Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani’s abdication after 18 years was a rarity in the Arab world, but analysts do not expect significant changes in the way the super-rich Gulf state is ruled.
“I address you today to announce that I am handing the rule over to Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani,” the 61-year-old emir told Qataris in a televised speech.
The decision marks the beginning of “a new era in which a young leadership will hold the banner that would place the hopes of the coming generation upon its priorities,” he added.
Sheikh Hamad suffers from kidney problems but officials insist he has not stepped down because of his health but instead to bring a younger leadership to the fore.
He appeared to be in good health during his speech on Tuesday and during weekend meetings with US Secretary of State John Kerry and French President Francois Hollande.
Under a scorching sun, scores waited in long lines outside the seaside palace in Doha to swear allegiance to a tall, smiling Tamim, who stood next to his father to welcome the visitors.
Among those who congratulated father and son was influential Sunni Muslim cleric Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who embraced both.
Qaradawi is a controversial figure in the West and has millions of supporters, mostly from the Muslim Brotherhood.
In a coffee shop on the outskirts of Doha, a young woman clad in a traditional black abaya voiced mixed feelings.
“I am saddened by the departure of the father of this nation under whose reign I had lived and grown up,” she told AFP. “But I’m reassured about the future with the enthronement of Sheikh Tamim, who is young but mature.”
Qatar’s relations with the UAE have been strained in recent months over Doha’s reported support of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has risen to prominence in several Arab states.
Sheikh Tamim is expected to address the nation on Wednesday, an official said, after which he is expected to carry out a major cabinet reshuffle.
There is widespread expectation that this will include the departure of powerful Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem bin Jabr al-Thani, who has held the post since 2007.
Sheikh Hamad has used Qatar’s immense gas wealth to drive its modernisation since he overthrew his own father, Sheikh Khalifa, in a 1995 coup.
He hands over to his son, now by far the youngest sovereign of any of the Gulf monarchies, a country that has developed into a political and economic powerhouse, with multi-billion-dollar investments across the world.
According to the World Bank, Qatar recorded Gross Domestic Product of $173 billion in 2011, while average per capita income in 2012 stood at 98,000 euros ($128,811).
And the Qatar Investment Authority, the emirate’s sovereign wealth fund, invested billions of dollars in businesses ranging from Germany’s Volkswagen to French energy giant Total and Britain’s Sainsbury’s supermarket chain and Barclays Bank.
The country also developed a powerful media empire through Al-Jazeera, the first pan-Arab satellite channel, which also broadcasts in English, and is preparing to launch Al-Jazeera America.
Qatar put itself on the world sporting map with a successful bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Under Sheikh Hamad, Qatar played a role in Middle East affairs massively out of proportion to its size, becoming a major backer of the Arab Spring uprisings in both Libya and Syria.
Tamim, born in 1980, is the second son of the emir and his second wife Sheikha Mozah and has been groomed for years to take the helm.
Diplomats say that, over the past three years, the emir has increasingly transferred military and security responsibilities to Tamim who, as did his father, attended Britain’s Sandhurst military academy.
A diplomatic source said Tamim, whose country is an ally of the United States, enjoys “excellent relations with the West, notably with the US and France”.
“This decision is consistent with Qatar’s policy,” Doha-based analyst Salman Shaikh told AFP. “They have been preparing for change for some time, they want to move to the younger generation.”
Commenting on the change, Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services said it would not have any immediate effect on Qatar’s ratings, as no significant changes in policy are expected.