Reports that the Emir of Qatar, Shaikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, will shortly hand-over power to his son and heir, Shaikh Tamim, are no surprise. Sources close to the family confirmed that this has been known for quite some time by relatives and close friends.
In a region where rulers usually only depart when they die or are ousted, the Emir’s decision is unprecedented. In the grand scheme of things this could well set the stage for others to follow.
At just 61 years of age, Shaikh Hamad is one of the youngest leaders in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) group of countries. By voluntarily stepping down he is, in effect, clearing the way for a younger generation to emerge.
The State of Qatar is ranked by Forbes as the richest per capita country in the world with an estimated gross domestic product of more than $88,000 per head in 2010. Sitting on the world’s third largest natural gas reserves, its rulers have used its revenues to invest heavily in everything from construction to commerce to education, health and aviation. In recent years, domestic investments have been matched by similar enterprises in Europe, with Britain being a main beneficiary. In Africa, there have been substantial investments in Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea to name but a few.
However, it was not its fabulous wealth that placed Qatar on the world map. There is an almost universal consensus that this was largely down to one thing: Al Jazeera news network. Today, with a global audience of over 50 million viewers and correspondents from Beijing to Caracas, Al Jazeera now challenges the BBC’s global dominance as a news provider.
Just as the BBC has been closely aligned to and reflective of British foreign policy, Al Jazeera, it could be argued, has played a similar role representing the ambitions and concerns of the State of Qatar. Government officials are reticent about this but the way that the station covered the Arab uprisings and Doha’s support for the political changes in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria suggest that the two cannot be totally separated.
Qatar’s foreign policy has been described as enigmatic at best and duplicitous at worse. Qatar’s critics argue that it is odd for Qatar to promote democracy in the Arab world while it maintains an unelected dynasty at home. The Al-Thani family has been ruling the emirate since 1850. However, in the GCC the Qatari leadership has not endeared itself to the other ruling families. By pushing the boundaries of regional politics toward democracy, Qatar has provoked unease in the Gulf. Some believe that its high-profile support for the Arab Spring has stirred the hornet’s nest and it is only a matter of time before changes arrives in the region. In other words, there will soon also be demands for democracy, transparency and accountability in the Gulf countries.
Shaikh Hamad has been the driving force behind Qatar’s diplomacy. His visit to the Gaza Strip late last year, the only one by a regional head of state, speaks volumes. Long after his departure, Palestinians will remember his political and economic support. They are not the only people to have benefited in this way. Qatar carried out airlifts of critical humanitarian relief and established field hospitals in Somalia during the recent famine. Likewise, in Sudan’s Dar Fur region, Qatar has invested and mediated between the Khartoum government and rebel forces.
With the departure of Shaikh Hamad as Emir of Qatar, one vital question remains. Will his young successor continue on the same path? Or, will he abandon the policies which ruffled so many feathers, near and far? At just 33 years old the new Emir will still have the benefit of his father’s experience and offers of advice where necessary. Indeed, he has for some time been handling a number of sensitive and key portfolios. While it is expected that he will pursue the progressive policies of his predecessor, Shaikh Tamim will no doubt bring new blood and energy into the system. With the region itself in the throes of realignment and change this development in Qatar could encourage others to follow suit.
With a smaller and more homogenous population than its Gulf neighbours Qatar has, so far, been spared some of the political turmoil that has challenged the authorities in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. Some attribute this to the consummate statecraft of its ruling family. The new ruler will need all the skills of his father to weather future storms and assist the process of historical change underway in the region.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.