There are increasingly credible reports suggesting that the 61-year-old emir of Qatar, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is preparing to hand power over to his 33-year old son, Sheikh Tamim. This would be a dramatic move in an Arab region accustomed to rulers-for-life, but where the underlying drivers of the recent unrest have included the youth-ward shift in demographics and the increasing age difference between the rulers and the ruled.
Western diplomats say this handover has been under discussion for at least a year. Different observers will tell you about different scenarios: by some accounts, the crown prince could be enthroned in the summer; others say the emir will name him prime minister and empower him gradually over several years.
What is clear is that the crown prince is positioning his close allies, including several who work on strategic economic and resource issues, to take on a greater role; and the position of the current prime minister and foreign minister, Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, one of the richest and most powerful men in the Arab world, is now being questioned. Balancing these powerful interests will not be easy. If the country has a new leader, he will inherit not only the world's richest (per capita) country, but a host of increasingly complex foreign policy problems – above all in Syria, where Qatar's foreign-policy activism has over-reached itself.
Qatar has managed to surprise its neighbours many times since the former poor cousin of the Gulf states discovered it had the world's third-largest gas reserves. Its support for the Arab uprisings – and, in particular, parties associated with the Muslim Brotherhood – has unsettled other Gulf countries who are more wary of the potential domino effect. Demonstrating that a ruler might choose to retire, rather than dying in office, is yet another controversial step. It would have a profound psychological effect across the Arab world.
Some would argue that Qatar is a maverick that has little bearing on the other countries: it does many things differently from its neighbours, and hasn't had a smooth succession at any time in the last century. (The last time was 1913.) The current emir overthrew his own father in 1997.
But the pressures for transition won't stop at Qatar's borders. Other Gulf countries are already thinking hard about succession. Demographics and health issues mean the old models can't last for ever. Next door, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has already quietly begun to install some younger-generation figures to key ministries, notably the interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who was – unusually in a country where seniority normally rules – promoted over one of his father's half-brothers. In 2006 King Abdullah also established the principle that the family council could remove a king if he was incapacitated through illness – though this provision only kicks in for future kings.
Any such move would also be closely watched in Oman, where power is more highly centralised than anywhere else in the Gulf, and where the successor to the 72-year-old sultan, Qaboos bin Said al Said, is unknown. Campaigners seeking a constitutional monarchy have been calling upon the sultan to appoint a prime minister – a post that he currently holds himself, along with most of the sovereign ministries – in order to start sharing power in preparation for an eventual transition. But some of those selfsame campaigners have been imprisoned for their troubles. In Bahrain, too, questions are again being raised about the future role of the world's longest serving prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who has held his position since the country became independent in 1971.
The Gulf monarchies do not live in an isolated world. Their citizens have recently seen the Dutch queen step down, and a pope retire. The current generation, typically wealthier and better-educated than their parents, also enjoys much higher life expectancy. Economists and businesspeople working in the region are well aware this is a critical factor in shaping consumer markets, healthcare budgets, government spending priorities and so forth. But the political implications for the job of ruler-for-life are only beginning to be felt.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 22 June.