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06/25/2013

All change in Qatar: Emir abdicates in favour of his young son

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New guard: Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, the new emir of Qatar Fadi Al-Assaad/Reuters

It is probably fitting that the emir of Qatar announced he was handing the reins of power to his son with a quote from the fourth Muslim caliph, Ali:   “Teach your children other than that what you were taught; as they are created for a time other than yours.”

With those words on state television Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al Thani, ruler of one of the richest countries in the world thanks to an abundance of natural gas and oil, abdicated in favour of his son, Sheikh Tamim.

It was typical of the emir to make such a bold move. Gulf monarchies don’t abdicate, they die in office of old age or in bloody feuds. Sheikh Tamim is 33 while his counterparts around the region are at least in their 60s.  The king of Saudi Arabia is 89.

The young sheikh inherits a nation vastly different from the one his father took over in 1995 in a bloodless coup. Qatar then had all the oil and gas but none of it was exploited. He transformed the island into a feisty emirate which has upset the balance of power in a Middle East where Egypt and Saudi Arabia have traditionally laid claim to the mantle of political leadership.

Sheikh Tamim, who speaks fluent English and French, has been groomed for the role since 2003, the BBC reported. In this period, the country has strived to have a good relationship with America, reached out to Israel, is hosting the Afghan Taliban’s political office and controversially funding Syrian rebels. The Qataris certainly take their diplomacy seriously – they keep a fleet of 20 jets on standby for trouble-shooting diplomatic missions in the region. There’s the Al Jazeera powerhouse, of course.

"It would not be a stretch to say that in some ways, Qatar today is more influential than Egypt on the regional stage, even though Egypt has more than 240 times the number of citizens," Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Center Doha, the Qatar branch of the Washington-based think-tank, told Reuters.

At home, too, Sheikh Tamim will oversee social change. Qatari girls are attending university in record numbers, encouraged by Sheikh Tamim’s glamourous mother, Sheikha Mozzah.  In a region where religious tolerance is disappearing, a church was recently opened in Qatar. But it has a long way to go on labour rights of South Asian workers.

His father built Qatar’s infrastructure and harnessed the economic boom. What will be interesting to see is how Sheikh Tamim builds on that in the next generation. Will there be more civil rights, for example? Free elections and free speech? His father shoes are big ones to fill but there is a lot more work to be done.  

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Model parents: Sheikha Mozzah and her husband Sheikh Hamad the ruler of Qatar Photo credit: Philippe Desmazes/AFP/Getty Images

Hamida Ghafour is a foreign affairs reporter at The Star. She has lived and worked in the Middle East and Asia for more than 10 years and is the author of a book on Afghanistan. Follow her on Twitter @HamidaGhafour

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