Qatar ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani is quietly stepping down at the end of this month and handing the reins of power to his 33-year old son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. DEBKA-Weekly’s Gulf sources report that the Emir shared this secret with President Barack Obama this week, explaining he was quitting for health reasons.
In 1997, the emir had a kidney transplant and is since dependent on regular dialysis.
In the coming weeks, Crown Prince Tamim will take over as prime minister from cousin Hamid bin Jassim al-Thani, an interim step up the ladder to the top rung of power.
The newly designated heir brings to the job an education in Britain and fluent English and French.
DEBKA Weekly's sources report that the outgoing prime minister was politely stripped of all his official positions, thereby cutting short his bid to succeed the emir – although he still retains much power as chief executive of the Qatar Investment Authority, which handles the revenue from the country's giant natural gas deposits.
The emir’s second wife, the glamorous Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, is thought to be the force behind the shakeup in Doha for the sake of her son Tamim.
Sheikha Mozah is believed to be the real power behind the Al Thani throne. For years, she has been amassing political weight and wealth in her own right – not just in the Gulf but in the West as well.
A tiny emirate with disproportionate power
On the face of it, the transition within the ruling family is a domestic affair, arising from the desire of the Emir and his wife to bring their favorite and closest son into line as ruler.
But this modest assessment does not take into account the disproportionate pull Qatar, the smallest of the Gulf emirates with only two million inhabitants, has in regional and world politics.
The ruling family parlayed itself into a senior American partner in fostering the Arab Revolt and providing the Obama administration with a discreet channel to the Muslim Brotherhood, which gained power in Libya and Egypt and is fighting in Syria. Qatari influence with the radical Palestinian Hamas ruling the Gaza Strip has also been useful to Washington.
Qatar is moreover the world's third largest natural gas power after Russia and Iran, and a major international media force in its capacity as proprietors of the Al Jazeera TV channel
Hence the capacity of the Doha shakeup to reverberate widely across the Persian Gulf and Middle East.
In Washington, it is hoped that the ructions will be minimal and not send ripples through US-Qatari cooperation in the Middle East. After all, the rising emir is already a heavyweight in Qatari policymaking, thanks to his job as Director of Qatari intelligence.
Still, nothing can be taken for granted when so much power is put in the hands of the youngest ruler in the Persian Gulf.
Washington will be monitoring the change closely on three scores:
Rivalry over Syria has scarred Qatari-Iranian relations
1. Qatar-Iranian relations: Doha has made an effort to keep relations with Tehran on an even keel. This matters when the two countries share one of the emirate's huge offshore gas fields.
But the Qatari ruling family also depends on US military support, which is manifested tangibly in the giant American al-Udeid Air Base which controls US air operations in the region. While Qatar finds occasion to assure Tehran that the US will never be permitted to use this base to attack Iran, Washington has made it clear to Doha in secret messages that in the event of war, no objections from the Al Thani’s will prevent the US air base being used as needed in the American interest.
Aside from this issue, relations between Doha and Tehran have been scarred by the Syrian war.
Until late April and early May, Doha was main arms supplier and bankroller for the rebel militias belonging to the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The great ambition of the Qatari emir and intelligence chief was Bashar Assad’s overthrow and replacement by the Muslim Brotherhood. It collided strongly with Iran’s paramount goal to keep Assad in power
Tamim treated his “Syrian project” as the next chapter in a personal success story that encompassed toppling Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Assad’s ouster was to be the crowning touch of his anointment at only 33 both as youthful Emir of Qatar and strongman of the Arab world.
His personal ambition brought him up against Tehran. It has since proved unrealistic. Assad is not going anywhere and Tehran may decide to shift its duel with Qatar from the Syrian arena to the Persian Gulf at large. If that happens, the Crown Prince may be caught wrong-footed by Iran in his first days in power.
Tamim’s mixed record on ties with Washington
2. US-Qatar relations: Outgoing Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassim has been America’s strongest ally in Doha, whereas the incoming ruler, Tamim, has been a lot warier of ties with Washington and leaned more toward alignment with the Muslim Brotherhood.
This pattern recalls Saudi King Abdullah’s attitude toward the United States in his youth, when he too had little sympathy for America and was closely identified with his country’s powerful religious establishment, including the radical wing which later begat Al Qaeda.
But after he was crowned king in 2005, Abdullah came to accept the US as the only force able to bolster his stable rule at the head of the Saudi royal family.
The incoming emir’s record on this score is mixed, posing the question: Is he genuinely anti-American and pro-Muslim Brotherhood?
As head of intelligence, the Qatari prince worked hand in glove with US intelligence officials in a succession of rebellions, coups and wars in Libya, Egypt and Syria. Yet, during the Libyan war, the Americans painted him as the mainstay of the rebel Muslim Brotherhood, the enemy of US plans and objectives in the conflict and therefore largely responsible for the chaos reigning in Libya up until the present.
But then, last month, Tamim complied with the Obama administration’s request to stop sending arms and money to the Syrian rebels because a large proportion was being funneled to Al Qaeda fighters.
Was the incoming Qatari prime minister drawing on a lesson he learned in Libya, or was it the Obama administration? It will take the coming weeks and months to find out.
Doha defers to Riyadh – but they fight cats and dogs
3. Qatar’s relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE: Notwithstanding the fierce rivalry between the Saudi and Qatari ruling houses, Doha cannot avoid acknowledging the superiority of Saudi power and position.
That is why in April 2012, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad traveled to Riyadh to ask for King Abdullah’s blessing and confirmation as a worthy aspirant for power as Emir of Qatar.
The transition of rule in Doha was therefore put in train secretly more than a year ago.
In the event, King Abdullah appraised the young man standing before him and nodded his approval.
This ritual, important in itself, in no way diminished the rivalry and rancor characterizing relations between the two ruling Gulf families. In Syria, for instance, Saudi and Qatar intelligence services have been vying two years for control of the various Islamist militias fighting in the Syrian rebel movement.
The contest became a personal duel between the two intelligence chiefs, Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan and Qatar’s incoming ruler, Tamim bin Hamad.
The latter’s attainment of a throne at the tender age of 33 while Saudi princes over 60 are still treated as young contenders for government position is another source of ill will and envy between Doha and Riyadh.