Ruler of Qatar creates history by stepping down

Big-spending sheikh makes history, and surprises outsiders, by becoming Arab world's first ruler to abdicate freely

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 June, 2013, 4:59am


Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the absolute ruler of Qatar, who used his tiny nation's oil and gas wealth to alter the course of events across the Middle East, told his family he would transfer power to his 33-year-old son, the Qatar-owned Al-Jazeera news organisation has reported.

At the age of 61, the emir surprised the outside world, if not his subjects, with the announcement that he would abdicate in favour of his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, and also move aside his longtime foreign and prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, 53.

A diplomat said that by freely stepping down the emir would "score a first in the Arab world," where autocratic rulers held power uncontested for decades until the Arab Spring revolutions that toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Hamad's decision comes as Qatar's hand - and cash - can be felt throughout the Middle East, raising questions about whether the son would 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.

Tamim has little international profile and has concentrated almost entirely on domestic issues. Prime Minister Hamad, 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 Sheikh Tamim has a particular desire to focus internationally," said David Roberts, the director of the Qatar branch of the Royal United Services Institute, a British research centre. "It's never been in evidence."

The surprising abdication comes 18 years after Hamad, then in his early 40s, deposed his father in a bloodless coup that began the modern transformation of Qatar from a well-heeled backwater into a fantastically rich modern state, wielding its great wealth to "punch above their weight", as Brookings Institution scholar F. Gregory Gause put it.

Hamad took a country that has only 250,000 citizens 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 rivalling the Louvre, at least architecturally; and most recently hosted an office for peace talks with the Taliban. Along the way, Qatari military aid helped topple an old friend of the emir's, Muammar Gaddafi, and is now taking aim at another former friend, Bashir al-Assad of Syria.

Now, however, is the emirate in for a screeching about-face?

As with so much in Qatar, just what will happen is opaque in the extreme. For a country that brought the world Al-Jazeera, it is notoriously secretive, with no real freedom of press at home.

Many Qataris say the abdication has been whispered about for months. One theory is health problems. The emir, known to have had two kidney transplants, has lost a lot of weight recently.

A new constitution passed in 2003 provided for him to choose his successor from among the sons of any of his three wives; previously it had been the eldest of his sons. Tamim is the second son of the emir's second wife.

Worrisome to the beneficiaries of Qatar's free-spending international interventions is whether the emirate will continue to get involved as aggressively and expansively as it has over the past 20 years.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse