The leader of the world’s richest nation has just handed power over to his son 18 years after he stripped his own father of the title in a successful coup d’état. But who is the Emir of Qatar? And why has he decided to abdicate?
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani was born into a life of unimaginable wealth in Doha, the Qatari capital, in 1952.
At the time of his birth, his distant relative Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah Al Thani ruled the country as the fourth Emir in an unbroken line of the House of Thani – a royal dynasty that can trace its roots back to the pre-Islamic Banu Tamim tribe.
As a young man Sheikh Hamad began his education in Qatar, continuing his schooling at the prestigious Sandhurst Military Academy in England, which would later hold Princes William and Harry among its alumni.
By the time Sheikh Hamad graduated from Sandhurst in 1971, the crown had passed to his first-cousin-once-removed, Sheikh Ahmad bin Ali Al Thani.
Sheikh Ahmad’s reign was considered a real turning point in the history of Qatar, with the state granted independence from the United Kingdom in 1971 and, at around the same time, acquiring vast wealth due to the discovery of untapped oil fields in the region.
Sheikh Hamad was quickly appointed a Lieutenant Colonel in the Qatari armed forces upon graduation from Sandhurst, and helped his father wrestle control of the country from Sheikh Ahmad in 1972.
Now under the rule of his father Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani - the fifth Emir of Qatar - Sheikh Hamad was appointed to the rank of Major General and appointed Commander in Chief of the Qatari Armed Forces, overseeing a major recruitment and resources drive.
Throughout the 1980s Sheikh Hamad held various government positions, effectively managing Qatar’s social and economic policies, and in 1992 he took over the day-to-day running of the country from his father.
In 1995, Sheikh Hamad saw his chance to claim complete power however, waiting for his father to leave the country on a visit to Switzerland before deposing him in a bloodless coup. He even went as far as freezing his exiled father’s assets to prevent any counter-coups, of which there was only one serious attempt.
During his 18 years in power, Sheikh Hamad has been considered a progressive leader – vocally supporting children’s charities and encouraging education along with his second wife, Sheika Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned. He has also played an active role in developing sports in Qatar, leading to the country hosting high profile tennis and athletics events, and securing the 2022 Fifa World Cup.
Although he had wrestled power from his father, Sheikh Hamad’s autocratic reign was reasonably peaceful, and he even went as far as to vocally support the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2011.
With a stable government, Sheikh Hamad was able to focus on turning Qatar from a small desert backwater into a major world power by continuing to exploit the country’s vast oil fields, and discovering and tapping the world’s third largest gas reserves.
By 2010 liquefied natural gas production had reached 77 million tonnes, making Qatar the richest county in the world. With less than two million inhabitants - and only 250,000 of those full citizens - the average income in the country shot to a staggering $86,440 a year per person.
Qatar expert Olivier Da Lage said: “When he came to power in 1995, Sheikh Hamad had a goal to place Qatar on the world map by exploiting the gas resources which his father Sheikh Khalifa did not develop for fear it would change the emirate's society.”
He added: “Eighteen years on, he has finished the job – Qatar has acquired the financial clout to command respect from neighbouring countries and Western governments alike”.
Far from just relying on income from gas and oil, Sheikh Hamad invested billions of dollars is businesses including Volkswagen, Total, Sainsbury’s, and Barclays bank.
One of the state’s most successful business ventures, however, was to develop the first pan-Arab satellite news channel, Al-Jazeera.
The channel, which broadcasts in English as well as Arabic, is preparing to launch Al-Jazeera America and is considered among the world’s most respected media organisations.
The main criticism of Sheikh Hamad’s rule has been from religious conservative groups in the Arab world, who condemn him for forging links with Western nations, including Israel.
So, after 18 successful years in power, why has Sheikh Hamad chose to abdicate now? And who’ll be the new Emir?
Sheikh Hamad, now 61, has battled with poor health in recent years, including serious problems with his kidneys.
Diplomats refuse to say whether this had an influence on the abdication however, simply stating Sheikh Hamad has decided the time was right for a younger man to rule the country to reflect the emergence of youth-driven politics in the Arab world.
In an outgoing message, Sheikh Hamad said: “I declare that I will hand over the reins of power to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani and I am fully certain that he is up to the responsibility, deserving the confidence, capable of shouldering the responsibility and fulfilling the mission”.
He added: “You, our children, are the munitions of this homeland… we have always thought well of you, by virtue of your genuine eagerness and sincere achievements have proven to be ready to lead and take our confidence.”
He went on: “We believe that the Arab world is one human body, one coherent structure, that draws its strength from all its constituent parts.”
Sheikh Hamad’s heir is Sheikh Tamin bin Hamad al Thani, his 33-year-old fourth son.
With little international profile, the incoming eighth Emir has largely focussed on domestic issues at home, but he is known to have studied at Harrow public school in England, before following in his father’s footstep and graduating from Sandhurst in 1998.
He currently has two wives and six children.