Emir of Qatar abdicates, handing power to his son

Written by New York Times | Doha | Updated: Jun 26 2013, 08:58am hrs
The emir of Qatar went on national television on Tuesday to publicly confirm that he was handing over power to his son in a brief speech that praised the virtues of youth and assured his subjects that his successor was ready to rule them.

The 61-year-old emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, did not specify exactly when his fourth son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, 33, would assume the office, but a Qatari official said the new emir would make a speech to the nation on Wednesday, after which he would choose a new government.

The handover had been the subject of orchestrated leaks to Al Jazeera on Monday but not officially confirmed. It was widely expected here that the current prime minister, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, would step aside in a cabinet reshuffle. He has been foreign minister since 1992 and prime minister as well since 2007.

I declare that I will hand over the reins of power to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and I am fully certain that he is up to the responsibility, deserving the confidence, capable of shouldering the responsibility and fulfilling the mission, the emir said.

Sheikh Tamim had been made the heir apparent by a decree of his father after a constitutional change made that possible, and his eldest son renounced his claim on the throne. He is the second son of the second of the emirs three wives.

You, our children, are the munitions of this homeland, the emir said. We have always thought well of you, by virtue of your genuine eagerness and sincere achievements have proven to be ready to lead and take our confidence. It was unclear if he was speaking to youth generally, to his son, or both.

Sheikh Hamad took power himself in 1995 at 43 when he staged a bloodless coup against his own father. His speech was largely absent of political content, aside from a statement of his strongly held Pan-Arabist views. We believe that the Arab world is one human body, one coherent structure, that draws its strength from all its constituent parts.

He spoke vaguely about taking on a new role himself, but did not say what that would be. His decision came as Qatars hand more precisely its cheque book can be felt throughout West Asia, raising questions about whether the son will continue Qatars 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 Wests ire by financing radical Islamist rebels in various arenas.

One of the emirs most far-reaching actions, foreshadowing his later policies, was to sponsorAl Jazeera, the satellite news station created in the 1990s, which broke the monopoly of state broadcasters on the regional narrative and offered Arab viewers a new spotlight on their societies and leaders.

Sheik Tamim has little international profile and has so far concentrated almost entirely on domestic issues. At the same time, the prime minister who is to be replaced, who is widely known as H.B.J. 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.

Ive never seen any evidence that Sheik Tamim has a particular desire to focus internationally, said David Roberts, the director of the Qatar branch of the Royal United Services Institute, a prominent British research centre. Its never been in evidence.

The speech Tuesday was being followed an hour later by an event known as a mubaya, in which prominent citizens welcome his successor. The new emir is expected to deliver his first speech on Wednesday, the same day the cabinet is to resign and the new one, minus at least Prime Minister Hamad, is to be sworn in.

Eighteen years ago, Sheik Hamad, then in his early 40s, deposed his own father in a bloodless coup that began the transformation of Qatar from a well-heeled backwater into a fantastically rich modern country. Since then, the Qataris have wielded their great wealth to, as the scholar F Gregory Gause III of the Brookings Institution put it, punch above their weight.

Sheik Hamads 180-degree turn took a country that has fewer citizens than Reno, Nevada, has residents 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 IM 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 that some claim is costing $100 million. Along the way, Qatari military aid helped topple an old friend of the emirs, Muammar el-Qaddafi, and is now taking aim at another former friend, Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

Now, however, is the emirate in for another screeching about-face As with so much in Qatar, just what will happen is opaque in the extreme or as Roberts put it, The sum total of rumour here isnt really worth much. For a country that brought the world Al Jazeera, it is notoriously secretive, with no real freedom of press at home.

Many Qataris privately say the abdication has been whispered about for months, though no one is clear why. One theory is health problems. The emir is known to have had two kidney transplants, and while still active, he has lost a lot of weight recently.

But the Qatari official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to do so, said the emirs decision to abdicate has nothing to do with his health.