Who would have believed two years ago that Syria's Bashar al-Assad would outlast the emir of Qatar on the throne? Or that one of the wealthiest and most secure Arab leaders, facing no evident domestic challenges, would leave power virtually overnight? Or, for that matter, that any Arab leader would voluntarily give up power rather than clinging on to the bitter end? Or that it would all seem so … normal?
Over the last week, Qatar completed a virtually unprecedented and brilliantly stage-managed leadership transition from the 61-year-old Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani to his 33-year-old son, Tamim. In the process, Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani (perhaps better known in the West by his initials, HBJ) was also removed from his longtime perch as one of the region's most outspoken foreign ministers. The whole thing has been so carefully prepared and easily presented that it's easy to overlook the genuinely shocking nature of this transfer of power. Vanishingly few modern Arab leaders have ever voluntarily stepped down, even when terminally ill, incapacitated, or deeply unpopular (none of which apply to the outgoing emir).
While great pains will be taken to emphasize the difference between the emir's abdication and the regimes overthrown during by the Arab uprisings, the fact remains that the emir has become the fifth Arab head of state to leave office since January 2011. Certainly, an orderly transition to the emir's son does not look much like the popular uprisings that claimed the regimes of Tunisia's Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi. No protests forced the emir and HBJ from the palace, no military eased them out the back door, no United Nations resolutions or furious Western heads of state demanded his departure, no humiliating trials await. In reality, however, the emir's decision is as shocking in its own way as were the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings.
The rollout of the emir's decision was carefully prepared and executed to make the unthinkable seem retrospectively inevitable. Reports of the impending transition had been circulating for over a month, from well-placed sources as well as from the hyperactive rumor mill, normalizing the idea and softening some of its sting. But that communications campaign didn't make the event any less surprising. I know that I'm not the only one who heard the rumor but just didn't believe it. Frankly, even after the last few years, it just didn't seem to be in the DNA of Arab leaders -- especially monarchs -- to voluntarily surrender power. Indeed, last week I joked about the emir's rumored departure as a decision to pursue his unicorn farming dreams; I guess now we'll find out whether he can make money off them. More seriously, the story sounded too much like the periodic rumors of a military coup against the Al Thanis circulated by Syrian, Egyptian, and Saudi critics of Qatar. And while the outgoing emir has significant health problems, that didn't stop King Fahd from ruling Saudi Arabia for a decade as a vegetable.
Those crafting the official version of the handover have therefore been exceedingly keen to present it as a historic but normal move, one that might even be emulated by other Arab monarchs -- were they as bold and farsighted as the departing Sheikh Hamad. Bahrain would be the most obviously well served by following Qatar's lead and transferring power to the crown prince. But neither the Khalifas nor their other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) friends are likely to do so. Indeed, Arab monarchs are more likely to quietly cheer the departure of a leader they have viewed as an unpredictable irritant and an undependable member of the GCC club. "What happened … in Qatar will most likely stay in Qatar," remarked the Emirati political scientist Abdulkhaleq Abdulla.