After weeks of growing speculation, the recent news that Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani has decided to cede power to his 33-year-old son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has prompted fresh questions about the direction of Qatar and its ambitious regional and global policies.
In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, the head of Brookings Doha Center, Salman Shaikh, gives his take on the surprising transition of power in Qatar, the future of Qatar the country, and the challenges that its new ruler will face.
This interview has been edited for length.
Asharq Al-Awsat: Was the Qatari leadership transition expected in Doha?
Salman Sheikh: Yes, this has been prepared for quite some time. I think the fact that they are going ahead during such a difficult time in the region tells you the confidence they have [in this process], and that would have required quite a lot of preparation. I think there have been rumors and speculation about this for many months; the last few months these grew to be very strong and credible. Also I think it is probably no surprise to some of Qatar’s GCC cousins and neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia and the Emirates.
Q: They would have known about this decision some time ago?
I think so; I don’t think it’s a surprise to them. I think probably there has been an effort to inform them, and I think there’s probably a level of comfort—although I may be guessing here—with Sheikh Tamim. This is because Tamim is somebody they have gotten to know over the last few years.
Q: There’s also a lot of speculation that we may be seeing a new generation joining the Qatari government, along with Sheikh Tamim. What’s your view of this?
Just as Tamim has been groomed for the past 10 years, and certainly has taken more of an active role over the last two, three, four years, I think there are some younger people who are now coming up who are also being prepared. Some of them have close relations and the confidence of Sheikh Tamim and I think we will be seeing a new prime minister, a new minister of defense, a new foreign minister, and a new finance minister; so there will be a big change in this regard.
Q: Do you anticipate any change in Qatari foreign policy as a result of all these changes?
I don’t think the fundamentals of Qatari foreign policy will change, at least not straight away. They will still focus on Syria; they will still focus on Afghanistan and getting peace talks going; they will still focus on Sudan.
They will also probably have a similar attitude towards supporting the transition. Of course, this is in the initial phase. Nobody really knows what will happen in the long-term, how the new foreign policy team will respond to developments on the ground. There’s certainly more debate within Qatar, while many people are proud of what they’ve achieved in foreign policy, I think there are some who would perhaps focus on a more tranquil foreign policy which would be consistent with their role of playing a more neutral role in peace-making. However this all speculation right now, we’ll have to wait and see.
Q: What will be the priority for Qatar’s new leadership in the coming years?
I think it will remain enhancing stability for itself, and rising prosperity for its citizens. I’m sure Qatar will still want to play a leadership role in the region, but to what extent, we’ll have to wait and see. I’m sure that continuing to improve relations with its neighbors will also be a priority for Sheikh Tamim, particularly with key friends and allies like Saudi Arabia and hopefully the UAE and the rest of the Gulf States, but also with other key countries as well, like the US and Europe.
Q: In his speech before the Doha Forum, the Emir, Sheikh Hamad, emphasized that nobody can stand against the change that is happening in the region. He also spoke about securing chances for the next generation. Do you believe this was a tacit reference to this transition process in Qatar?
Former Brookings Expert
In his speeches, Sheikh Hamad has always talked about investing in future generations, this has always been one of his major themes. I think this is a theme which he is carrying out at home, and he also believes in it for the region. So, in this respect, what’s happening here [the transition] is again a sort of reinstatement of that belief.
Q: Arab diplomats and analysts are saying that Sheikh Hamad has taken this decision to ensure a smooth transition in Qatar. How unusual is this in a region where leaders most often die in office?
It’s not unusual for Qatar because Qatar does not have conventional transitions. However the fact that it will be a smooth transition; the fact that it was well prepared, both internally and regionally, probably makes this appear more normal than perhaps it otherwise would have been. But this is Qatar and Qatar often surprises.
Q: Sheikh Tamim’s accession seems to signal the sudden rise of a new generation at the helm of one of the region’s wealthiest and most politically ambitious countries, what’s your impression of him?
I don’t really know Sheikh Tamim, I’ve seen him but I don’t really know him. From what I hear about him, he’s growing into his role, he’s somebody who’s loyal to his friends. I think he’s a nationalist, he believes in Qatar, and the Qatari people. I think he will probably have a further unifying effect. I think these are things which he holds dear, as well as somebody who has obviously been brought up by the vision and the ideas of his father and mother. And he’s likable, from what I’ve seen of him, he’s a likable man.
Q: What will be his immediate challenges on taking office?
Well, he will face a multiple number of challenges, one will be to just to assert himself, he has very big shoes to fill vis-a-vis his father, and of course, to work with a younger, newer team. Then, of course, there are the foreign policy challenges he will face, starting with Syria in particular. He is going to face a multitude of challenges, this is not going to be easy for him, he is going to have to adapt and prove himself and work with his new team but I think he’s aware of it, and his father’s aware of it.
Q: On Syria, do you think he will follow the same path as his father in terms of supporting the opposition?
I think Qatar is determined that there needs to be change in Syria and we will continue to see that. How they achieve that, we will have to wait and see. Are they going to work even more in a regionally cooperative, multilateral way than we’ve seen? We will have to wait and see.
Q: Do you believe this transition will change the relationship between Qatar and the West, or will this remain the same? Over the past years we have seen a lot of Qatari investment in the West, particularly Europe and London. Will this continue?
I think there probably will be some continuity. From what I have heard, I think they will be keen to continue to enhance their reputation on the international stage more broadly, not just in the area of foreign policy, but in areas like culture and sports. So I think in this respect we will continue to see that. I think there will be an attempt, with this newer, younger, cabinet, to further professionalize and build capacity internally. I think this is something that they recognize that they have to do.
Q: Sheikh Tamim is 33 years of age, do you think his promotion will inspire the young generation in Qatar?
Yes, but the young generation have plenty of people to be inspired by, but yes he is [an inspiration], and certainly there are some people within Qatar who you meet who are impressive, but the same goes for the Emirates, or Kuwait, or Saudi Arabia. I think in general the Gulf and Arab world has a huge amount of talent which has to be harnessed. I saw incredible things being done in the Emirates at Masdar City and other such places. There is a general trend here, and what Qatar is showing is that you must give the young people confidence in what they can achieve.
Q: What does the Emir have planned for his retirement? Do you think he will take a step back or remain active behind the scenes?
I think he will take a step back, he will do as he said, which is to take a rest. For quite some time, he will obviously be in the background as needed but I think that his own sentiment is that having made this announcement, it is better to let the new generation face it’s challenges, at least for now.
Q: Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned is a very active representative for Qatar. Will this continue? How will this change impact her role?
I think she’s increasingly carved a role for herself as an international figure focused on education, and I think we will see her play more of this kind of niche role and maybe over a period of time, perhaps a less visible role domestically, but we will have to wait and see on that. I think again she is part of the leadership that believes that the younger people have to play a bigger role so I expect that is what we are going to see, even from her.
Q: So all in all, how would you classify the transition in Qatar?
I classify this as a familial succession to a younger generation which includes not just the new Emir but those around him, and I think that is an interesting and important development.