European Council on Foreign Relations

Qatar: succession is not transition

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Becoming leader of one of the world’s richest countries at the tender age of 33 isn’t too shabby a feat, but it helps considerably if you can inherit it from your father. So did Qatar’s Tamim bin Hamad today, in what is being hailed as a model for peaceful transition in a region beset by challenges to traditional models of power and authority.

Talk of the handover has been afoot for some time in Qatar; keen observers took note of the change in referring to Tamim as the deputy emir in recent months rather than the crown prince as he was previously known. His father Hamad, having unseated his own father in a palace coup almost two decades ago, has multiplied Qatar’s economic growth and political influence many times over, and undoubtedly sees a seamless transfer of power as part of his legacy as an absolute but enlightened Arab ruler.

A peaceful transfer of power, yes, albeit a wholly paternalistic one; the outgoing emir’s speech today leant heavily on references to the children of the Qatari nation, recognition of the heavy burden of responsibility that leadership entails, and remarks about the mutual bonds of allegiance between "the ruler and his people". He also recalled his defining political vision for pan-Arab solidarity and shared prosperity. And while Tamim may be young and Harrow and Sandhurst-educated, it is unlikely that he has a grand liberalising agenda for a deeply conservative Qatar (the fact that he has two wives belies a certain traditionalism). At a domestic level, it is worth watching whether parliamentary elections announced in 2011 take place later in 2013 and how the new emir interacts with an elected assembly.

Qatar’s policies in Syria and its unswerving embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood have taken the shine off its assumed role as a progressive regional force, but Qataris are certainly not chafing under monarchy. Sheikh Hamad leaves power deeply popular and the country has defied the internal political upheavals gripping Middle East and North Africa. Neither should anyone expect the old guard of power to fade into obscurity, or that neighbouring countries caught in their own distinctive succession crises see Qatar as a model. Even if it has a younger face, it's politics as usual in Qatar.

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