After nearly two decades in power, Qatar’s ruler, Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, has transferred power to his son and heir apparent, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. Although speculation had been swirling for months about impending major political changes in Qatar, the power transition still came as a huge surprise in a country made famous in recent years by its hyperactive diplomacy.
Qatar’s ascent to regional prominence was facilitated first and foremost by the vision and seemingly unlimited energy of Sheikh Hamad. Hamad’s takeover of power from his father in 1995 was motivated by a desire to pull the country out of a prolonged economic and diplomatic slumber to which it had been lulled by a succession of less-than-impressive rulers, including Hamad’s own father. From the very beginning, the new emir energetically set out to transform Qatar domestically, to turn it into a regional and global powerhouse, and to force it, through the sheer power of its inordinate resources, to become an active participant in and a contributor to the twenty-first century.
Qatar, with a population of only about 250,000, is home to the world’s third largest reserves of liquefied natural gas (LNG), and has positioned itself as the world’s biggest supplier of LNG. These were all assets on which Sheikh Hamad astutely capitalized. By the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Qatar’s population ranked among the wealthiest in the world.
But for Sheikh Hamad domestic wealth and rapid economic development alone were not enough. The emir methodically set out to turn Qatar into a regional diplomatic powerhouse, often to the chagrin of more established regional powers such as Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Presenting itself as a peacemaker in a region wracked by chronic tensions, Qatar actively mediated internal conflicts in Lebanon, Sudan, Yemen, in the Horn of Africa, and a host of other places near and far. With American support and protection, and with strategic use of its massive wealth, Qatar’s clout only grew throughout the 2000s.
Enjoying unique political stability, when the Arab Spring started shaking the region beginning in 2011, Qatar saw opportunity where other Arab states ran for cover. In Libya, Qatar started arming anti-Gaddafi rebels and took credit for playing an instrumental role in ending the Libyan strongman’s forty-one year rule. In Egypt, Qatar started capitalizing the country’s struggling Central Bank, thus seeking to ensure continued influence. And in Syria, with whose president Sheikh Hamad was once extremely close, Qatar has emerged as the central backer of anti-Assad rebel groups.
Coming in the midst of regional turmoil in which Qatar is an active participant—or in fact a major contributor—the power transition in Doha raises natural questions about the possibility of a change of direction in Qatari foreign policy. Will Sheikh Tamim purse policies noticeably different from those of his father?
Over the last several years, as he has assumed an increasingly more visible profile in the country’s politics, Sheikh Tamim has been a loyal lieutenant and an ardent defender of his father’s modernizing vision. He has been similarly supportive of his mother’s efforts at changing Qatari society and culture by inviting major American and British universities to open branch campuses in Doha.
Within the country, Tamim is often assumed to be more conservative than both of his parents. But this conservatism seems to stem more from a pragmatic connectivity with the cultural sensibilities of most Qataris than the product of deeply-held ideological or doctrinal beliefs. Still in his early thirties, Tamim and his generation of Qatari political elites are more closely in-tune with social trends and cultural values circulating through social media, which in a place like Qatar tend to be the primary means of generating opinions and passing along ideas.
Tamim, in other words, appears closer to the sentiments of most Qataris than either of his parents. He is widely credited with the recent decision to make Arabic the language of instruction at Qatar University. While the large army of expats and diplomats in Doha tried to make sense of the unexpected announcement, most Qataris applauded it as a prudent move toward reasserting their national identity.
This pragmatism is likely to prompt Sheikh Tamim to stay the course his father charted in foreign policy. Qatar is too deeply involved in the Syrian civil war to suddenly disentangle itself without ruffling the feathers of its chief ally the United States, and the same goes for Qatar’s ties with Saudi Arabia. Hamad steered the country into Libya and now Syria with the assumption that Qatar ought to position itself as the primary architect of a new era in the Arab world. Some two years on, with a steadily more polarized regional environment, the stakes for Qatar have become too high for Tamim not to follow through.
The new emir will, no doubt, have his own style, rely more and more on a team of his own personal allies and circle of insiders, and will surely bring a different flavor to Qatar’s highly personalized politics. And the symbolic components of Qatari culture—be they language, or art, or Islam—are likely to benefit from greater political patronage in the future than has been the case for the last eighteen years or so. But the substance of Qatari politics, both domestically and in the foreign policy arena, is unlikely to change anytime soon.