By Regan Doherty
DOHA (Reuters) - Qatar's powerful prime minister is preparing to step down as part of a wider power transition that may also see the country's ruler ceding power to his son, Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim, Arab and Western diplomats said on Monday.
Such a change could inject an element of uncertainty into the foreign policies of the U.S.-allied gas exporter, which is a global investment powerhouse and a bankroller of Arab Spring revolts in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.
"(The Emir) has had (this) in mind for quite a long time. The path has clearly been paved over the past year for authority to be transferred to Tamim," a Doha-based diplomat told Reuters, referring to head of state Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.
"The plan has always been for this to happen, but it's been a question of timing."
The diplomats said they understood the motive for the reported reshuffle was the desire of the leadership to have a smooth transition to a younger generation. Such a move would be relatively unusual in Gulf Arab politics: It is customary for Gulf Arab heads of state to continue in office until death.
One source said the transition was expected to start with Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, who also serves as the foreign minister, leaving his cabinet posts. The diplomats mentioned various timetables, from some time in the next few weeks to September.
No Qatari government officials were immediately available to comment on the reports.
Arab and Western diplomats in Doha and elsewhere in the region said that countries, including the United States, Britain, France and Saudi Arabia had been briefed on the plan.
They said they expected the reshuffle to take one of two courses -- either Sheikh Tamim would replace Sheikh Hamad as the prime minister until he takes over as emir when his father eventually steps down, or the current Deputy Prime Minister, Ahmed al-Mahmoud, would become the next prime minister when Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim steps aside.
Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim, 53, has been prime minister since 2007 and has played a key role in positioning Qatar as power broker in the region. He is also chairman of the board of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), a position he is expected to retain. QIA has estimated assets of $100 billion - $200 billion.
Widely seen as a savvy dealmaker, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim has personally negotiated some of the sovereign wealth fund's most high-profile investments, including talks with Glencore's chief last year when the fund demanded better terms for backing the firm's acquisition of Xstrata. The companies eventually merged to create Glencore Xstrata.
The Emir elevated the country's international profile in recent years through the launch and development of the al Jazeera television network, as well as its successful bid to host the 2022 soccer World Cup tournament.
The Gulf state has played a substantial role in promoting the Arab Spring, lending significant support to rebels who ousted former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and to an uprising seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.
A close U.S. ally that hosts a large U.S. military base, Qatar is the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and wealthiest nation per-capita. The tiny country whose economy once centered on pearl fishing now has a sovereign wealth fund that controls an estimated $100 billion in assets.
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani seized power from his father in a bloodless coup in 1995. Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim played a key role in facilitating the coup, for which he was rewarded with influence for life.
British-educated Sheikh Tamim is believed to be closer to the Muslim Brotherhood than many in the current leadership, and may pursue more socially conservative policies.
(Additional reporting by Amena Bakr, editing by Sami Aboudi, William Maclean, Janet McBride)