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Change Not Likely After Qatar's Leadership Transition

  • Phillip Walter Wellman

Qatar's Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (C) attends a soccer match at al-Sadd Stadium in Doha, May 4, 2013.

Qatar's Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (C) attends a soccer match at al-Sadd Stadium in Doha, May 4, 2013.

The new emir of Qatar says he will continue to follow the "path" set by his father, who abdicated the throne earlier this week, suggesting the country is unlikely to see a sudden change in policies under new leadership.

In his first televised address as head of state, 33-year-old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani praised the efforts of the outgoing Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani in transforming Qatar from a Persian Gulf backwater into a diplomatic, financial and energy powerhouse.

Moving forward, the new emir said the country would take direction from no one and would seek to keep relations with all governments and states.

The speech on Wednesday coincided with a cabinet reshuffle that saw the long-serving Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani replaced as both prime minister and foreign minister.

Known as "HBJ" the Sheikh has been a major driving force behind the country's rise to global prominence.

Jamie Ingram, an analyst at IHS Global Insight, says the new ministers have a lot to live up to.

"It's likely they will be less active. Hamad bin Jassim was very keen to pursue a very adventurous foreign policy and his successor is unlikely to be as enthused by such a strategy as that. They will continue to try and maintain Qatar's role as an international mediator and as a player in international affairs, but perhaps not to the same extent as we've grown accustom to over the last three, four, five years," Ingram said.

Qatar, whose large oil and gas supplies and small population make it the world's richest country in terms of per capita gross domestic product, emerged from the Arab Spring as a major force in regional diplomacy.

The country played a prominent role in supporting the uprising against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, and it continues to be one of the strongest backers of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

But its actions abroad have not always been welcome, with protests against its "interference" being seen in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

Qatar's efforts in arming opposition fighters in Syria are also said to be causing tensions among rebels leaders, with some claiming Doha is only backing those with strong Islamist views.

Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center, says Syria will be the most pressing foreign policy challenge of the new Qatari government.

"This is going to be an issue, which I'm sure, is going to consume Tamim and those around him, particularly his new foreign minister," Shaikh said.

While Sheikh Hamad's abdication was foreseen, critics worry that the timing of Tuesday's announcement - amid multiple ongoing involvements for Qatar both at home and abroad - could lead to complications.

The 61-year-old suffers from kidney problems, but government officials insist that is not why he ceded power to his son.

"It helps to reinforce Qatar's desire to project itself as an active, flexible and responsive state. One of the youngest leaders in the world perhaps offsets the sense of a country that promotes change elsewhere, but doesn't have it at home. At the same time it keeps everything in place in terms of the family's dominance in politics," said Neil Partrick, an associate fellow at London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

The peaceful transfer of power is extremely rare in the Gulf, where absolute monarchs traditionally keep their positions for life.

Analyst Ingram says the events in Qatar are unlikely to be replicated by its neighbors any time soon.

"This isn't going to spread to other Gulf States. In terms of pressure to bring in new people, this will undoubtedly cause some discomfort for places like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, where there are a lot of calls for the prime minister there to step down, but the pressure is unlikely to reach the point where the rulers are actually going to be forced to act on that," Ingram said.

In light of regional unrest, all Gulf states, including Qatar, have cracked down on internal dissent in an apparent bid to protect the sovereignty of the ruling families. Political parties are banned in Qatar and there are no elections. The emir has absolute authority.

In February, a Qatari poet was jailed for 15 years for criticizing the emir and attempting to incite revolt.

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