Qatar’s Leadership Shake-Up: Powerful Emir to Step Down for 33-Year-Old Son

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Qatar's Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, front right, and his son Crown Prince Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, front left, attend a final match of the Emir Cup at Khalifa stadium in the Qatari capital of Doha on May 18, 2013

Residents of Qatar can finally stop holding their breath. On Monday evening, the nation’s official Qatar News Agency announced that on Tuesday morning Qatar’s Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, 61, will address the nation with a long-awaited announcement that he would transfer power to his son, Crown Prince Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, putting an end to rumors and speculation that have occupied this tiny, petroleum-rich Gulf nation for months.

The announced move is thought to be part of a larger reshuffle in the royal Cabinet that will bring a new generation of younger leaders to the fore — Sheik Tamim, at 33, will be the youngest ruler in the region by a good decade and a half (Syria’s embattled President Bashar Assad, at 47, is his closest peer). Other projected moves have the indefatigable Prime Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, 53, who serves as both Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, stepping down in favor of a younger administrator as well, though there is no official succession plan, or names, in place for the premiership. Tuesday has been declared a national holiday in preparation for the coming announcements.

The al-Thani family has ruled Qatar, a vital U.S. ally that is home to a major American military base, for nearly 150 years. The current King deposed his father in 1995 and is widely celebrated as a competent and progressive — as progressive as possible in an absolute monarchy, at least — leader who has presided over Qatar’s growing clout on the world stage. In many ways Crown Prince Tamim, who was declared heir apparent in 2003, leapfrogging his three older brothers, represents a reassuring continuity. For nearly a decade he has been at his father’s side, engaging world leaders, representing Qatar at international events and presiding over Qatar’s 2030 Vision project, which lays out domestic development goals for the country.

Still, Sheik Tamim will be thrust into the limelight at a pivotal moment for Qatar. For the past several years, the country has gambled big in a bid for regional prominence, leading the charge for regime change in Libya, supporting rebel groups in Syria and hosting envoys of the Afghan Taliban in an attempt to force peace between the rebel group, the Americans and the Afghan government. Doha-based news broadcaster al-Jazeera, with its aggressive reporting on the Arab uprisings, has been the country’s calling card, telegraphing the leadership’s views on the region even as it purports to be independent.

But Doha’s attempt to supplant regional power brokers like Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Turkey with a combination of cash, brio and pugnacious foreign policy has somewhat backfired. Countries like Libya, Tunisia and Egypt that once welcomed Qatar’s generous financial help in the wake of their revolutions, have grown suspicious of what they see as Qatari support of Islamist groups. Older, more established countries in the Gulf view Qatar as a disruptive upstart, dangerously close to the Muslim Brotherhood. Syria, in particular, could well prove Qatar’s downfall. What once looked like a quick success in the mold of previous Arab uprisings has turned into a bloody quagmire. If Assad survives, Qatar’s standing in the region, after more than billions of dollars spent on weapons and aid to the rebels, would be irreparably damaged.

To that end, Sheik Tamim’s sudden emergence as Emir could be just what Qatar needs to shake off the bad publicity of the past few months. Soon he will be the youngest leader in the Arab world, where 60% of the population is under the age of 25. He is likely to bring a new energy, not just to Qatar but also to a region whose leadership has long been seen as out of touch with the needs of today’s youth.

Unlike the playboy scions of other Arab leaders, Sheik Tamim has led a relatively quiet life. Educated in the U.K., first at the prestigious Harrow School, then the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he quickly returned home to take up positions of responsibility considerably advanced for his young age. As the son of Sheika Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, the Emir’s formidable second wife and head of the Qatar Foundation, Sheik Tamim is likely to bring his mother’s progressive social agenda to the fore, focusing on Qatar’s human-capital development as much as he does on the country’s image in the rest of the world. This will please his domestic audience, which has grumbled over excessive expenditures abroad. With the FIFA World Cup coming to Qatar in 2022, the country has embarked on a massive construction boom. The subsequent influx of foreign workers to build that infrastructure threatens to unbalance the citizen-to-expatriate ratio even further — out of a population of nearly 2 million, only an estimated 250,000 are Qatari citizens. Sheik Tamim will need to assure his people that while the complexion of Qatar may change, its core values and traditions will not.

Qatar, as cheerleader to the Arab revolts, occupies a precarious position as an authoritarian state at the forefront of democratic change in a rapidly evolving region. Qatar has yet to hold parliamentary elections, something that the current Emir has promised will take place by the end of 2013. So far no other details about those elections have been made public, though Qataris are holding out hope that tomorrow’s announcement might include news of both the new King’s inauguration and details of the polls. If Sheik Tamim, as Emir, can anchor his new reign with real, representative elections, he will preside over a country that has finally reconciled its practice with its preaching.