By Islam Al Tayeb, Research Analyst, IISS-Middle East
The abdication of Qatar’s 61-year-old emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, in favour of his son, Sheikh Tamim, has again put the tiny but enormously wealthy emirate in the spotlight. What this succession portends for the country’s domestic policies, regional role and global standing is unclear, as the inner workings of Gulf monarchies are closely guarded. However, given the like-mindedness of father and son, and the guiding influence of Tamim’s mother Sheikha Moza, any changes are likely to be subtle rather than sudden or dramatic.
The 33-year-old Tamim is now the youngest Gulf ruler and comes to power backed by a new team. His father’s prime and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim (HBJ), has resigned, alongside the entire cabinet. Younger figures groomed for years have now been elevated to senior positions. Such an orderly and voluntary transition of power is unusual in the Gulf, where succession normally happens after the death of a ruler.
Qatar’s international rise
In the 18 years since he pushed his own father from power, Sheikh Hamad has spearheaded Qatar’s rise from a sleepy nation of fewer than 200,000 people into a regional and global player with a population of around 2 million. Qatar’s spectacular growth, from a GDP of US$8 billion in 1995 to a projected $191bn this year, owes much to its aggressive development of its enormous gas holdings. A relentless pursuit of investment opportunities abroad through its large sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority, has also helped.
The global rise of Qatar culminated in 2010, when it won the rights to host the football World Cup in 2022. Brand Qatar is now displayed across the world: football clubs in Europe such as Paris Saint-Germain; London’s tallest building, the Shard; farms in Australia and Africa; and investments in some of the world’s biggest companies and banks, including Barclays bank, Royal Dutch Shell, Xstrata mining, Volkswagen, Sainsbury’s supermarkets, Tiffany jewellers and the Italian fashion house Valentino.
Through al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite channel, and the cultivation of partners throughout the Arab world, Qatar has also become a regional powerhouse. The dynamism and opportunism of Sheikh Hamad and his prime minister HBJ contrasted with the slow, hesitant and conservative way that Saudi Arabia, in particular, conducted its own foreign policy.
However, Qatar’s idiosyncratic international engagement has been rife with contradictions and risks. By punching above its weight, involving itself in disputes far beyond its borders and backing Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Qatar alienated Arab secularists. Relations with Bahrain once suffered over competing territorial claims (now resolved), while the UAE resented its support of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Saudi Arabia, the Gulf giant, begrudged what it saw as Qatar’s grandstanding.
Despite mounting Gulf animosity toward Iran, Qatar has maintained relations with Tehran, with which it shares the world’s largest gas field, South Pars/North Dome – although HBJ privately described the relationship as being a case of: ‘They lie to us, and we lie to them’.
When the wave of Arab uprisings erupted in 2011, Qatar was uniquely positioned to benefit politically. It advocated and participated in the intervention in Libya. And after being Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s closest Arab ally until the 2011 uprising, Doha threw all its weight behind the rebels keen on overthrowing Assad, playing a key role in organising (and allegedly arming) them.
But that role has been particularly controversial, and the transitions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have proved bumpy and divisive, pitting Qatar’s generously funded political allies against large segments of the population, who blame the emirate for interference in their countries’ affairs. A small but telling indication of that backlash is the diminishing viewership and increased criticism of al-Jazeera.
Meanwhile, Qatar’s latest attempts at inserting itself in the diplomacy between the Afghan Taliban and the US have had several false dawns.
Because, as part of his training for the job, the new emir has been closely involved in Qatari decision-making – travelling to Libya, leading policy on Syria and attending regional summits – it is unlikely that he will stray far from his father’s path in foreign policy.
Challenges at home
While Qataris continue to enjoy the world’s highest GDP per capita, the emirate’s domestic challenges will remain manageable. But Qatari citizens have voiced concerns about the sudden economic and social changes facing them; about four-fifths of the emirate’s inhabitants are foreigners, leading many Qataris to bemoan an erosion of national identity long rooted in tribal belonging.
Despite championing democratic rights abroad, Qatar’s government allows few political freedoms at home. Political societies and professional bodies are banned, and civil society often falls in line with government policy. For example, the emirate’s 2003 constitution was drafted by government committee without much public debate but was still passed with a 98% ‘yes’ vote at referendum.
Can Sheikh Tamim use his youth and the goodwill that comes with being a new ruler to open up the Qatari political scene and enact reforms? Elections to form an advisory council were postponed indefinitely after being originally scheduled for the second half of the year; whether these eventually go ahead and the powers of this council are expanded will be good measures of his domestic intentions.