In Qatar, a (rare) royal abdication

A man watches a televised address by Qatar's Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday. Qatar's ruler transferred power to his 33-year-old son, making him the youngest leader in the region.
A man watches a televised address by Qatar's Emir Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in Doha, Qatar, on Tuesday. Qatar's ruler transferred power to his 33-year-old son, making him the youngest leader in the region. Osama Faisal/AP

Qatar's emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, handed over power to his 33-year-old son on Tuesday, and we found this rather remarkable on several counts.

First, an abdication in the Middle East, or anywhere for that matter, is pretty rare. Yes, we know that Queen Beatrix abdicated earlier this year in favor of her son, Prince Willem-Alexander. But she was 75, and this is one of the few places that had a precedent for passing the baton in this manner.

The norm is for a monarchy to change hands through the death of an elderly king or queen. If you don't believe us, just ask Britain's Prince Charles.

In Qatar, Sheik Hamad came to power in 1995 bloodless coup that deposed his father, who was on an extended summer vacation in Europe.

Sheik Hamad's decision to step down now is also surprising because he's just 61. Health may have been a factor, but the government has not divulged any details.

And Sheik Hamad has been a tremendously ambitious leader during his 18-year rule and did not seem like the type to step aside at a relatively young age.

He established Al-Jazeera, the satellite television network, he made his tiny island an outsize political player and he used Qatar's great oil and gas wealth to invest in high-profile businesses that ranged from London's Harrods department store to soccer's Paris Saint-Germain.

A Smooth Transition

F. Gregory Gause, with the Brookings Doha Center and professor of political science at the University of Vermont, says only Sheik Hamad knows the reason for his ceding power. But he noted that the emir has suffered poor health and had a kidney transplant. And, Gause speculates, "he wanted to see a peaceful, solid succession when he was there to shepherd it through."

Gause says it's too soon to tell what impact the move will have on Qatar's policies.

"In the longer term, it remains to be seen if the new leader is as aggressive in his international involvement as his father and the prime minister," he says.

The prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, is also stepping down.

Under Sheik Hamad, Qatar went from just another rich Persian Gulf state to a major player in world affairs. During his reign, its gross domestic product went from $29 billion to almost $200 billion. As NPR's Deb Amos reported last year:

"[Sheik Hamad] modernized and liberalized, opening six U.S. university branch campuses. He built world-class art museums and super highways. He allowed women to drive and provided churches for expat workers. There are more than a million of them. Even alcohol is tolerated here."

And then, of course, there's Al-Jazeera, the Arabic-language network that's won legions of fans and made powerful enemies across the world and now has an English-language network in the U.S.

Qatar's role in global affairs is, as Deb noted, a "textbook strategy for a small state in a tough neighborhood. ... Qatar is the only Gulf State to maintain good relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran while it hosts Centcom on the largest American military base outside the U.S."

Qatar last week allowed Afghanistan's Taliban to open an office in Qatar's capital Doha. And Qatar has armed Syria's rebels.

Gause notes that the U.S. and Qatar's neighbors were occasionally irritated with its foreign policy. Still, he notes that Qatar's allies will be "supportive of the transition, given their common interest in monarchical stability in the wake of the Arab Spring."

New Emir Focused On Domestic Issues

With Sheik Hamad's abdication come questions about what course his son will follow.

His son, Sheik Tamim, graduated from Sandhurst, the British military academy, and has served in senior government positions over the past decade. But The New York Times notes that Sheik Tamim, a social conservative, has focused mainly on domestic issues.

"Perhaps Qatar's going to be less busy," says Simon Henderson, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

But Gause says it's unclear if the new emir will scale back Qatar's role in the region and beyond.

"He has an enormous choice: He can play an outsized role [in foreign policy] as his father did ... but he doesn't have to," he says.

And he adds: "However, many of Qatar's neighbors may hope that Qatar plays a less high-profile role in regional politics."

And one final note. Here's a sampling of the status of a few other monarchies:

-- Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah took the reins of power in 2005 upon the death of his half-brother King Fahd, who had reigned for more than two decades, much of it in poor health.

-- Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa has ruled since the 1999 death of his father, Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa.

-- Farther afield, the Sultan of Brunei has ruled since 1967, the Danish queen since 1972 and Spain's king since 1975. Of course, none can match Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, who's reigned since 1952.

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