DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – With a few words in a short speech, Qatar’s huge energy riches and its expanding political influence passed into the hands of a 33-year-old ruler Tuesday in a seamless transition from a region where old guard leaders have been toppled or besieged by the Arab Spring.
The transfer of power — made official in a brief statement by Qatar’s outgoing emir — was stunning for both its simplicity and far-reaching repercussions.
It quietly brought a new generation to the forefront of Middle East affairs in an apparent Gulf-style riposte to the pressures for a new style of leadership inspired by the region’s upheavals: More youthful and possibly more attuned to demands for a greater public voice in political decision-making.
The rise of the new emir, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, also reorders the ruling fraternity among the Western-backed Gulf Arab leaders — most decades older than Sheik Tamim — and further boosts Qatar’s image for bold-stroke policies that have produced crown jewels such as the Al-Jazeera TV network and serious challenges including its unwavering backing for Syrian rebels.
At its heart, however, the move is certain to be perceived as a direct swipe at traditions among the Gulf’s other ruling dynasties that power can only be surrendered through death or palace coup — which is how Qatar’s now-former emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, took control in 1995 from his father.
Sheik Hamad, 61, used a televised address to note repeatedly the importance of shifting leadership to more youthful hands — an indirect acknowledgment of the demands for reforms opened by the Arab Spring, which began in 2011 with successful revolutions ousting leaders in Tunisia and Egypt and spread across the Arab world.
But shortly before handing over power, Sheik Hamad showed caution about moving too fast. He extended the term of the country’s advisory panel, known as the Shura Council, the official Qatar News agency reported. It didn’t say how long the term would last, but the move is likely to delay elections for a more powerful legislative body proposed for later this year.
“The future lies ahead of you, the children of this homeland, as you usher into a new era where young leadership hoists the banner,” the outgoing emir said as he announced his abdication and the carefully crafted transition to the British-educated crown prince that has been rumoured for weeks.
Qatar has given no official explanation on the transition, but Sheik Hamad is believed to be suffering from chronic health problems.
It closed a stunning period of transformation for Qatar, which juts like upraised thumb into the Persian Gulf.
Sheik Hamad and his inner circle pulled the spotlight toward a country that was long content to rake in petrodollars and let other Gulf centres such as Bahrain and Dubai take the lead in regional affairs.
In little more than a decade, Qatar was transformed into a political broker and a centre for global investment with a sovereign fund estimated to be worth more than $100 billion. Its portfolio includes landmark real estate, luxury brands and a powerful presence in the sporting world, including ownership of the football club Paris Saint-Germain by Sheik Tamim’s Qatar Sports Investments.
Sheik Tamim, a member of the International Olympic Committee, also helped Qatar defeat rivals including the U.S. to win the rights to host the 2022 football World Cup. But Qatar lost its bid for the 2020 Olympics — an effort that could be revived by the new emir for the 2024 Games.
Qatar’s riches have been spent, too, on trying to reshape the region with critical aid to Libyan rebels who brought down Moammar Gadhafi and now in Syria with fighters seeking to topple President Bashar Assad. Qatar this week hosted a Syrian opposition conference attended by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and is the venue for possible U.S.-led peace talks with Afghanistan’s Taliban.
In a further sign of Qatar’s risk-taking policies, it even allowed an Israeli trade office — effectively a diplomatic outpost — for years before ordering its closure following Israel’s incursion into Gaza in late 2008.
“While Qatar is not alone in being befuddled as to how to solve the Syrian crisis, this is an ongoing issue that Qatar’s new elite will have to cope with immediately,” wrote David Roberts, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think-tank .
But Sheik Tamim is not expected to make any immediate policy shifts. In an important sign of continuity and shared goals, the outgoing emir and Sheik Tamim stood shoulder to shoulder and greeted members of the ruling family and others following the address.
Sheik Tamim has been closely involved in key decisions since 2003, when Tamim became the next in line to rule after his older brother stepped aside. The outgoing emir is expected to remain a guiding force from the wings.
“Sheik Tamim will be driving his father’s car, which is already programmed on where to go,” said Mustafa Alani, a political analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Geneva.
The most closely watched decisions coming up will be the choices made for key cabinet posts, including whether he could bring in women members in another break from tradition. But one of the linchpins under the former emir, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, served in the dual roles of prime minister and is likely to exert his influence over the Sheik Tamim’s choices.
“Such a daring transfer of power is unheard of in the Gulf and in Arab history,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a professor of political science at Emirates University, wrote in a commentary in the Dubai-based Gulf News.
No major changes in direction also are expected on Qatar’s investment strategies, although Sheik Tamim may redirect more resources to domestic projects as vital gas exports level off, said Rachel Ziemba, a London-based analyst at Roubini Global Economics.
Qatar has the world’s third-largest gas reserves, but has mounting bills to cover development plans such as a new seaport and projects to prepare for the World Cup.
“There is more need to spend money at home — big budget projects, infrastructure,” Ziemba said.
Meanwhile, Qatar has faced criticism from rights groups for joining the Gulf-wide crackdowns on perceived dissent since the Arab Spring. In one of the most high-profile cases, Qatari authorities jailed a poet whose verses included admiration for the uprisings. In February, the sentence against the poet, Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, was reduced from life to 15 years.
Christopher Davidson, an expert in Gulf affairs at Britain’s Durham University, believes some of the tough measures by Qatari officials reflect internal squabbles with hard-liners trying to exert their influence. Such groups could be among the first housecleaning targets by the new emir, he predicted.
“Tamim is seen as focused on domestic issues first,” said Davidson. “One of the main tasks will be to establish a new social contract with the population … What kind of opposition is allowed and what is not will be part of that.”
In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Araghchi told reporters that Iran supports any moves by Qatar that bring “peace and tranquility” for the region. Relations between the two nations have deteriorated over Syria, where Tehran remains strongly on the side of key ally Bashar Assad.
Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Adam Schreck in Baghdad contributed to this report.