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With A New Emir, Will Qatar Keep Its Outsized Role?

Qatar's former emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is shown last week in the capital, Doha, shortly before he stepped down on June 25 in favor of his 33-year-old son. Such voluntary abdications are exceedingly rare in the Gulf.
Bertrand Langlois
AFP/Getty Images
Qatar's former emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is shown last week in the capital, Doha, shortly before he stepped down on June 25 in favor of his 33-year-old son. Such voluntary abdications are exceedingly rare in the Gulf.

Qatar's capital, Doha, is a post-modern city rising like a mirage out of the hot sands of the Arabian Desert. The ever-growing skyscrapers are stunning, and in some cases, head-scratching works of architecture and engineering. Standing in the city, you almost expect to see the Jetsons fly by.

Qatar is also doing something unusual when it comes to leadership. The 61-year-old emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, stepped down last week and handed power to his 33-year-old son, Sheik Tamim.

"Qatar likes to be the first mover," says Shadi Hamid, research director with Brookings Center in Doha. He says the country likes to challenge the status quo and do things other Arab countries, and in particular the Gulf monarchies, won't do.

Under Hamad and his foreign minister, Sheik Hamid bin Jasem, Qatar has assumed the role of chief mediator in the Arab world, Hamid notes.

It brokered a deal, known as the Doha Agreement, in 2008 that helped avert another civil war in Lebanon. And it's been trying to broker peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The wealthy nation also spends billions of petrodollars around the world on aid, development and public diplomacy projects.

Setting A Precedent

So why would a ruler who has put his country on the map willingly step down, especially in a region where there is no such tradition?

There had been rumors about declining health, notes Michael Stevens, a researcher with the Royal United Services Institute, a British-based think tank with an office in Doha. "He's obviously guided the country to a very assertive regional role, which has taken its toll on him," he says.

And for the past year there were signs that Hamad was putting things in place to hand over to Tamim.

"Tamim is considered a conservative," says Stevens, adding, "I don't think there's that much evidence to suggest that he's radically religious, or that he's pro-Muslim Brotherhood."

And neither Stevens nor Hamid expects to see any drastic changes, at least in the short run. But without the former foreign minister driving the agenda, Tamim will face challenges, Stevens believes. "To do foreign policy in this region, you have to have experience and gravitas, which comes with age," he says. Which means that older and more established leaders in the region might not be as willing to listen to Tamim as they were his father.

"Qatar was very quick ... to support the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and then Syria," says Hamid.

That made countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates uncomfortable.

Backing Islamist Movements

What has also made people uncomfortable is the fact that Qatar has backed Islamist movements in the region, including some in Libya and Syria that are quite radical and have ties to al-Qaida.

By stepping beyond its mediator role and taking sides, Qatar has made enemies. And Tamim must address a variety of domestic issues as he assumes power.

Qatar is a majority expat nation. Only 15 percent of the 2 million people in the country are Qatari, while the other 85 percent are foreigners. With its huge oil and gas exports, the country has the highest GDP per capita in the world, but that wealth does not trickle down to the construction workers and taxi drivers who are mostly from South Asia.

The many Westerners who work in Qatar have different values than do the Qataris. While some places in the Gulf cater to Westerners, Qatar doesn't want to turn into another Gulf theme park that has little to no influence in the region.

"Qatar doesn't want to become Westernized," says Stevens. "It wants to become a modern Islamic state. At the moment it's negotiating that transition. Is it successful? Well, we need to wait another few years and see."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Sean Carberry is NPR's international correspondent based in Kabul. His work can be heard on all of NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
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