A bit late on this, but it’s a story which will fall under the radar despite being hugely significant so I thought I’d better mention it. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani* of Qatar has handed over power to his 33 year old son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Knowing little about Qatar, most of my information is what I’ve read from other journalists – but I’ll try to summarise why this is such an important development.
Firstly, you need to examine the context this occurs in. The region is recovering (well, with some exceptions) from the greatest political and social upheaval since achieving independence from European colonialism. Since 2011 four Arab dictators have been forced from power – Tunisia’s Ben Ali, Egypt’s Mubarak, Libya’s Gadaffi and Yemen’s Saleh – in generally violent circumstances. This is a region in which leaders tend to grip onto power for as long as possible, where virtually every leader leaves office either through their own natural death, a coup or an uprising. The peaceful transfer or rotation of power is rare. Which is one reason why this story is so surprising.
Why did he make such a decision? I’m not sure anyone really knows, yet. Is it an attempt to quell potential discontent by presenting a younger, more in touch leader – one who it will take time for the populace to become disillusioned with? Does he feel he could achieve more behind the scenes? Is he simply tired? I have no idea. Marc Lynch discussed the issue well in this article. But what I think is more significant is the potential impact this could have, not just upon Qatar but the region as a whole. Qatar has played an outspoken role in supporting uprisings in Libya and Syria – it currently reportedly supplies weapons to Islamists fighting the government in Syria. Qatar has also played a role in helping Egypt with its continuing economic crises. The Arab Spring can therefore be seen as having been an opportunity for the small country to become a big player in the region. While most analysts think foreign policy will remain consistent for the short term, Sheikh Tamim could take Qatar’s influence in many different directions.
Another question is whether the perhaps inevitable political liberalisation might occur under this younger leadership. Freedomhouse’s Freedom in The World 2013 report awarded Qatar a political rating of 6/7 and a social rating of 5/7, giving it the overall rating of 5.5 and grade of ‘not free’. While a very bad rating, this does actually make Qatar one of the freer countries in the region; Iraq, Iran the United Arab Emirates and Yemen rate 6/7, while Saudi Arabia and Syria rate the rock-bottom score of 7/7. It’s not an impossibility that Qatar’s regime may decide upon a slow process of liberalisation. Since 2006 there have been plans to hold the country’s first legislative elections and while this hasn’t yet happened – and while this body would have few real legislative powers – it would be a start.
Basically, I know nothing. Except the fact that anything could happen.
*Still working on memorising that.