They queued in their droves to see the Middle East’s youngest ruler. Outside the Emiri Diwan in Doha, limousines lined up to disgorge their occupants, who quickly made their inside the striking white palace to pay their respects.
At the centre of all the attention were two men, 61-year-old outgoing Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani and his chosen successor, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, who is 33. Not since King Talal Bin Abdullah of Jordan abdicated in 1952 – and that was due to severe health reasons – has an Arab leader voluntarily handed over power. The move has all been all the more surprising given the abrupt way in which many erstwhile Arab leaders have seen their reigns ended in the last couple of years. By comparison, Qatar’s transition has more in common with Queen Beatrix’s abdication in the Netherlands earlier this year than the collapse of the Arab spring dictatorships.
"Qataris are being spared the pitfalls and uncertainties of the modus operandi surrounding the historically opaque and fractious transfer of power," wrote Larbi Sadikii, an expert in Middle East politics at the University of Exeter, for Al Jazeera. "In a palpable sense, Emir Hamad has broken with tradition. Rather than staying put and becoming enamoured with the trappings of power, he has envisioned the bigger picture. Such an act of moral courage has created a firewall of sorts against the typical cloak and dagger machinations of would-be heirs so common in the region."
Sheikh Tamim will certainly stand out in the regular meetings between the Gulf monarchs. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah is aged 88, while Kuwait’s Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmad Al Jaber Al Sabah is 84. No other Gulf leader is less than 63 years old.
So what of the new Emir himself? Any analysis of Sheikh Tamim and his future policies should be presaged by the fact that the internal workings of the higher echelons of the Qatari government are opaque – to say the least. In reality, not a great deal is known about the former Heir Apparent, with Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani (colloquially known as HBJ) – the former prime minister, foreign minister and head of the $100bn Qatar Investment Authority - carrying out most of the country’s public-facing roles. Sheikh Tamim is the second son of Sheikh Hamad, and was educated at two British public schools, Sherborne and Harrow. He then went on, like many members of the Gulf’s royal families, to Sandhurst, the British Army’s officer training college. After passing out of Sandhurst, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Qatari armed forces in 1998.
In 2003, Sheikh Tamim was named Heir Apparent and since then has taken on a slew of senior executive positions, reflecting his enhanced role. These roles have included chairmanships of the Qatar Investment Authority - the country’s estimated $100bn sovereign wealth fund, which has been largely managed by Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani – the Supreme Education Council and the Urban Planning and Development Authority. As a result, Sheikh Tamim has spent ten years working at the top of some of Qatar’s most important industries. He has been closely involved in the development of Education City, which has welcomed some of the world’s top universities to Doha. Via his role as chairman of the Qatar National Olympic Committee, and as an avid sportsman, Sheikh Tamim has also helped shaped his country’s future as a sporting hub, which will be enhanced further when the World Cup comes to town in 2022.
In addition, CNN Arabic reported that one of the Emir’s first directives will be to raise salaries in the country by 10 percent. It was unclear whether this referred to just the public sector, or might include the private sector, but the pay hike would be the first increase in government salaries since nationals were handed a 60 percent boost in 2011.
Although Sheikh Tamim's longer-term plans for Qatar remain unclear, most analysts seem to agree that the country may focus on domestic policymaking in the near term.
"It may well be better in the long run for the tiny Emirate to return to doing what it does best, wowing people with mega purchases of European brands, hosting cultural initiatives and social development programmes, and leaving the entrenched problems of the Levant to the region’s historical players to solve," wrote Michael Stephens, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute Qatar, in an op-ed piece last week for the Open Democracy website.
"It does Qatar no good to be sucked into the vortex of an unstable region, especially at a time when there is uncertainty surrounding the future of the country’s leadership."