25 Jun 2013

Sheikh Tamim, 33, takes over in world’s richest country

It’s the world’s richest country, with the world’s lowest unemployment rate and the world’s largest natural gas reserves. Its sovereign wealth fund is worth $200bn. In London it owns the Shard, Harrods, One Hyde Park, a quarter of Sainsbury’s and 20 per cent of the Stock Exchange. So Qatar matters – and that’s before we’ve started to talk about its role in the Middle East.

Today 61-year-old Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who ousted his father in 1995, handed power to his 33-year-old son, Sheikh Tamim. “A new generation steps forward to shoulder the responsibility with their dynamic potential and creative thoughts,” he said.

The expected abdication was the talk of Doha when I was there earlier this month. Some people speculated that the young prince was more conservative than his father. Others saw him as west-leaning and worldly. “He’s smart and able, open to acknowledging problems,” said one of the several think-tankers who’ve set up shop in Doha.

The British are rather pleased because he trained at Sandhurst. But the truth of the matter is that the Qatari succession is opaque, and no-one outside the royal family has a clear idea of what this transition means. One of the first questions is will other Gulf rulers, especially the geriatric Saudis, accept such a young leader? After all, their king is 89 and their crown prince nearly 77.

The old emir, who is believed to be stepping down because of ill health, has led the transformation of Qatar from a sleepy desert outpost to a throbbing metropolis with the respected Al Jazeera international TV network and wide influence across the region.

After the discovery of natural gas the economy grew from $8bn to $174bn. But people I was speaking to, who wanted to remain anonymous, were wondering if the royal family has over-reached itself in Syria. Crown Prince Tamim has been in charge of a programme to arm the Syrian rebels, but has allegedly failed to track exactly where weapons were going. As the conflict has intensified, it’s believed that some arms have ended up in the hands of jihadi groups.

After their success in arming and advising the rebels who overthrew Colonel Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, the Qataris have found Syria to be a much more difficult problem. Not only has their side failed to win, the conflict has exacerbated the regional divide between the Sunni Gulf states and Shia Iran, carefully managed over the decades.

One of the problems the new emir inherits is what to do about the fiery Sunni cleric Sheikh Qaradawi. Based in Qatar, he has been a mainstay of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and elsewhere. Now he’s started to call for jihad against the Shia in Syria. Emir Tamim will need a lot of dynamic potential and creative thoughts to manage the growing sectarian tension across the region.

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