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Qatar ruler hands power to son to mark 'new era'

Tuesday - 6/25/2013, 2:56pm  ET

FILE - In this Tuesday, March 26, 2013 file photo, Emir of Qatar Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, center, attends the opening session of the Arab League Summit in Doha. Qatar’s emir moves to hand power over to his son, aiming to bring a youthful new face to rule in a tiny Gulf nation that has become one of the most powerful in the Middle East, aggressively spreading its influence through cash. (AP Photo/Ghiath Mohamad, File)

BRIAN MURPHY
Associated Press

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) -- Qatar's ruler formally handed power Tuesday to his 33-year-old son, capping a carefully crafted transition that puts a new generation in charge of the Gulf nation's vast energy wealth and rising political influence after the upheavals of the Arab Spring.

The 61-year-old emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, used a televised address to note repeatedly the importance of shifting leadership to more youthful hands -- an indirect acknowledgment of the demands for reforms opened by the uprisings that have swept the region.

Qatar has been a player in the regional turmoil, using its riches to support rebels in Libya and now in Syria. Qatar also has broken ranks with other Gulf states to offer help to the Muslim Brotherhood, which rose to political dominance in Egypt. Its influence is further spread by the powerful Al-Jazeera TV network, which it founded.

The Western-backed Gulf Arab dynasties have managed to remain in power, but they have displayed their insecurity by launching crackdowns that have included arrests over alleged anti-state plots and social media posts deemed insulting to the leadership.

"The future lies ahead of you, the children of this homeland, as you usher into a new era where young leadership hoists the banner," the outgoing emir said as he announced the anticipated transition to the British-educated crown prince, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

As part of taking on the mantle, Sheik Tamim will begin putting together a new government that may be in direct contrast to the old guard leaders across the Gulf. Qatar has given no official explanation on the transition, which had been widely expected for weeks, but Sheik Hamad is believed to be suffering from chronic health problems.

Sheik Tamim is not expected to make any immediate policy shifts for

In an important sign of continuity and shared goals, the outgoing emir and Sheik Tamim stood shoulder to shoulder and greeted members of the ruling family and others following the address.

Later, Sheik Tamim -- addressed formally as emir for the first time by state media -- was greeted by members of the ruling family, military officers and others "who came to swear allegiance," the official Qatar News Agency reported.

Sheik Tamim has been closely involved in key decisions since 2003, when Tamim became the next in line to rule after his older brother stepped aside. The outgoing emir is expected to remain a guiding force from the wings.

"Sheik Tamim will be driving his father's car, which is already programmed on where to go," said Mustafa Alani, a political analyst at the Gulf Research Center in Geneva.

The transition -- a rarity in a region where leadership changes are nearly always triggered by deaths or palace coups -- also sends a message the wider Middle East. It appears a sweeping response to the Arab Spring upheavals and their emphasis on giving voice to the region's youth, and it reinforces Qatar's bold-stroke political policies.

"The time has come to turn a new leaf in the history of our nation," the outgoing emir said in his address, "where a new generation steps forward to shoulder the responsibility with their dynamic potential and creative thoughts."

Under Sheik Hamad, who took power in a bloodless coup in 1995, Qatar has transformed into a political broker and a center for global investment with a sovereign fund estimated to be worth more than $100 billion. Its portfolio includes landmark real estate, luxury brands and a powerful presence in the sporting world. Tiny Qatar also defeated rivals including the U.S. to win the rights to host the 2022 football World Cup.

Qatar has played a role as mediator in conflicts such as Sudan's Darfur region and regional disputes including Palestinian political rifts. Qatar this week hosted a Syrian opposition conference attended by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and is the venue for possible U.S.-led peace talks with Afghanistan's Taliban.

In another sign of Qatar's risk-taking policies, it allowed an Israeli trade office -- effectively a diplomatic outpost -- for years before ordering its closure following Israel's incursion into Gaza in late 2008.

But Qatar has faced criticism from rights groups for joining the Gulf-wide crackdowns on perceived dissent since the Arab Spring. In one of the most high-profile cases, Qatari authorities jailed a poet whose verses included admiration for the uprisings. In February, the sentence against the poet, Muhammad ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, was reduced from life to 15 years.

Christopher Davidson, an expert in Gulf affairs at Britain's Durham University, believes some of the tough measures by Qatari officials reflect internal squabbles with hard-liners trying to exert their influence. Such groups could be among the first housecleaning targets by the new emir, he predicted.

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