Qatar's emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, and his son, Sheik… (Karim Sahib / Mohammed al-Shaikh…)
CAIRO -- The emir of Qatar handed power to his son Tuesday at a time when the country has parlayed its media empire and natural gas riches into prominent regional influence that includes arming Syrian rebels and building a grandiose Museum of Islamic Art.
In a nationally televised speech, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani tapped his fourth son, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, 33, to succeed him.
A Cabinet shuffle is expected in the transition, but it was not clear whether there would be a significant shift in foreign policy under the new leader, who is known more for his expertise on domestic matters.
"The time has come to open a new page in the journey of our nation that would have a new generation carry the responsibilities ... with their innovative ideas," said the 61-year-old emir, a close U.S. ally.
“I will transfer power to Sheik Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, and I am fully certain that he is up to the responsibility, deserving the confidence, capable of shouldering the responsibility and fulfilling the mission."
The outgoing emir did not indicate why he was stepping aside -- a rare move in the Arab world -- except to say that it was time for younger leadership.
There have been suggestions that his son, deputy commander of the armed forces, may relax civil rights restrictions to prevent the kind of dissent that propelled the so-called Arab Spring.
Prime Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim al Thani, who also serves as foreign minister and has been the architect of Qatar’s international forays, may be replaced under the new leader. In the short term, the new emir is expected to continue a robust checkbook diplomacy that helped bring down Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi and pledged billions of dollars to the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt.
The departing emir, who seized power from his father in a 1995 palace coup, has irritated world leaders, notably former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who viewed Qatar as a brash upstart out to remake the established Arab order. Arab officials complain that Qatar’s Al Jazeera network highlights their transgressions but does little to illuminate its own country’s problems and restricted freedoms.
Syrian President Bashar Assad was infuriated with Qatar’s funneling of weapons and money to rebels in Syria’s civil war. Islamist extremists, including those with ties to Al Qaeda, have become pivotal players in the conflict, and Assad has condemned Qatar for backing terrorists in rebel camps.
"There is no predicting the size of the changes that might take place in Qatar's outward policies," said Mohammed Abbas, an analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "But maybe they will put the brakes on their support for radical Islamist currents in the region."
He added: "Qatar has no consistent friend or foe. It does not close its doors to anyone. It’s all about interests. This is how such a small country was able to create a central role for itself in the region."
Qatar’s natural gas wealth has transformed the capital, Doha, into a city of spiraling glass and light that symbolizes the outsized ambitions of its monarchy and the Persian Gulf’s eclectic, if sometimes dizzying, architecture. That flair, determination and money helped Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup soccer championship.
On Tuesday, Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani told his people, whose per capita annual income is more than $100,000, that Arab prosperity was tied to its cultural identity.
"I am confident that you are fully aware of your loyalty and of your Arab and Muslim identity," he said. "I urge you to preserve our civilized traditional and cultural values, originating from our religion, Arab identity and above all our humanity; as we believe that the Arab world is one human body ... it prospers if all its parts are prosperous."