Challenges Facing Qatar's New Emir

4 MINS READJun 25, 2013 | 15:45 GMT
Former Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani (R) and his son, Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani.

The June 25 transfer of power from Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani to his son, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, aimed to maintain Qatari stability, but there may be unintended consequences for the state's regional and foreign policy. The elder al-Thani's abdication removes much of the doubt surrounding the issue of succession that is present in most Gulf monarchies. Although the 33-year-old Tamim has been the designated heir since 2003 and has been involved in many of the day-to-day affairs in managing the Qatari state, he now faces the daunting task of handling Doha's complex foreign policy and energy agendas. Although the abdication gives Tamim more legitimacy, it is unclear if he will be as successful as his father was in managing the inner workings of the al-Thani family and balancing the regional ambitions of neighboring Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Al-Thani wrested control of Qatar from his father in a bloodless palace coup in 1995. While the other Gulf monarchies reacted with unease and anger, the United States quickly recognized his claim and al-Thani — who also enjoyed friendly ties with Iran and later Iraq — leveraged this relationship to bring Qatar out from under the shadow of its larger neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia.

Riyadh supported the deposed Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani's claim to the throne, and even backed two unsuccessful attempts to return him to power. Khalifa remained in exile in Paris until returning to Qatar in 2004. The episode is a clear reminder that Qatar's political maneuverability is not without its detractors. The Gulf monarchies, apprehensive at the idea of Hamad's U.S.-backed coup against his father, are also likely to be perturbed by the precedent set in Hamad's abdication in a region where monarchs habitually rule into their 80s.

Tamim now leads Qatari policy on issues such as hosting the political offices of the Taliban and providing economic support to Egypt. Qatar's aggressive stance on ousting the regime of embattled Syrian President Bashar al Assad and its largely interventionist stance toward both Syria and Libya have drawn the ire of Iran. The Muslim Brotherhood, which received political and financial backing from Hamad, is rumored to have an even closer relationship with Tamim. It is also likely that state-backed media outlet Al Jazeera will continue its exposition of regional conflict, much to the consternation of Qatar's neighbors.

Tamim faces both a daunting foreign policy agenda and the conflicting ambitions of his family. After seizing power in 1995, his father reinforced his position domestically by placing high-ranking members of different branches of the al-Thani family into powerful posts. By doing so, the former Qatari emir was able to rule with fewer challenges from within his family than almost all of the other Gulf monarchies. This strong direction, rather than decision-making through consensus, has helped Doha better navigate its difficult geopolitical region, with Hamad publicly pursuing foreign policy initiatives — including the support of the Muslim Brotherhood or of the Western intervention in Libya — without the handwringing of many of his neighbors.

The possibility of Qatar's neighbors again supporting members of the royal family in an attempt to rein in Qatari regional ambitions should not be discounted; if this were to happen, it would force Tamim to contend with the ambitions of his family, limiting his decision-making options. Tamim's mother, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Missned, is from a powerful Qatari tribe that long opposed the al-Thanis' claims to power. Tamim's ascendency to the throne is expected to continue the domestic calm initiated by Hamad's marriage to Mozah.

Contending with his family and Qatar's regional ambitions will be the ultimate test for Tamim. In the coming years, the new emir will demonstrate whether he is able to shrewdly manage the internal and external forces that have restrained Doha's actions and regional identity for centuries, or if he will continue the Qatari independent streak established by his father. The makeup of his Cabinet, which will be announced June 26, will show how Tamim will engage his own extended family in ruling the Qatari state. Particularly important will be whether Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor al-Thani — the head of the powerful Qatar Investment Authority — will continue as prime minister, despite earlier rumors that he would step down. The possibility for parliamentary elections is also something to watch for, should Tamim seek to gain greater legitimacy from the Qatari population for his future policy decisions.

In the short term, Qatari policy on issues such as Syria is not expected to change, and the country will continue along the stable track laid out by Tamim's predecessor. But as the new emir moves out from under the shadow of his father and seeks to take on more power and control for himself, it would not be surprising if Doha's neighbors test Tamim's resolve to continue Hamad's ambitious policies in the region.

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