But even when Arab monarchs fail to be inspired to hand over their power, the example of another potential road to leadership change in the Persian Gulf might have effects beyond the palaces simply by reintroducing the possibility of change that was dimmed by Syria's horrors and Egypt's chaos. Leaders may have survived for now, but the Gulf has been profoundly affected by the Arab uprisings: Kuwait passing through perhaps the most serious political crisis of its modern history; Saudi Arabia primed for generational challenges from a wired and frustrated population; and Bahrain is unlikely to recover anytime soon from its catastrophic sectarian repression. Great wealth, international backing, well-honed internal divide-and-rule strategies, and effective cross-national cooperation have helped the regimes resist those pressures. But the intense crackdowns across the Gulf over the last few years on human rights activists, political protests, Shiite citizens, the Muslim Brotherhood, and even online "insults" to the leadership show just how insecure and paranoid these regimes have become.
Some have portrayed Sheikh Hamad's move as a prophylactic against the coming wave of challenges to the rulers of the Gulf, getting ahead of the curve with a transition before the storm. But few saw tiny, inordinately wealthy Qatar as a remotely likely candidate for such uprisings, even compared with the other Gulf states. Ironically, Sheikh Hamad's decision to transfer power to an untested young successor -- and during such testing times -- may be a sign of how relatively secure that regime is relative to its Arab counterparts. And of course there is nothing revolutionary about the handover whatsoever: Qatar remains an absolutist regime, ruled by the same family through the same institutions, with no sign of the once-promised electoral democracy, with much more enthusiasm for press freedom abroad than at home, and with limited tolerance for even mild forms of dissent.
Qatari domestic politics have rarely been of much interest to the outside world, though. What most non-Qataris really want to know is what this change means for Qatari foreign policy. Allow me to summarize in two words the thousand articles already written on the subject: Nobody knows. Qatar's regime has always enjoyed exceptional autonomy from both domestic and international pressures in its foreign policymaking. Decisions on this front have been highly centralized and personalized, with leaders facing very few domestic political constraints. That means that the young, little-known Emir Tamim has perhaps more freedom than any other leader in the world to take whatever path he prefers.
And nobody really knows what he prefers. Thus the rampant speculation about his alleged social conservatism, domestic orientation, competition with HBJ, views about Hamas, relationship with Saudis, and more. Perhaps Emir Tamim shares the same beliefs as his parents and will continue in their path. Perhaps he will leave the ambitious social programs of his mother, Sheikha Moza, untouched but steer Doha toward enjoying its wealth without all the messy complications of an activist foreign policy. Perhaps he identifies with the Muslim Brotherhood and will support it even more than before, or perhaps he prefers to patch up relations with Saudis and Emiratis who despise the group.
The point is that nobody really knows, perhaps not even the new emir himself, and there are few domestic or international constraints on his ability to act. There is no social base in Qatar demanding the foreign policies associated with HBJ and the retired emir. Those leaders just chose to pursue an interventionist and pan-Arabist regional policy, including support for Muslim Brotherhood movements, strong pushes for regime change in Libya and Syria, massive economic assistance to Egypt's new government, and the funding of Al Jazeera's international empire. Even if there were strong Qatari domestic support for such policies -- or their opposite, for that matter -- the public has no way to effectively press them on the emir.
Qatar does face somewhat greater international constraints, given its tiny size and challenging neighbors, but it is protected from the worst of them by its unfathomable wealth and the protection of a U.S. military base. There are limits: The U.S. base and Saudi presence probably keep it from becoming a full-blown ally of Iran, if ever it wanted to do such a thing, for some reason. But those constraints are only at the extremes. The absence of meaningful systemic constraints means that it can choose to pursue its trademark policies -- but nothing in the system forces it to do so.