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Qatar: Meet the new boss, same as the old boss

Qatar’s new leader Sheikh Tamim will likely stick to his dad’s policies.

Qatar’s seamless and voluntary transfer of power from father to son, done without external pressure, has been heralded as an exemplary political transition in a region fraught with turmoil and wars catalyzed by autocratic rulers who refuse to give up power.

Yet most analysts agree that while Qatar’s transition is a positive development, it isn’t transformative. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the new emir, has been groomed for the position for several years now and has already helped shape many government policies. And while Sheikh Tamim may be a new face and a voice for the country’s younger generation, his family has controlled the country for almost 150 years.

“I think he’ll continue within the strategic vision as set, and within that I don’t expect a huge amount of deviation,” says David Roberts of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar.

If anything, Sheikh Tamim is likely to have a slightly less aggressive foreign policy than his father, opting to focus more on domestic issues, especially as the country prepares to host the World Cup in 2022.

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Today, a day after Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani announced the transfer of power to his son, Sheikh Tamim reshuffled the cabinet and addressed the nation. He vowed to follow in the path established by his father and avoid sectarian politics. He added that Qatar will respect its relations with other countries but will not wait to take orders from anyone.

Sheikh Hamad took control of Qatar in 1995 in a bloodless coup, wresting power from his father. Under his leadership, the tiny Gulf state took on an outsized role in foreign affairs. He introduced a number of liberal economic and political changes. Qatar actively supported many of the Arab uprisings of the last two years, most notably acting as one of the strongest backers of the Syrian opposition.

Qatar has been criticized, however, for supporting demands for democratic freedom in other countries while maintaining its own relatively restrictive polices. For example, the constitution makes it illegal to publicly criticize the emir.

Yet as citizens of one of the wealthiest nations in the world, few Qataris have been clamoring for change. The nation is home to the world’s third largest natural gas reserve and has successfully diversified its economy, attracting a number of international firms. During the first decade of the millennium, the country’s economy grew at a yearly average of 12.9 percent. Unemployment is less than 1 percent and in 2012 the country had an estimated per capita gross domestic product of $102,800. Among Qatari nationals alone – who make up only 250,000 of the country’s 2 million residents – per capita GDP was closer to $690,000 in 2011.

“So long as the going is good, so long as the money is flowing in, so long as life is good, people are not necessarily demanding political changes, political reforms and those kinds of those things, and so the state feels no need to respond to it in kind. Sheikh Hamad, who just gave up power, was remarkably popular among Qataris,” says Mehran Kamrava, professor and director of the Center for International and Regional Studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.