As Son Takes Over in Qatar, Little Chance of New Policies

On June 24, 2013, Qatari ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani announced he would be abdicating power to his 33-year-old son, Sheikh Tamim. The leadership handover has sparked much speculation over the direction that Qatari foreign policy might subsequently take. But, as other Arab countries have demonstrated previously, the ascension of a young leader does not necessarily mean a dramatic change of policy. In the case of Qatari foreign policy, Sheikh Tamim has already announced his intention to continue along the path set by his father, and his selection of the new prime minister and foreign minister supports this. For the foreseeable future, Qatari foreign policy looks like it’s going to be more of the same.

Although Sheikh Tamim has been groomed to take over the country’s leadership for a decade, the handover was not expected to take place during this critical period for the Arab world in which Qatar is playing a much more active role than ever before: Qatar is increasing its support for the Syrian opposition; opening an office for the Taliban in Doha that is supposed to ease Taliban-US relations; and expanding its foreign investment and aid programs, including buying shares in Libyan banks and giving billions of dollars in financial support to the Egyptian government. Reports are implying that the outgoing emir’s health has been in decline for a number of months, leading to the conclusion that Sheikh Hamad’s health, more than any other factor, is the reason behind the timing of the handover.

Sheikh Tamim has, as a result, had to escalate his involvement in Qatari affairs and engage in a leadership “crash course,” especially since there have been other members of the royal family who saw in the decline of Sheikh’s Hamad’s health a potential political opening. Juggling an increasingly complicated foreign policy portfolio and potential internal rivalries will not be easy for the young sheikh. But, his new cabinet appointments will be a safeguarding measure. The new foreign minister, Khalid bin Mohammad Al Attiyah, is one of Qatar’s leading figures in its engagement in the Syrian crisis, and previously held the title of minister of state for foreign affairs; the new prime minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, used to be the minister of state for the interior (he additionally now holds the escalated position of minister of interior). The combination of their experience is a favorable one for Sheikh Tamim’s external and internal challenges.

It has been reported that during the rule of Sheikh Hamad, there were differences between Sheikh Tamim and (now former) Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim, and thus bin Jassim’s replacement serves to reinforce Sheikh Tamim’s position as an emir who, in his own words, does not “take direction” as a leader. But the challenge for Sheikh Tamim is that, since the bloodless coup that brought his father to power in 1995, Qatari foreign relations have been highly personalized, centered on the figures of the two Hamads, the emir and prime minister. Sheikh Tamim will need to establish and strengthen his own personal relationships with peers, allies, and beneficiaries to keep relations smooth. With the set of Qatar’s engaged political actors being highly diverse—spanning the United States, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Syrian Islamist jihadists, among others—it is crucial for Sheikh Tamim to earn the trust of those entities in order to maintain influence among them. If Sheikh Tamim is seen as less able to deliver, this could upset the sensitive balance of powers and sense of trust that have thus far kept Qatar afloat in its international engagements. But the new emir’s reported good relations with actors like the Muslim Brotherhood will help in maintaining foreign policy continuity.

Sheikh Tamim also faces a challenge in the domestic arena. The previous emir had promised that Qatar would hold its first elections in 2013, but to date, there have been no concrete indicators of this happening. With the elevation of Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser to the position of prime minister and minister of interior, it looks likely that Sheikh Tamim would increase the focus on internal affairs. One key factor behind this is that the more Qatar declares its support for emerging Arab democracies, the more its own democratic deficiencies are exposed. Sheikh Tamim has no choice but to engage in a degree of internal reform in order to maintain a sense of credibility for his country. With Qatar’s Western allies largely turning a blind eye to the emirate’s civil liberties and domestic political shortcomings, one can safely bet that the kind of reform likely to happen need not be of the radical kind for it to gain approval from those allies. Put together, all these factors indicate that Qatar’s foreign policy in the foreseeable future will not look much different from its present form.

Lina Khatib leads the Program on Arab Reform and Democracy at Stanford University.

Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani in Doha, Qatar, 2011. Credit: Flickr