Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Why did the ruler of Qatar cede power now?

by Ahmed E. Souaiaia*

Not all observers of Middle East affairs should be surprised by the handover of “Emirship” in Qatar. Although it is refreshing to see an Arab ruler step aside without an act of God (death), a coup, or a Spring. According to Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the transfer is a natural step: “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." If the 61-year old Emir were interested in democracy (which the Emir wished for the rest of the Arab world, but not his own country), he could have found a more skilled and experienced leader other than his 33-year young son. Therefore, other compelling reasons must have forced this shrewd politician and ambitious operator to step aside now. 

Close friends of the Emir have indicated that he planned to replace his Prime Minister with his son this August and then transition him to become the Emir after six months. The sudden change indicates that the Emir is fearful that one of two of his biggest achievements nationally and internationally will finally apply to him: a military coup or the Arab Spring.

Despite the seeming calmness, tensions lurk under the surface. Many Qataris were not happy with the way the Emir removed his father and they are not happy with him involving Qatar in too many regional conflicts. Apparently, he feared that he will be deposed by force--just as he did to his father--or by the Arab Spring, which deposed some of his Arab colleagues—events in which he played the lead role, too.

The military coup that he led used violence to end his father’s rule and to secure his own. Afterwards, he needed to marginalize some of the clans that benefited from his father. To achieve that goal, he engineered population control and transfer, brought the security forces under his control, and established healthy relations with his neighbors.

Globally, with his prized al-Jazeera satellite television station, he created many enemies and helped removed some of them. His direct role in ending Qaddafi’s rule is well documented, but the most dangerous act was his intervention in Syria. He put much of his energies and resources into making sure that Assad was removed from power. Reportedly, he told some of his visitors that he feels that, “it is either Assad or Hamad.” (Trust me, it rhymes even better in Arabic). Obviously, willingly handing over power to his “trusted” (his telling description) son is the best option for him. That has nothing to do with democracy or being progressive. It is about self-preservation. Handing over “power” to a “loyal” son would allow him to continue to influence the direction of a country that is run more like a business than a modern state. His huge portrait hanging on the wall behind his nervous son when the latter was giving his first speech as Emir is indicative of that possibility.

What the new Emir did not mention in his first speech is in fact the issue that forced his father to step aside now rather than later: the crisis in Syria. It is unusual to avoid addressing an issue for which his country contributed $3.4 billion and on which his father staked his reputation unless he intends a change in the strategy. The next few days will bring more clues. 

In the end, this handover in Qatar is the best option for an ambitious ruler with a streak of narcissistic sense of grandeur and a serious case of justified paranoia given the number of friends and family members he betrayed. It will be up to his son to actually bring Qatar to representative governance or continue the tradition of clan rule.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.

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