Qatar readies new leadership, little policy change expected

By William Maclean and Sami Aboudi

DUBAI (Reuters) - Qatar appeared on Monday to be readying its population of nearly 2 million for new leadership that could see the emir and prime minister step down, a move analysts say would not herald big changes in energy, investment or foreign policies.

The tiny country, the world's largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, is a global investment powerhouse, a growing force in international media and sport, and a financial backer of Arab Spring revolts in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Qatari-owed al Jazeera television channel said the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, 61, would meet ruling family members and decision makers on Monday "amid reports that he intends to hand over power to his crown prince, Sheikh Tamim".

The satellite channel said it had learned of the news from "reliable Qatari sources", but provided no further details.

Diplomats said this month that the emir was considering an orderly transfer of power that would probably begin with the departure of the powerful prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, 53.

Arab and Western diplomats said they understood that the motive was the emir's desire to have a smooth transition to a younger generation. Such a transition would be unusual for Gulf Arab states where leaders usually die in office.

SAVVY DEALMAKER

They said they expected the reshuffle to take one of two courses -- either Sheikh Tamim would replace Sheikh Hamad as the prime minister until he takes over as emir when his father eventually steps down, or Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed al-Mahmoud would become the next prime minister when Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim steps aside.

Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim has been prime minister since 2007 and has played a key role in positioning Qatar as power broker in the region. He is also chairman of the board of the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), a position he is expected to retain. QIA has estimated assets of $100 billion to $200 billion.

Widely seen as a savvy dealmaker, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim has personally negotiated some of the sovereign wealth fund's most high-profile investments, including talks with Glencore's chief last year when the fund demanded better terms for backing the firm's acquisition of Xstrata. The companies eventually merged to create Glencore Xstrata.

The Emir has elevated the country's international profile in recent years through the launch and development of the al Jazeera television network, as well as its successful bid to host the 2022 soccer World Cup tournament.

ARAB SPRING

The Gulf state has played a substantial role in promoting the Arab Spring, lending significant support to rebels who ousted former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and to an uprising seeking to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power.

It has also hosted a delegation of the Afghan Taliban Islamist insurgency, which opened an office in Doha last week in preparation for an expected revival of talks with the United States about how to end a 12-year-old conflict in the Asian nation.

Other political crises and wars Qatar has tackled include Yemen, Somalia, Lebanon, Darfur and the Palestinian territories, often hosting peace talks on its own soil to try to prove it can punch above its weight in international diplomacy.

Qatar has been able to stay on friendly terms with a wide range of countries, including the United States and Iran, and to cultivate alliances with customers in the Americas, Europe and Asia hungry for its gas exports.

Sheikh Tamim is 33, young compared to other Gulf Arab rulers.

But Eman Ebed Alkadi of Eurasia Group consultants wrote that she did not expect Qatari domestic priorities or its foreign policies to change significantly with a change of ruler.

"Tamim has controlled key policies in Qatar for some time, and shares his fathers' views on political development in Qatar and economic diversification", Alkadi wrote.

National budgets had been agreed up until 2016-2017, Alkadi wrote, and with preparations for the World Cup in 2022 in full swing, much change in domestic momentum was unlikely.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Tolba and Amena Bakr, Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by William Maclean, Kevin Liffey and Stacey Joyce)