culture. In that respect, Hamad bin Khalifa will likely look back to the time when he took over power in 1995 and confidently say that he and those with him have fulfilled many of the aspirations and priorities that they had set for their country. In the eighteen years of his rule, Qatar has become one of the richest countries in the world and its GDP has risen from $29 billion to almost $200 billion. Hamad bin Khalifa will leave knowing that he is genuinely revered and respected by his people – for them this really is the end of an era.
The new Emir will be Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the fourth son of the outgoing ruler. A 33 year old graduate of the renowned UK military Academy, Sandhurst, Sheikh Tamim has been groomed for the role over the past decade. As Heir Apparent or Crown Prince, he has held a number of key positions, including that of Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Qatari Armed Forces, Deputy Chairman of the Ruling Family Council and Chairman of the country’s Supreme Education Council. Over the past three years, he has been increasingly involved in the domestic and foreign policy-making of the country, including with regard to the conflicts in Libya and Syria.
Starting with Sheikh Tamim, Qatar is undergoing a wider familial succession to a younger generation of leaders. It is likely that a new Cabinet will be announced in the coming days that will contain a large number of younger faces replacing an older generation of government ministers. Many of these new figures have grown up with the new Emir and have been groomed accordingly for their new roles. That the Royal Family has gone ahead with its plans in the midst of the Arab uprisings – and at such a critical time in the Syria crisis – is quintessentially Qatari. Big ideas and calculated risk-taking has got the country to where it is today.
There has been quite a lot of speculation that such a move would irk other Gulf leaderships, especially Saudi Arabia who is undergoing its own succession transition. The Qataris have attempted to temper negative reactions from fellow Gulf leaderships by keeping them informed of their plans. The arrival of Sheikh Tamim is no surprise to them. A key task of the new Emir, however, will be to improve relations with both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which have been affected by the dramatic changes taking place in the region. The fact that Sheikh Tamim has sought to build personal ties with Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and other Gulf states will help him in this regard.
There are also questions regarding the focus of Qatar’s active foreign policy both in the region and internationally. Much of this speculation will only be answered as the new foreign policy team establishes itself and responds to developments in the region. In the short-term, however, the fundamentals of Qatar’s foreign policy are not likely to change. We are likely to see continuity in Qatar’s approach to key foreign policy challenges such as its role in the Syria crisis, its response to the transitions in Egypt and Tunisia and its peacemaking role in Sudan. It is also likely to pursue its efforts to forge peace talks between the US, the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan and will continue to champion the Palestinian cause. Both of these issues are close to the heart of his father and Sheikh Tamim is likely to continue to extend Qatar’s influence in these areas. Some in Doha are already speculating, and perhaps hoping, that there may be a return to a more “tranquil” and not necessarily confrontational foreign policy, which would further enhance Qatar’s relations in the region. Such an approach would focus Qatar’s international efforts more broadly towards its role in promoting sports, culture and peacemaking through diplomacy. In this respect, the debate may only be starting in what is likely to be a smooth but extended transitional period.