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Meet the next leader of the biggest little country in the Middle East

Though Qatar is small — tinier and less populous than the state of Connecticut — it has established itself as a rising power in the Middle East. Its state-owned news network, Al Jazeera, influences the entire Arabic-speaking world (and beyond — its American venture is slated to launch by the end of the year). And ...

KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images
KARIM JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images

Though Qatar is small — tinier and less populous than the state of Connecticut — it has established itself as a rising power in the Middle East. Its state-owned news network, Al Jazeera, influences the entire Arabic-speaking world (and beyond — its American venture is slated to launch by the end of the year). And it’s also become a destination for diplomats — from the Afghan Taliban, which is looking to open an office in Doha, to the Brookings Institution, which is hosting its annual U.S.-Islamic World Forum with Qatari sponsorship there this week.

And now, Qatar appears to be coming under new management. Diplomats are reporting that the country’s 61-year-old monarch, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is preparing a leadership transition that will begin with the prime minister stepping down and will culminate in Al Thani passing power to his fourth son, the Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.

The young crown prince — he just turned 33 — attended boarding school in Britain before graduating from Sandhurst Military Academy in 1998. He was named the next in succession in 2003, quietly replacing his older brother, Sheikh Jasim. In Qatar, he’s taken on a diverse portfolio of issues — his personal website lists titles from president of the Qatar National Olympic Committee, to chairman of the Board of Regents of Qatar University and chairman of the Supreme Education Council, to deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

By May 2005, U.S. diplomats in Qatar noted that Sheikh Tamim "has been increasingly invested with oversight and authority in the area of internal security," according to secret cables released by WikiLeaks. The cables paint a portrait of Sheikh Tamim as a conciliatory negotiator, eager for increased counterterrorism cooperation (including the extradition of U.S. citizens despite the absence of an extradition treaty between the two countries, and help investigating a car bombing in Doha in 2005), though later cables note that "Qatar’s record of sharing intelligence with [the United States] is the worst among" the Gulf countries. As the Sunni Awakening began in Iraq in 2006, he offered Qatar’s network of ties to Sunni tribal leaders, telling U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Welch, "They still can help."

Sheikh Tamim appears to have been involved in many of Qatar’s regional diplomatic initiatives, including moderating talks in Darfur, Lebanon, and Yemen. He personally headed the delegation to mend Qatar’s strained diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia in 2010. In diplomacy of another sort, he was also accused of exercising undue influence on French officials to sway the vote for the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup — a vote that Qatar won. His efforts haven’t always been successful, though — in 2008, he described Bashar al-Assad as "a good person" and believed that Qatari investment could pluck Syria from Iran’s sphere of influence. (Today, Qatar is one of the largest suppliers of weapons to the Syrian rebels.)

According to reports by Reuters and the Telegraph, analysts have speculated that Sheikh Tamim’s close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood could push Qatari policy in a more conservative direction, possibly straining ties with the United States. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, Qatar has strengthened its ties with Egypt and Tunisia, where Islamist political parties have swept to power.

Nonetheless, Sheikh Tamim has stressed Qatar’s shared interests with the United States. In his private conversations with U.S. diplomats, he’s expressed an interest in a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, telling Rep. Allen Boyd in 2007, according to a WikiLeaks cable, "that progress in the peace process requires relations with Israel…. Whether or not they agree with Israel, he said, the whole region should negotiate with Israel." He has also cited Qatar’s potential role as an intermediary in U.S. talks with Iran. Doha maintains cordial diplomatic relations with Tehran and shares access to a lucrative gas field, but Sheikh Tamim has also expressed wariness about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and influence in the region — something U.S. diplomats have characterized as "a necessary balancing act."

Qatari officials have reportedly briefed foreign governments — including U.S. and Iranian officials — on the planned transition, which could occur before the end of the month.

J. Dana Stuster is a policy analyst at the National Security Network. Twitter: @jdanastuster

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