Amazing Qatar has been even more amazing this week. In a dramatic move that surprised many, 61-year-old Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani voluntarily decided to hand over power to his 33-year-old son Shaikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani.
Such a daring transfer of power is unheard of in the Gulf and in Arab history. Rule one in politics, as the great Italian thinker Machiavelli once said, is that those in power would do everything in their power never to relinquish power and those outside would do everything possible to reach the seat of power. The former emir of Qatar, Shaikh Hamad, has just decided to break this golden rule. He has already broken many rules and acted quite unconventionally all the way through during his 18 years in power. He was the maverick ruler until the very last minute.
By Arab Gulf and even world standards, Shaikh Hamad, born in 1952, is still a relatively young ruler. His resignation is utterly uncharacteristic and does not fit the usual profile of Gulf rulers and other Arab leaders.
What happened yesterday in Qatar will most likely stay in Qatar and Shaikh Hamad’s sudden resignation will not be a trendsetter in the region.
He assumed power in June 1995 and decided to step down in June 2013. There is something about the month of June that is quite interesting, since the new and younger Emir of Qatar, Shaikh Tamim, was also born in June 1980.
During his 18-year reign, Shaikh Hamad has made a rupture with the past and transformed Qatari society and economy beyond recognition. By 2013, Qatar has emerged as the third biggest Arab economy with a prosperous gross domestic product of $189 billion (Dh695.14 billion) and more than 6 per cent annual growth rate. It was one of the fastest growing economies in the world scoring 16 per cent growth in 2010. With per capita income of $102,800 in 2012, Qatar is also ranked first worldwide.
Qatar is no longer the isolated and peripheral state that it once was. It is at the centre of Arab politics and Doha has shrewdly consolidated its position as the de facto diplomatic capital of the Arab world. It is a small state with big political ambitions.
Thanks to Shaikh Hamad’s political keenness, the two million people in Qatar seem to have more influence on Arab politics than the nearly 90 million in Egypt today. That is the principal legacy of Shaikh Hamad as he departs the political scene for good. One would have thought that he would stay on until Qatar hosted the football World Cup in 2022 to live his moment in world history to its fullest.
And despite his solid achievements, he still has much unfinished business — both on the domestic as well as regional front. Qatar is yet to complete its drive towards modernity, especially the intricate political leg of modernisation.
Even if the emir has serious health problems he could have easily stayed as the constitutional monarch and a de jure ruler for a while, while the Crown Prince could have acted as the de facto ruler.
Instead, Shaikh Hamad opted for the dramatic move to transfer all powers to his son once and for all. The decision was purely political, not personal, and was meant to make the maximum impact locally and regionally. This is consistent with the fact that politics is his passion and Shaikh Hamad is a political man in the most Machiavellian way. He is known to have more passion for politics than most Gulf leaders. Everything is done by him for political purposes, even when the time has come for him to leave politics.
At the time when Qatar is so visibly involved in regional politics, he decided to pull back. Shaikh Hamad played a pivotal role in the two-year-old Arab Spring. He was the godfather of the Arab revolutions of 2011. Qatar was on the move nearly all over the place. It is totally immersed in the Syria crisis now, which is getting more complicated by the day. Shaikh Hamad made Qatar, and more so himself, the ultimate decider on many regional issues. To leave it all at this critical stage does not make much political sense.
Qatar is not going to be the same Qatar after the sudden departure of such a towering figure as Shaikh Hamad. Qatar did not have enough of him.
Contemporary Arab politics is not going to be the same without him being around. He is bound to leave a huge vacuum. Qatar will be an inward looking Qatar for a while and the younger emir will have to focus on the domestic agenda. This may be how Shaikh Hamad wanted it to be for the betterment of all.
Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla is a professor of political science. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Abdulkhaleq_UAE