Qatar's Sheikh Tamim groomed for power
DOHA // When Qatar made its pitch to host the 2020 Olympics last year, it had 10 minutes to sell judges on the ambitious idea that the emirate could host the summer games.
The salesman they chose, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, yesterday became the new emir of Qatar.
The former crown prince has recently been at the forefront of the tiny emirate's boldest ventures, from bids to host international sporting events to plans to develop local infrastructure to moves in foreign policy across the Middle East.
Qatar's new leader looks poised to continue the many policies that have elevated his country's profile in the past decade. Both at home and abroad, analysts expect Sheikh Tamim will pick up where his father, who ruled for 18 years, left off.
Sheikh Tamim was born in 1980, the son of the Emir's most high-profile wife, Qatar Foundation chair Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned.
Following his father's path, he studied in Britain, first at the prestigious private school Sherborne and later the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, where he trained as an officer and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Qatari armed forces in 1998.
The young prince became heir apparent when his older brother Jassem stepped aside in his favour in 2003.
As a policymaker, the young Sheikh Tamim first tackled issues associated with youth: education and sport. An avid tennis player himself, the crown prince boosted local clubs and often showed up at international matches.
Over the course of the last decade, however, Sheikh Tamim's portfolio has grown significantly, such that in the past several years he was often referred to as the manager of daily government affairs.
But observers say that he has to a large extent guarded his personality, managerial style, and beliefs.
He takes power at a time when Qatar is facing increasing questions about its often controversial and outsize role in the region and as the country prepares to host the Fifa World Cup in 2022.
Sheikh Tamim's greatest challenge is likely to centre around Qatar's influence in Arab Spring countries. After backing opposition forces against the regimes of Egypt's Hosni Mubarak and later Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, Qatar has emerged as the most vocal – and also the most divisive – advocate of international intervention in Syria.
When Qatar moved in 2011 to support the Libyan opposition, both financially and with arms, the new emir was deeply involved, said Jane Kinninmont, fellow at the Chatham House think tank who studies the Gulf. Sheikh Tamim has also been integralto Qatar's support for the Syrian opposition, which is believed to include arms transfers, humanitarian aid and financial support.
Doha's foreign policies have not been without critics.
In Egypt, where Qatar has poured US$8 billion (Dh29.4bn) into a flailing economy, local media have grown suspicious of the generous aid, raising concerns that Doha may be seeking preferential treatment for its investments in exchange.
In Syria, Qatar has been accused of favouring Islamist factions, often at the expense of more liberal and secular groups. Doha has denied both these charges.
Still, the new emir may "be hearing advice to re-evaluate Qatar's foreign policy", as at least some Qataris question what their engagement has brought in return. "It's moved so rapidly from its former role as a soft-power mediator to an increasingly divisive position on Syria," said Ms Kinninmont.
Some analysts point to Sheikh Tamim's work in strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia, once the sole powerhouse of the Gulf, as a sign that he could be poised to improve ties that have been strained in the past two years of regional upheaval.
While both backing the Syrian opposition, Doha and Riyadh have clashed occassionally over the details of the assistance.
"Tamim has been involved in the Saudi Qatari file for quite some time and he has been dealing with a lot of issues between the two countries effectively," said Hussein Shoboshki, a Jeddah-based businessman who hosts a talk show on the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya TV channel.
"The fact that there are no problems and no conflicts on sensitive issues ... that in itself is a novelty and comforting news. In the past this has not been the case."
Analysts, investors, and even citizens have worked to piece together a picture of their new emir, based on his public engagements and his portfolio in the previous cabinet.
Most of Sheikh Tamim's official positions up to this point have been domestically focused, leading many here to suspect that the new emir might be more inclined to look inward than his father, perhaps even curbing the adventurist foreign policy.
In addition to managing the Olympic bid, Sheikh Tamim oversaw the country's successful bid for the 2022 World Cup. Such events are a gateway to infrastructure development: the country plans to invest $65bn in tourism infrastructure alone ahead of 2022. Doha also plans a $41bn metro system that may be built underground – a complicated and expensive endeavour.
"Tamim is an unknown quantity," said one Doha-based financial analyst. "But there is no indication that he would change things dramatically. I don't think the markets are bothered by the change."
Education has been another focus; Sheikh Tamim heads the Supreme Education Council, which has in recent years worked to revamp the Qatari education system in hopes of preparing a generation of workers for high-skilled industries that could one day supplant oil and gas.
Here, one particular incident has drawn Sheikh Tamim some critique: under his leadership in 2012, Qatar University switched undergraduate instruction from English to Arabic. Professors, who were given little warning of the shift, argued that the move could diminish standards or even deter internationally minded students from attending.
But the shift to Arabic was also billed as a way to increase Qatari enrolment and open the door to higher education for more students.
Another indication of the direction ahead will be Sheikh Tamim's cabinet, which is expected to be a younger group of technocrats that includes very few of the incumbent ministers.
In the meantime, as Qataris greeted the news of their new, younger leader, many welcomed the idea of gradual change, invigorated by new blood.
"To all the youth in #Qatar," Qatari TV presenter Hamad Al Amari tweeted, "if you ever start to think that something is impossible ... look back at Qatar in 1995."
Published: June 26, 2013 04:00 AM