The Emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, has abdicated in favor of his son Tamim, proving that rumors--this one had been circulating for many weeks in the region--are sometimes accurate. The key question is what this change means for Qatari foreign policy.
Some aspects of that policy are very unlikely to change. Qatar’s reliance on the United States, and the presence of American bases in Qatar, will remain the cornerstone of that nation’s security. Rivalry with Saudi Arabia can be reduced but not eliminated. Qatar will continue to act as a Sunni power concerned about the rise in Iranian and Shia influence, working with its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies. In addition, it is unlikely that the key elements of domestic policy will change--especially the avoidance of democracy. As the most recent State Department report on human rights in Qatar noted, "Qatar is a constitutional monarchy in which Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani exercises full executive power....The principal human rights problems were the inability of citizens to change their government peacefully, restriction of fundamental civil liberties, and pervasive denial of expatriate workers’ rights. The monarch-appointed government prohibited organized political parties and restricted civil liberties, including freedoms of speech, press, and assembly."
Will Qatar’s leadership in Arab councils remain as active, and as idiosyncratic? This seems to me very doubtful, for the current prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, Hamad bin Jassem, known as HBJ, is apparently leaving those posts and Tamim will appoint his own man or men. It’s unlikely that a successor will have HBJ’s energy and clout, and those personal traits count for a lot at GCC, Arab League, United Nations, and similar meetings. We can see that Saudi Arabia’s influence has declined in part because it’s long-time foreign minister (since 1975), Saud al-Faisal, has for years been coping with bouts of poor health and is now 73 years old. Rumor mills have long suggested that Tamim is less wedded to the kind of Qatari adventurism that his father and HBJ favored, and we will soon find out. Qatar under Hamad and HBJ gave substantial sums of money to extremists in Mali and in Syria, groups that other Arab nations (and the EU and US) avoided. Qatar has supported the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt for example, to an extent that angered other GCC governments. Under Hamad and HBJ, al Jazeera often supported extremist groups and actions by giving them great amounts of favorable publicity. Many American officials believe the station (owned and controlled by the government of Qatar, and prevented from covering Qatar itself fairly) cost American lives in Iraq through its coverage of the war there.
It is unlikely that Qatar will fully regress to the norm under its new ruler, because the taste for an international profile is widespread in Doha; the World Cup will take place there in 2022. And Tamim like his father will have gigantic revenues at his fingertips and a local population of only 250,000 (Qataris make up only about 15 percent of those now living in the country, the rest being expat workers). But there are many ways to show leadership and separate Qatar from other states in the region: in addition to the World Cup and similar events, Qatar has spent a fortune on its educational system and attracted American universities such as Cornell and Georgetown. With the Middle East in turmoil, we must hope that Qatar now turns away from supporting various forms of extremism and becomes another voice--and source of funding--for more responsible groups and ideas.