RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A rare event has taken place in the Middle East - the ruler of an Arab country has voluntarily stepped down. The emir of the Gulf state of Qatar handed power over to his son in a quiet ceremony in Doha this morning. NPR's Sean Carberry has our report.
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SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: There's no formal process for handing over power in Qatar because it hasn't happened since the country gained independence from Britain in 1971. So, perhaps it's only appropriate that the outgoing emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, relinquished power in a speech carried on Al Jazeera - the pan-Arab news network that he finances in no small part to increase Qatar's soft power in the region.
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CARBERRY: Sheik Hamad came to power in 1995 when he overthrew his father in a bloodless coup. This morning, the 61-year-old willingly handed over the keys to the extremely wealthy country to his son, 33-year-old Sheik Tamim.
SHADI HAMID: Qatar likes to do what the others aren't doing.
CARBERRY: Shadi Hamid is research director at the Brookings Center in Doha.
HAMID: They see themselves as exceptional actors that they're willing to buck the trends, they're willing to challenge the status quo.
CARBERRY: In his 18 years in office, Sheik Hamad shepherded a massive modernization campaign, spending billions of petrodollars transforming Qatar from a regional backwater into a nation of gleaming postmodern skyscrapers. The nation today has the highest GDP per capita in the world.
MICHAEL STEPHENS: He has looked to invest money not only in his own people but across the Arab world to improve a region that he sees as fundamentally behind.
CARBERRY: Michael Stephens is a researcher with the Royal United Services Institute, a U.K.-based think tank with an office in Doha. He says Sheik Hamad focused on building Qatar's image and prestige in the region. Al Jazeera championed the democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring in its coverage, despite the fact that Qatar itself has a non-democratic government.
And the country barely the size of Connecticut has been able to walk another line by maintaining close ties with both the West - it hosts one of America's largest military command centers - and with Hamas, Hezbollah and even Iran. It brokered a peace deal in Lebanon in 2008.
HAMID: Qatar has been able to play this remarkable balancing act, and that's what started to put it on the map. That's why Doha in some sense has become the conference capital of the Middle East.
CARBERRY: Though Qatar has stirred controversy by supporting al-Qaida-affiliated rebels in Libya, and Syria. And not all of Qatar's diplomatic efforts have been successful. The opening of a Taliban office in Doha last week caused a firestorm of controversy. Michael Stephens:
STEPHENS: Yes it's a complicated issue. Yes, I think the Qataris didn't fully think through all the logistics of having to deal with the Afghan issue because they have no experience with it, but, frankly it's a sexy topic. Sexy topics and sexy purchases are something that Qatar loves to do.
CARBERRY: The question now, is will Sheik Tamim, the young new emir, continue to pursue the sexy, or will he turn inward and focus on domestic challenges such as balancing the tension between the growing conservative sentiment of many Qataris and the soaring expat population who keep Doha's hotel bars in business. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Doha.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.