DOHA (Reuters) - Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani handed power to his son, Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim, on Tuesday in a rare abdication by a hereditary Gulf Arab ruler to try to ensure a smooth succession.
The small U.S.-allied state is the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, a global investment powerhouse and a heavy hitter in Middle East diplomacy and international media through its Al Jazeera television network.
Qatar has also been a high-profile supporter of Arab Spring uprisings but remains an absolutist monarchy itself, a system unchallenged by a population that enjoys great affluence.
Thousands of Qatari citizens thronged the emiri court in the capital Doha to pledge allegiance to the 33-year-old new head of state after the emir, 61, announced the handover.
“The time has come to turn a new page in the journey of our nation and have a new generation carry out responsibilities ... with their innovative ideas,” Sheikh Hamad said in a seven-minute speech broadcast on state television.
“I address you today to inform you that I will transfer power to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. I am fully confident that he is qualified for the responsibility and is trustworthy,” he added, seated beside Qatar’s red-and-white flag.
Sheikh Hamad made no mention of Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim, the veteran prime minister and foreign minister who is the public face of Qatar’s assertive foreign policy and had been expected to step down as well.
New leader Sheikh Tamim is expected to address the nation on Wednesday at 1500 GMT, Al Jazeera television said on Tuesday.
Gulf political analysts said they anticipated no significant changes to foreign or domestic policy, noting that Sheikh Tamim was already involved in running the peninsular state under his father’s direction.
State television later showed Qataris lining up to shake hands and rub noses in the traditional Gulf Arab greeting style with the new emir and his father. Outside, a queue of black Mercedes cars snaked their way to the royal court.
“He told us he would do his best to continue the development in the country ... It’s not easy work. It’s a heavy responsibility, Khalid Rashid Mohammed, a 34-year-old well-wisher, said after shaking hands with the new ruler.
On the eve of the power transfer, Sheikh Hamad issued a decree extending the term of the advisory shura council, in effect indefinitely postponing elections that had been tentatively scheduled for the second half of the year.
Diplomats earlier said Sheikh Hamad, who overthrew his father in a bloodless coup in 1995, had long planned to abdicate in favour of the Crown Prince.
Tuesday was a national holiday in the country of 2 million, ruled by the al-Thani family for more than 130 years.
Regional governments, including Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were swift to welcome the new ruler. An Iranian foreign ministry spokesman said Tehran regarded “tranquillity and stability” in Qatar as very important.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said he looked forward to even stronger ties with Qatar, which gained independence from Britain in 1971.
Arab and Western diplomats said they understood the motive was the emir’s desire to ensure a smooth transition of power. Such a transition would be unusual for Gulf Arab states, where leaders usually die in office.
“As Tamim’s succession is very much the outcome of a longer process rather than the enforced product of any sudden upheaval, there will be less sensitivity attached to the change of leadership than might otherwise be the case,” said Gulf expert Kristian Ulrichsen at the Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Sheikh Hamad has elevated Qatar’s global profile through the development of Al Jazeera and the country’s successful bid to host the 2022 football World Cup tournament.
The country has also loomed large in promoting Arab Spring protests, lending significant support to rebels who toppled and killed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and to a continuing uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
But the veteran leader has cracked down on dissent at home, restricting freedom of expression.
In February this year a Qatari poet was jailed for 15 years for criticising the emir and attempting to incite revolt.
The country has established strong links with moderate Islamists, especially Egypt’s ruling Muslim Brotherhood group. State television showed Youssef al-Qaradawi, a prominent Egyptian preacher based in Qatar, greeting the outgoing emir and his son.
It has also played host to a delegation of the Afghan Taliban, which opened an office in Doha last week in preparation for possible talks with the United States about how to end a 12-year-old conflict in Afghanistan.
Other crises and wars that Qatar has tackled include Yemen, Somalia, Lebanon, Darfur and the Palestinian territories. Doha has often arranged for peace talks on its own soil to show it can punch above its weight in international diplomacy.
Additional reporting by Mahmoud Habboush, Amena Bakr, Yara Bayoumy and Marcus George; Writing by Sami Aboudi and Yara Bayoumy; Editing by William Maclean and Andrew Heavens