DOHA, Qatar — Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the absolute ruler and emir of Qatar, who used his tiny nation’s oil and gas wealth to alter the course of events across the Middle East — siding with rebels in Syria and Libya, negotiating peace in Lebanon, hosting a U.S. military base and backing the extremist group Hamas — told his family he would abdicate and transfer power to his 33-year-old son, the Qatar-owned Al-Jazeera news organization reported.
At the age of 61, the emir surprised the outside world, if not his subjects, with the announcement that he would cede power to his son, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and also move aside his longtime foreign and prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, 53.
His decision comes as Qatar’s hand — more precisely its checkbook — can be felt throughout the Middle East, raising questions about whether the son would continue Qatar’s high-profile interventionist policy. In recent days, Qatar has let the Taliban open an office in Doha and has helped keep the Syrian rebels armed. And while it is allied with Washington, it also has raised the West’s ire by financing radical Islamist rebels in various arenas.
The soon-to-be emir, Tamim, has little international profile and, so far, has concentrated almost entirely on domestic issues. At the same time, the prime minister expected to be replaced, Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, who is widely known as HBJ to distinguish him from the emir, aggressively pushed Qatar onto every world stage possible, first as foreign minister beginning in 1992 and then as both foreign and prime minister since 2007.
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The surprising abdication comes 18 years after Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, then in his early 40s, deposed his own father in a bloodless coup that began the modern transformation of Qatar from a well-heeled backwater into a fantastically rich modern state, wielding its great wealth to, as the scholar F. Gregory Gause III of the Brookings Institution put it, “punch above their weight.”
Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani’s historic 180-degree turn took a country that has fewer citizens than Reno, Nev., and used its deep pockets to influence events from Morocco to the Philippines. It also won a controversial bid for the 2022 World Cup; dragged I.M. Pei out of retirement to make the Museum of Islamic Art a world-class institution rivaling the Louvre, at least architecturally; and most recently hosted an office for peace talks with the Taliban that some claim is costing $100 million. Along the way, Qatari military aid helped topple an old friend of the emir’s, Moammar Gadhafi, and is now taking aim at another former friend, Bashir Assad of Syria.