Young Qatar emir likely to remain Gulf Arab exception

Reuters News
Posted: Jun 25, 2013 6:45 AM
Young Qatar emir likely to remain Gulf Arab exception

By William Maclean

DUBAI (Reuters) - Ageing Gulf Arab rulers swiftly congratulated Qatar's young new emir on his accession on Tuesday, but will be in no rush to emulate his father's abdication - for them, hereditary rule is for life.

The ascent to power of Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim, 33, provides a stark contrast to other Gulf Arab states whose youthful populations are ruled by kings or princes in their 60s, 70s and 80s, some with heirs of the same vintage.

The step is sure to stir the interest of young Arab royals around the Gulf, especially those impatient for plum state jobs shared out in royal deliberations far from the public eye.

And in time, as Tamim's profile grows, his rule may raise expectations of more youth-friendly policies in Gulf societies where almost a third of the population is under 15.

Since Arab uprisings erupted in 2011, Gulf states have worked harder to provide more jobs and better social services to Internet-savvy populations increasingly outspoken online.

But reverence for age, and a view of Qatar as an irrelevant maverick, mean other Gulf states are unlikely to follow the example Qatar set on Tuesday when the emir handed over to Tamim, hailing the "innovative ideas and active energies" of youth.

"This step will not be repeated in other parts of the Arab world," said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a political scientist in the United Arab Emirates. "What happened in Qatar will be forgotten."

Analysts also suggest that the complex internal politics of Gulf ruling families, which often involve balancing rival dynastic lines, tend to exhaust the energies of senior players.


Tough decisions on succession tend to get put off.

"Elites get set in their rules and operations, in their way of thinking and of working," said Shafeeq Ghabra, professor of political science at Kuwait University. "They just keep going for decades until things become problematic and crises happen."

In Oman, for example, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, 72, who has yet to name a successor, has ruled for 43 years. Kuwait's emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah, 84, put in 40 years as foreign minister before acceding to the top job.

Bahrain's powerful Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman bin Khalifa, in his late 70s, an uncle to the king and an advocate of stringent internal security, has been prime minister for four decades.

In Saudi Arabia, the largest and most powerful Gulf Arab state, the ruling al-Saud family has cautiously elevated younger princes over the past two years, but has given no hint that it is contemplating a Qatar-style transfer of top roles.

Two royal deaths since 2011 have led King Abdullah, who turns 90 this year, to retire some older princes and promote comparatively younger members of the family to senior posts.

Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, 53, made Interior Minister in November, is now the most powerful prince of his generation, commanding a ministry that oversees the kingdom's formidable security infrastructure and 13 provincial governors.

King Abdullah's son, Prince Miteb, who took command of the National Guard from his father in 2010, was made a full minister in May, reinforcing his seat at the top table.

Other members of the next generation - grandsons rather than sons of the dynasty's founder King Abdulaziz al-Saud - have been made governors of the Riyadh and Eastern provinces.


However, while younger princes may be hungry for top jobs, Saudi and Gulf analysts say whatever happens in Qatar will make little difference to its larger neighbor's succession process.

For one thing, the complex internal politics of the roughly 7,000-strong al-Saud family makes any direct power shift to younger men much trickier than within Qatar's al-Thani dynasty.

Unlike in Qatar, Saudi succession does not pass from father to son but down a line of brothers born to King Abdulaziz and then to an as-yet unchosen prince from the younger generation.

That means there is no single clear candidate among the younger princes for the family to rally around. Instead, there are half a dozen who might one day become king.

Princes in their 50s and 60s in Saudi Arabia at best occupy deputy ministerial positions or governorships of small provinces, making them callow by the standards of a family that likes its senior princes to have held top jobs for decades.

Nevertheless, Tamim's youth could evolve into a potent symbol for Gulf states acutely aware of the need to address the concerns of their youthful and sometimes restless societies.

Christopher Davidson, a Gulf expert at Britain's Durham University, said Tamim's rise "ushers in the first generation of Gulf rulers who have near-native English, are fully social media-savvy, and are fully a product of the oil era."

Jane Kinninmont of the Chatham House think tank in London said the sight of an absolute monarch voluntarily stepping down "defies the conventional wisdom about the Gulf and will linger in the imaginations of many in the wider Middle East.

"It becomes harder for other powerful royals to insist the younger generation must wait years or decades for their turn in power. This has implications for every single one of the other Gulf countries."

(Additional reporting by Sami Aboudi, Amena Bakr, Yara Bayoumy, Mahmoud Habboush and Regan Doherty; Editing by Alistair Lyon)