The emir of gas-rich Qatar, a major actor on the world diplomatic stage and key backer of Arab Spring uprisings, yesterday abdicated in favor of his 33-year-old son, Sheikh Tamim.
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, 61, handed over a Gulf state that under his 18-year rule has developed into a political and economic powerhouse with multibillion-dollar investments across the world.
Sheikh Hamad suffers from kidney problems, but diplomats insist his motivation for stepping down was not health-related but rather a determination to bring a younger leadership to the fore.
“I address you today to announce that I am handing the rule over to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani,” the emir told Qataris in a televised speech.
“Sons of Qatar, I hope I have succeeded in living up to my responsibility,” the monarch said.
The decision marks the beginning of “a new era in which a young leadership will hold the banner that would place the hopes of the coming generation upon its priorities,” he added.
After the speech, al-Jazeera television aired footage of citizens arriving at the palace in Doha to swear allegiance to a tall, smiling Tamim, who stood next to his father to welcome the visitors.
“I am convinced that you will back him as you did with me,” Sheikh Hamad said, referring to Tamim. “I am also convinced that Tamim will have his eyes set on the interests of his nation and people and the happiness of the Qatari nationals will always be his priority.”
Sheikh Hamad, who used Qatar’s immense gas wealth to drive its modernization, came to power in a coup in which he overthrew his own father, Sheikh Khalifa, in June 1995.
His decision to abdicate sees Tamim propelled into the youngest sovereign of any of the Gulf Arab monarchies.
The occasion was marked by the declaration yesterday of a public holiday.
“Such a generational shift will make waves in the region, even though the Qataris informed other countries of their decision,” Doha-based analyst Salman Shaikh said.
“This decision is consistent with Qatar’s policy,” he said. “They have been preparing for change for some time, they want to move to the younger generation.”
A diplomat said that by freely stepping down, the emir would “score a first in the Arab world,” where autocratic rulers held power uncontested for decades until the Arab Spring revolutions that toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
Tamim, born in 1980, is the second son of the emir and his second wife, Sheikha Mozah, and has been groomed for years to take the helm of the Western ally.
The British-educated Tamim is deputy commander of the armed forces and head of the National Olympic Committee. He also chairs the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee in charge of hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Diplomats said that over the past three years, the emir has increasingly transferred military and security responsibilities to Tamim, who like his father went to the British military academy Sandhurst.
The tiny Gulf peninsula holds the world’s third-largest gas reserves and produces roughly 77 million tonnes of liquefied natural gas per year, making it the world’s largest supplier.
Analyst Neil Partrick, an expert on the Gulf, ruled out major changes in Qatar, saying: “Tamim already has responsibilities for sensitive foreign portfolios among other matters.”
“For Qatari foreign policy, none of this seems likely to produce major change. The young heir apparent Tamim is unlikely to effect major changes without consulting his father,” he said.