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

Wednesday - 6/26/2013, 1:46am  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) -- With a few words in a short speech, Qatar's huge energy riches and its expanding political influence passed into the hands of a 33-year-old ruler Tuesday in a seamless transition from a region where old guard leaders have been toppled or besieged by the Arab Spring.

The transfer of power -- made official in a brief statement by Qatar's outgoing emir -- was stunning for both its simplicity and far-reaching repercussions.

It quietly brought a new generation to the forefront of Middle East affairs in an apparent Gulf-style riposte to the pressures for a new style of leadership inspired by the region's upheavals: More youthful and possibly more attuned to demands for a greater public voice in political decision-making.

The rise of the new emir, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, also reorders the ruling fraternity among the Western-backed Gulf Arab leaders -- most decades older than Sheik Tamim -- and further boosts Qatar's image for bold-stroke policies that have produced crown jewels such as the Al-Jazeera TV network and serious challenges including its unwavering backing for Syrian rebels.

At its heart, however, the move is certain to be perceived as a direct swipe at traditions among the Gulf's other ruling dynasties that power can only be surrendered through death or palace coup -- which is how Qatar's now-former emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, took control in 1995 from his father.

Sheik Hamad, 61, 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 Arab Spring, which began in 2011 with successful revolutions ousting leaders in Tunisia and Egypt and spread across the Arab world.

But shortly before handing over power, Sheik Hamad showed caution about moving too fast. He extended the term of the country's advisory panel, known as the Shura Council, the official Qatar News agency reported. It didn't say how long the term would last, but the move is likely to delay elections for a more powerful legislative body proposed for later this year.

"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 his abdication and the carefully crafted transition to the British-educated crown prince that has been rumored for weeks.

Qatar has given no official explanation on the transition, but Sheik Hamad is believed to be suffering from chronic health problems.

It closed a stunning period of transformation for Qatar, which juts like upraised thumb into the Persian Gulf.

Sheik Hamad and his inner circle pulled the spotlight toward a country that was long content to rake in petrodollars and let other Gulf centers such as Bahrain and Dubai take the lead in regional affairs.

In little more than a decade, Qatar was 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, including ownership of the football club Paris Saint-Germain by Sheik Tamim's Qatar Sports Investments.

Sheik Tamim, a member of the International Olympic Committee, also helped Qatar defeat rivals including the U.S. to win the rights to host the 2022 football World Cup. But Qatar lost its bid for the 2020 Olympics -- an effort that could be revived by the new emir for the 2024 Games.

Qatar's riches have been spent, too, on trying to reshape the region with critical aid to Libyan rebels who brought down Moammar Gadhafi and now in Syria with fighters seeking to topple President Bashar Assad. 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 a further sign of Qatar's risk-taking policies, it even allowed an Israeli trade office -- effectively a diplomatic outpost -- for years before ordering its closure following Israel's incursion into Gaza in late 2008.

"While Qatar is not alone in being befuddled as to how to solve the Syrian crisis, this is an ongoing issue that Qatar's new elite will have to cope with immediately," wrote David Roberts, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based think tank.

But Sheik Tamim is not expected to make any immediate policy shifts. 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.

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