The streets of West Bay, Doha’s skyscraping financial centre, were deserted last Tuesday morning, as prominent Qataris filed into the Emiri Diwan to welcome the new emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. Most people in Doha seemed mainly concerned with whether Sheikh Tamim would announce a national pay rise to celebrate his accession; in 2011, Qatari nationals working for the government saw their salaries go up by 60 per cent. They were hoping for another boost. Non-Qataris – about 80 per cent of the population – were hoping otherwise, worried about a further hike in the cost of living.
In a region where leaders tend to rule until they are deposed or die, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani’s retirement at the age of 61 was a surprise, though rumours have been circulating here since May. Some say he is ill. He has had two kidney transplants and is much slimmer than he used to be. But the general consensus is that he simply feels it is time to stand aside and give his 33-year-old son a go.
Sheikh Hamad deposed his father in 1995 in a non-violent coup and set about transforming Qatar. Fuelled by vast oil and gas wealth (per capita income, at more than $100,000 a year, is the highest in the world), he pushed the country into regional and world affairs. In recent years, Qatar has mediated peace agreements in Darfur and Eritrea, helped to topple Gaddafi and armed Syrian rebels. If it were a larger or more threatening country (like, say, Iran), all this would bring accusations of meddling. But the country’s so small, no one’s worried by it.
Doha’s greatest contribution to world affairs has arguably been the TV station al-Jazeera, which it funds to the tune of between $200 million and $300 million a year. Al-Jazeera, which Hamad launched on 1 November 1996, has given Qatar yet more opportunity to shape the regional debate, not always to its neighbours’ liking, or the United States’ – though Qatar more than makes up for that by hosting Washington’s largest military installation in the Middle East at Al Udeid Air Base.
The Taliban recently opened an office in Doha, as a base for negotiations with the US. But the first round of talks were cancelled because of objections from the government in Kabul. It’s hard not to imagine that Sheikh Hamad must be relieved he isn’t the one trying to bring the two sides to the table.