DOHA (Reuters) - Qatar’s new emir said on Wednesday the U.S.-allied Gulf Arab state would not “take direction” from anyone, in an accession speech suggesting the young leader would pursue the assertive, independent-minded foreign policy pioneered by his father.
Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani’s first address as head of state coincided with a cabinet reshuffle that saw Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, a force behind Qatar’s support for Arab Spring revolts, replaced as premier and foreign minister.
Sheikh Hamad is expected to retain his powerful post as vice chairman of the Qatar Investment Authority, (QIA), a globally active sovereign wealth fund that is worth between $100 billion (65 billion pounds) and $200 billion.
Sheikh Tamim, 33, handed power by his father on Tuesday in a rare example of an hereditary Arab ruler stepping down, added in his speech that sectarianism threatened to weaken Arab unity at a time when Syria’s war has sharply raised communal tensions.
From the same desk where his father announced his abdication after 18 years in power, Sheikh Tamim struck a businesslike tone in a 15-minute speech that was broad in nature and focused on domestic issues. He vowed to follow his father’s “path”.
“We don’t take direction (from anyone) and this independent behaviour is one of the established facts,” Sheikh Tamim, said in the speech broadcast on Qatari state television.
“As Arabs we reject splitting countries on a sectarian basis ... and because this split allows for foreign powers to interfere in the internal affairs of Arabs and influence them.”
The emir added that his country, long seen as an ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, should not be identified with any particular political trend and respected all religious sects.
“We are a coherent state, not a political party, and therefore we seek to keep relationships with all governments and states,” he said.
“We respect all the influential and active political trends in the region, but we are not affiliated with one trend against the other. We are Muslims and Arabs who respect diversity of sects and respect all religions in our countries and outside of them.”
Analysts said the speech aimed to show there would be no sudden change in Qatari policy.
“The new Emir needed to strike a balance between his domestic audience and the strong regional and international interest in his accession,” said Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the Baker Institute for Public Policy.
“He didn’t give too much away but generally sought to reassure people that while there may be a change in leadership style there will be continuity in the underlying substance of Qatari policy-making,” he said.
The new emir steered clear of any mention of Syria, a conflict in which Qatar has taken the lead in arming Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar al-Assad, to the consternation of some allies who fear weapons may be falling into the hands of more extremist Islamist fighters.
He instead focused on the safer topic of the Palestinian issue, saying Qatar was committed to their struggle with Israel.
David Roberts, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute based in Doha, said the speech had a “down to business tone, indicating that the country has work to and he is eager to get on with it”.
“It strongly suggested that Qatar will continue on its path with regard to foreign policy; there was no attempt to backtrack or rein that in. There was certainly no equivocation,” he said.
Qatar has been ruled by the al-Thani family for more than 130 years, but the handing over of power to Sheikh Tamim, marked a rare move in a region where monarchs usually rule for life.
A cabinet list released on the state news agency confirmed the new prime minister as Abdullah bin Naser al-Thani and the new foreign minister Khalid al-Atiyah, posts previously occupied by veteran politician Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim.
The reshuffle included Ali Sherif al-Emadi as finance minister, who held the post of group chief executive officer of Qatar National Bank.
The energy minister of the OPEC state and world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, remained unchanged.
The replacement of Hamad bin Jassim, or HBJ as he is known, marked the end of a two-decade tenure in government in which he drove the Gulf country’s rise to global prominence.
In his time as foreign minister, Qatar began hosting the largest U.S. air base in the Middle East but also cosied up to America’s foes Iran, Syria and Hamas in pursuit of leverage. The Afghan Taliban opened an office in Doha last week.
Named prime minister in 2007, Sheikh Hamad played a personal role in facilitating Qatar’s numerous efforts to resolve violent tensions, brokering talks in conflicts ranging from Lebanon to Yemen and from Darfur to the Palestinian territories.
(This story was refiled to fix typo in the fourth paragraph)
Additional reporting by Sami Aboudi, Amena Bakr and Mahmoud Habboush; Writing by Yara Bayoumy, Editing by William Maclean