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.
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.
Despite the seemingly wild contingency that this introduces, most analysts are predicting continuity in Qatari foreign policy, if perhaps in a slightly less confrontational manner and perhaps more in line with Qatar's GCC allies. Few seem to expect significant changes in Qatar's support for the Syrian opposition or in Qatar's other major regional policies. This is probably right in the short term, as the new leadership settles into place and seeks to reassure domestic and foreign audiences. The new emir signaled continuity in his first speech, stressing that he would stick to the path laid down by his father. But those early moves tell us little actually about where he will take the country once he settles into power.
I was struck by a few notes within the limited signals we've thus far had from Emir Tamim. One was his comment that he "rejects divisions in Arab societies on sectarian lines." Could this be taken as an implicit rebuke of the GCC's cynical anti-Shiite line of the last years, including Al Jazeera's strongly sectarian coverage of Syria and the Doha-based Islamist figure Yusuf al-Qaradawi's hard-line turn toward sectarianism? Also, was Emir Tamim's emphasis on Qatar's independent foreign policy in his inaugural speech meant as an implicit distancing from past controversial policies or as a warning that he would not be any more subordinate to Saudi preferences than was his father?
I was also struck by the departure of the director-general of Al Jazeera, who stepped down to join the new cabinet after less than two undistinguished years. Will his replacement take steps to restore the reputation of the flagship Arabic station, which has lost a great deal of credibility over the last two years due to its coverage of Syria and Egypt? Will the new leadership continue Al Jazeera's dizzying global expansion strategy, including the launch of Al Jazeera America, scheduled for this fall? And then, of course, what will become of Hamad bin Jassim, the driving force and ubiquitous face of Qatari foreign policy for many years? Despite his rapid removal, he seems unlikely to quietly retire to the life of a banker. Could he become a rallying point for those disgruntled with any new direction taken by the new emir?
If this were a Foreign Policy column, I might be tempted to offer up a fun Qatari Game of Thrones analogy, with the Al Thanis cast in the roles of the Lannisters. It's easy to imagine Emir Tamim as the young, enigmatic, and impetuous Joffrey; Sheikha Moza as Cersei, the mother who finds her maternal influence waning as the temptations of royal power become manifest; the outgoing emir as Tywin, the patriarch determined to keep the affairs of state on track; HBJ as Jaime, the once shining light of the family now facing radically changed circumstances. (I could take nominations for the role of Tyrion.) But I'll let those analogies go unfinished, much like George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones books.
More important is the reminder of the constant potential for sudden, unexpected change in the region -- and the many forms that such change might take. What happened in Doha was far from a revolution, but it was a major surprise. I, for one, don't believe we yet know the whole story behind the emir's decision or the intentions of the new leadership. And in at least one crucial way, what happened in Doha most certainly will not stay in Doha. Given Qatar's active role in virtually every one of the region's interlocking problems, from Egypt to Syria to Libya to Yemen to Palestine, the new emir's choices will matter in ways far less predictable then many seem to believe.