The 61-year-old ruler of Qatar, the richest country in the world, announced Tuesday that he’s handing over “the reins of power” to his 33-year-old son. It’s an extraordinary transition for any monarchy to make, but it’s only one more dramatic twist in a royal saga that has almost as many intrigues and subplots as Game of Thrones, albeit with less blood and gore.
Consider the cast of characters: The monarch, who made Qatar what it is today, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, came into this world in a Bedouin tent in the breathless heat of the desert in 1952. His mother died when he was born. Her brother raised him. And when he was grown, he overthrew his father. Hamad is the consummate survivor-opportunist, having built an empire out of blowing sand and natural gas, Allah and ambition. Since he seized power in 1995, he’s turned that flat little spit of land appended to the Arabian Peninsula into a vital but independent ally of the United States, a maker of peace, a bankroller of wars, and creator of the Al Jazeera media empire that’s about to extend deep into the American heartland.
The new emir, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, grew up with access to every luxury that limitless wealth can buy. Soon after Tamim graduated from Britain’s Sandhurst military academy (the U.K.’s West Point), his father appointed him crown prince and heir-apparent at the tender age of 23. And his older brothers stepped, or were pushed, aside.
Other young men play sports and watch them; Tamim simply bought the spectacles and events themselves. Early on he lured tennis championships and other high-profile competitions to Doha, and over the last decade, as the city grew skyscrapers the way vacant lots sprout weeds, he somehow managed to persuade the powers that be in the global soccer world that the 2022 World Cup should be held in dusty little Qatar. Along the way, Tamim and a friend picked up France’s most famous team, Paris St-Germain, and got David Beckham to play for them.
But whether any of that really qualifies Tamim to run the country is an open question, as is the way the real power will be shared between him and the imposing figures of the older generation who are, in fact, not really that old at all.
Hamad said somewhat obscurely that he is moving “to another position” to serve “my homeland and its people.” In the past, Hamad has suffered some health problems, in part because he has diabetes and used to be grotesquely obese. But after surgery to put a gastric band in place, he reportedly shed almost 90 pounds, and today he looks in relatively good form.
If he wanted, Hamad could retire to a life riding motorcycles on the Côte d’Azur (a favorite pastime) or relishing the delights of his enormous residences in Paris and New York. But he’ll probably be less an emir emeritus than an éminence grise, operating from the shadows instead of the spotlight.
Tamim’s mother, Sheikha Mozah, 54, is almost as great a presence as his father. Hamad has two other wives—one younger and the other older—and 24 children in all. But Mozah is unquestionably his queen in all but title, and it is her kids who have the inside track on power. Mozah’s regal ability to change the life of her nation makes other elegant royals around the world seem like dilettantes by comparison. She has identified herself and her country with intellectual as well as economic growth, bringing in satellite campuses of universities like Cornell and Georgetown and think tanks like Brookings to raise Qatar’s level of education and international prestige. One of Mozah’s daughters, Mayassa, 30, heads the Qatar Museum Authority and as such is now a huge power in the international art world.
Then there is 53-year-old Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al Thani, the emir’s cousin who is the prime minister and, were this truly a medieval saga, who’d be called the grand vizier. Sheikh Jassim was prime minister as well under the old emir in 1995, helped engineer the coup, and has continued to play the role of power beside and behind Hamad’s throne ever since. He’s fabulously rich, even by Qatari standards, and the emir is said to have joked once that while he was running the country, Jassim owned it.
Sources close to Jassim have told me several times that he has no interest in taking the top job, but there is widespread speculation that one reason the emir decided to give Tamim the reins right now was to make sure the conspiratorial Jassim wouldn’t try to hand them to one of his own sons in a battle for the succession later.
Jassim also holds the portfolio of foreign minister and is viewed as the lead architect of Qatar’s creative, controversial, and sometimes seemingly contradictory foreign policies. The country is friendly with Israel and even friendlier with Hamas; it’s cordial with Iran, but also with the United States, which has two major military bases just outside Doha. (“A very valued partner,” Secretary of State John Kerry called Qatar on a visit there over the weekend.)
The emirate likes to play the role of peacemaker and host to complex negotiations, whether among the members of the World Trade Organization for the Doha Round or between Washington and the Taliban for a settlement in Afghanistan.
But at least since 2011 Qatar has been a partisan of war as well as a patron of peace. In Libya, it worked closely with France, Britain, and the United States to overthrow the dictator Muammar Gaddafi. In Syria, it has funded, armed, and tried to organize the fractious opposition to the Assad dictatorship. In Egypt, Qatar is now identified closely with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has filled the power vacuum created by the overthrow of one dictator but is well on the way to dictatorial powers of its own.
Tamim, as the new emir, may want to dial back on some of these adventures, which once enhanced Qatar’s prestige in the Arab world, but now provoke widespread hostility. If, as expected, Jassim leaves his ministerial posts, that will mark a major change. But the Anglophile grand vizier is expected to hold on to his position as head of the Qatar Investment Authority, which is where the money is. He’ll most likely take up residence in London, where the QIA reportedly owns several of the city’s most prestigious addresses, including Harrods, the Shard of Glass, and the Park Lane hotel. And from there he will no doubt protect his own as well as his country’s interest.
The transition from explosive growth to wise consolidation would be a challenge for any new leader. “Tamim doesn’t have the same history as his father, who had to conquer and grab power; he’s going to inherit it,” wrote French journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot in their well-researched new book, Qatar: Les Secrets du Coffre-Fort (Qatar: The Secrets of the Strongbox). “As much as Emir Hamad is a nonconformist and a visionary, Tamim ‘does not burn with the same zeal as his father,’” they write, quoting an unnamed source close to the al-Thani family. But “the crown prince seems perfectly conscious of the challenges that await him and the excesses of his father’s and Prime Minister [Jassim’s] activism,” the authors conclude.
One of the biggest, indeed one of the most existential, questions for the new emir is how he’ll handle relations with Saudi Arabia. Historically the kingdom has loomed over Qatar like a hungry lion eyeing an annoying mouse. Part of Hamad’s strategy for survival was to make sure the world knew where Qatar was, to build up credit with those who could defend it (like the United States), and then to stick it to the Saudis every chance he got by creating a more dynamic, creative, and, though still within limits, much more liberal society than theirs.
As a symbol, the transition Hamad announced Tuesday may be one of his most creative pokes at the Saudis yet. Since the death of the founder of the Saudi state in 1953, every single king has been chosen from among his scores of sons. But the brothers and half-brothers are all very old men now. Saudi King Abdullah is 88. One heir apparent died in 2011 at age 83; the next died in 2012, age 78; the current heir, Prince Salman, is a relatively youthful 77. When, if, and especially how the Saudi throne will be passed to the next generation without provoking a ferocious family feud is a question nobody can answer.
So Hamad showed how it could be done by passing the throne to his 30-something son. “Teach your children other than that what you were taught; as they are created for a time other than yours,” he said, quoting the seventh-century Caliph Ali. “Young leadership hoists the banner,” Hamad proclaimed, and waved it in the Saudis’ faces.