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Report: Qatar's emir plans to step down for son

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BRIAN MURPHY | June 24, 2013 02:57 PM EST | AP

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Qatar's ruler said Monday he plans to transfer power to his 33-year-old son, the Gulf nation's crown prince, a report said, in what would mark a rare transition of authority in a region where most leaders remain until death.

The report by Qatar-based Al-Jazeera gave no other details, including whether health issues of the 61-year emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, played a role in the decision. The network was founded by Qatar's government and closely reflects its views on internal issues.

Such a transfer will jolt the ruling fraternity across the Western-backed Gulf Arab states by ushering a new generation into leadership ranks dominated by old guard figures, such as the 90-year-old King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia.

It also appears to signal a pro-active response to the Arab Spring upheavals – and their emphasis on giving voice to the region's youth. Under Hamad, Qatar, a small Gulf nation with a population of around 17 million – only around 225,000 of whom are citizens – has used its vast energy riches to catapult itself into one of the world's most politically ambitious countries. It has served as a powerful player in the Middle East, including key support for rebels in Libya last year and now in Syria and for the Muslim Brotherhood, which rose to political dominance in Egypt.

No major policy shifts are expected when Hamad steps down. The British-educated crown prince, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has been closely involved in all key decisions in recent years and the emir is likely to play important roles from the wings.

"The emir may be giving up power formally, but he is not giving up his oversight," said Christopher Davidson, an expert in Gulf Affairs at Britain's Durham University.

Qatar's reach is further extended by its global investment strategies – ranging from sports clubs such as football's Paris Saint-Germain to aid for debt-burdened Greece and Italy – and its role as mediator in conflicts such as Sudan's Darfur region and regional disputes including Palestinian political rifts. Qatar this week hosted a Syrian opposition conference attended by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and is the venue for possible U.S.-led peace talks with Afghanistan's Taliban.

Such a power transfer would become the first major shift of rule among the Western-allied Gulf Arab states since a contentious transition in Kuwait in early 2006.

"This is message to the rest of the region that Qatar is not just a outside player in the Arab Spring but is ready to make room for changes as well," said Mustafa Alani, a regional analyst with the Gulf Research Center in Geneva.

Qatar has made no official statements, including statements on the speculation that the emir is ailing. The emir is expected to make a nationwide address Tuesday.

While no immediate policy changes would be expected under the crown prince, a possible transition could include the departure of Sheik Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, the country's highly influential prime minister and foreign minister. He has played a central role in expanding Qatar's international clout since 1995, when the emir took power in a bloodless coup against his father. His resignation would allow the crown prince to immediately put his stamp on key positions in the government.

The crown prince, too, has been active in pushing high-profile initiatives by Qatar, including winning the rights to host the 2022 World Cup and leading Doha's unsuccessful effort for the 2020 Olympics. Doha has expressed interest in seeking the 2024 Games.

Sheik Tamim became the next in line to rule in 2003 after his older brother stepped aside.