Zaid Belbagi comments on the decision of the Emir to step-down in favour of his son.
As night falls in Doha, dhow boats drift across the bay as the water sparkles with the reflection of the bright skyscrapers that have come to symbolise Qatar’s dramatic rise as a major global player.
The steward of Qatar’s transformation has been the Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani. Since coming to power through a palace coup in 1995 he sponsored the exploration and subsequent export of Qatar’s 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. He has projected Qatar as a serious economic and political player through the shrewd use of Qatar’s considerable natural resources.
Perched on the corniche is the Royal Court, surrounded by a simple metal fence, a modest seat of power by regional standards. Today, the characteristically sleepy building was abuzz with activity as Sheikh Hamad made the decision to relinquish power in favour of his fourth son and Crown Prince, Sheikh Tamim.
In a markedly different transition from when Sheikh Hamad replaced his father, it seems ruling family members have agreed the switch at the top with little fuss and intrigue. The decision has immense implications. Since the late 1990s the Emirate has positioned itself as the financier of projects as diverse as the Al Jazeera TV Network and European Sovereign bailouts. Its most recent policy of bankrolling regime-change during the Arab Spring has simultaneously propelled Qatar to the forefront of international diplomacy, whilst earning it the reputation as the enfant terrible of the traditionally conservative Gulf Cooperation Council.
Various analysts and experts have argued that Sheikh Tamim’s appointment may herald a departure in policy. The young Prince has shown himself to be more conservative, playing a strong hand in the Syrian and Libyan uprisings. Simultaneously, he has courted his GCC counterparts, working to thaw the freeze that had developed between Qatar and its sheikhly neighbours.
However no strategic analysis of Qatar is complete without considering the crucial role of the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim, known affectionately as ‘HBJ’. With senior positions in Qatar Gas, Qatar Petroleum, Qatar Airways, Qtel, the Qatar Investment Authority, Qatar National Bank and Qatar Holding he has been the linchpin of Qatar’s success. A distant relative of the Emir, his technocratic abilities and dynamic personality pushed him to the forefront of Qatari political life. His rumoured departure from the scene could have significant implications for the plucky state. In the coming months it will be interesting to observe whether he will make a full withdrawal from public life or if he will remain in an advisory capacity. The current Emir fostered a close working relationship with HBJ to the great benefit of Qatar, it remains to be seen who Sheikh Tamim will rely on from amongst the ruling family. His brothers have taken on some government responsibilities, however having only just come of age, they do not yet have the experience or diverse range of international relationships that HBJ has personally cultivated.
Looking ahead, this week’s change heralds an opportune moment for the incoming Emir to rethink Qatar’s relationship with its GCC partners. As faint rumours of a US withdrawal from the Gulf grow louder, closer union with its neighbours is a strategic must for a small state with big ambitions.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Zaid M. Belbagi is an expert in Gulf affairs and acts as a strategic communications adviser to MENA governments. He is a visiting scholar at the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies and a Fellow at the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies. He holds a Masters in Diplomacy from Oxford University and a BSc in International Relations and History from the London School of Economics. He tweets at @Moulay_Zaid.
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