Shaikh Hamad (left) has been in power since 1995. Shaikh Tamim was appointed crown prince in 2003. Image Credit: AFP

Doha: Qatar's ruler says he has transferred power to the 33-year-old crown prince in the biggest leadership shake up in 18 years.

The 61-year-old emir, Shaikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, said in a televised address on Tuesday that the decision has been made to step down.

In a seven-minute speech aired on state television, Shaikh Hamad said it was now time for the new generation to take over following his 18 years at the helm of the small, rich Gulf Arab state.

"The time has come to open a new page in the jouney of our nation that would have a new generation carry the responsibilities ... with their innovative ideas," said Shaikh Hamad, reading a prepared text behind his desk.

"I address you today to inform you that I will transfer power to Shaikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. I am fully confident that he is qualified for the responsibility and is trustworthy."

State television later showed pictures of well wishers greeting the outgoing emir and Shaikh Tamim at the royal court.

The emir did not specify when the change would take effect but a Qatari official had said the move, once announced, would take immediate effect.

The British-educated crown prince, Shaikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani, will likely begin the process of putting together a new government that may be in direct contrast to the old guard leaders across the Western-backed Gulf Arab states.

The decision has been rumoured for months. Qatar has given no official explanation, but it is widely believed that Shaikh Hamad is suffering from health problems.

Tuesday was declared an official holiday in the country.

Shaikh Tamim, 33, has steadily acquired a prominent role in Qatar since his appointment as crown prince in 2003. He serves as chairman of the Qatar Investment Authority, the country’s primary sovereign wealth fund.

Shaikh Hamad has been in power since 1995, during which Qatar has evolved into an important player on the regional and international political scenes.

Abdullah Al Athbah, the managing editor of Al Arab newspaper, told Al Jazeera he did not expect to see a change in policy after the succession. “The heir apparent (crown prince) has been very close to his father and Shaikh Jasem,” he said, referring to the prime minister. “I don’t think there will be a big change in policy, foreign or domestic.”

Shaikh Tamim is the fourth son of Shaikh Hamad, 61, and the second child of the Emir with his second wife, Shaikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al Missned.

Shaikh Tamim is member of the International Olympic Committee. In 2006, he headed the Organizing Committee of the ASIAD 2006 Games. An avid sports figure, he practiced football, tennis and swimming.

In line with the typical grooming of future leaders in the Gulf countries, Shaikh Tamim has been encouraged to assume an active role in Qatar’s domestic and foreign policies as well as in the country’s military

The Qatar blogosphere activity leapt into life, brining in comments from all over the world. “We are confident that Shaikh Tamim would be up to the responsibility,” Ahmad Al Attiya, a Qatari national, said.

A hashtag, thankyouhamad, created for the occasion has been particularly popular among social media users. “I have watched Qatar become an economic, sports, education and political leader. #ThankyouHamad for everything. You will always be in our hearts,” Samaia Samara posted.

With input from agencies