Which country is most actively throwing its weight around in Syria and Egypt? It's not the United States (population: 316 million) or Iran, Saudi Arabia, or even Russia. Rather, it's the small Persian Gulf state of Qatar (population: 2 million). In Syria, Qatar is showering money and arms on anti-Assad militia groups and is competing with Saudi Arabia as the opposition's primary patron. It is also the largest funder by far of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy's government, providing $5 billion-plus in loans -- without the conditions for reforms that the International Monetary Fund would have demanded.
Why is Qatar so involved in Egypt and Syria? Good question. Part of the answer is certainly because, in the absence of the United States, Qatar perceives a vacuum -- and therefore a new opportunity to raise its international profile.
Qatari foreign policy has been based on the whims -- or more politely, the vision -- of Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, who is currently serving as prime minister and foreign minister. The two leaders' personalized control has produced a decisiveness lacking in their larger allies. On a visit to Doha, the Qatari capital, in March 2011, at the time of the international intervention in Libya, a Qatari friend laughed as he showed me a cartoon in London's the Independent, depicting a fighter jet with British Prime Minister David Cameron and then French President Nicolas Sarkozy fighting over the controls, while U.S. President Barack Obama dozed in the back seat ("leading from behind"). Riding the aircraft's nose was the Qatari emir, holding up his finger to see which way the wind was blowing. The caption of the cartoon, which you would never get away with in the United States, was "FU-2 Infighter Jet."
But now, the team that has overseen Qatar's growth into a regional powerhouse is changing. Arab and Western diplomats reported this week that Emir Hamad, 61, is soon going to replace the prime minister with his son, the 33-year-old Crown Prince Tamim, and would then abdicate power himself in favor of Tamim. The news prompted an almost audible "OMG" across major world capitals, and among Qatar's neighbors -- a novice leader at a time of tension and great flux, after all, seems enormously risky.
Why now? One thought is that Emir Hamad's health has taken a turn for the worse. He is said to have only one functioning kidney -- though it is not known whether it is his own or a transplant he received in 1997. If one compares a 2009 photograph of him with Obama in New York City with one taken in the Oval Office this April, it is clear he has lost a prodigious amount of weight. A Qatari friend denies there is a health issue, claiming instead that this is a well-planned transition for which Tamim has been groomed for several years.
Transitions in Qatar rarely go smoothly. Emir Hamad himself seized power from his father in 1995 while the latter was at a sanatorium in Switzerland. Indeed, it is hard to identify a trouble-free change in power in the last 100 years. Over those years, there have been roughly eight transitions -- the exact number depends on your definition of "transition" -- but all are based on the theme of forced abdication. The result is a history of family antagonisms within the Al Thani clan, which numbers at least several thousand.
Qatar is not a democracy -- the Thanis are the country's only real political constituency. But clan unity has been strained since Emir Hamad's deposition of his father, whose own elevation in 1972 upset parts of the family because he was seen as outmaneuvering a rival. Family members are said to bear grudges and have long memories. Tamim will be forced to navigate this snake pit while many veteran political hands closely watch how the young emir performs.