The crown prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, 33, is tipped to take over from his father, Sheikh Hamad, before Ramadan. Elizabeth Dickinson reports from Doha
Qatar's emir to hand over power to his crown prince son
Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani "confirmed to members of the ruling family that he will step down and transfer power to his heir apparent" Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, 33, said Al Jazeera, the Qatari broadcaster controlled by the government.
The emir, 61, declared today a national holiday and is expected to address the nation this morning.
The news follows weeks of reports and rumours that a transfer of power was planned for before Ramadan. Thursday is the 18th anniversary of Sheikh Hamad's becoming emir.
The handover is expected to lead to the departure of the prime minister and foreign minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, an indefatigable diplomat who took office in 2007 and has been the face of the small emirate's far-reaching foreign policy, especially during the Arab Spring in 2011.
Diplomats from the United States, Britain, France, and several other embassies are all thought to have been briefed on the transfer, some as early as six months ago.
The transfer, the first of its kind in the modern history of the Arab world, comes as Qatar continues an ambitious programme of building at home and vast investments abroad funded by the world's third-largest natural gas reserves, almost 14 per cent of the world's total.
In the past two years, Doha has emerged at the forefront of regional diplomacy from supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Arab Spring states and backing anti-Qaddafi rebels in Libya, to bankrolling rebel fighters in Syria and most recently US negotiations with the Taliban.
It has also poured US$5 billion (Dh18.4bn) into Egypt's new Islamist government to stave off financial meltdown.
"The timing is very crucial because of how Qatar is playing a huge role in the region," said Reem Al Harmi, a Qatari writer. "The timing is very crucial because of how Qatar is playing a huge role in the region," said Reem Al Harmi, a Qatari writer.
"Qataris are getting very emotional because of the things we have seen in the past few years and seeing how our country has grown. Yet we have retained our culture and our heritage," Ms Al Harmi said.
Analysts said they expected only gradual shifts in policy rather than dramatic change under the new ruler, particularly as Qatar builds towards hosting the 2022 football World Cup.
The UK-educated Sheikh Tamim, the deputy emir and crown prince, is "already deeply involved in the political process", said Mahjoob Zweiri, the head of the humanities department at Qatar University. "He is aware of all the files and has already been part of the decision-making process."
Sheikh Tamim's profile has risen in recent months, particularly on domestic issues. He is the head of both the Qatar Olympic Committee and the Supreme Education Council. He also created Qatar National Sports Day, a popular annual event on February 14.
These positions have contributed to an impression that, as emir, Sheikh Tamim might focus his attention more closely on domestic issues such as education.
But one area of focus could be building up capacity within the government. Despite Qatar's prominent diplomatic role in recent years, decision-making is still concentrated in a few hands.
This could change if, for example, the roles of prime minister and foreign minister - now both held by Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim- were split into separate positions.
Meanwhile, the departure of the prime minister, known affectionately throughout the region as HBJ, could shift at least the presentation of Qatari foreign policy. Sheikh Hamad is known for his passionate and candid remarks as well as his close personal relationships with world leaders.
"HBJ is a unique individual who had a strong impact on policy and will be difficult to replace," said David Roberts, an analyst at the Royal United Services Institute in Doha.
"But Qatar still has impressive diplomats, especially at the top of foreign ministry, and the basic parameters of Qatar's engagement with the world are set. I don't foresee a sea change in foreign policy even if he departs."
Diplomats expect Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim to stay on as head of the Qatar Investment Authority, one of the world's largest sovereign wealth funds. As chief executive, he has overseen high-profile investments that have turned the emirate into a key dealmaker in London and Paris.
Sheikh Tamim, described by insiders here as confident and outgoing, has met a host of foreign officials passing through the city, including the United States secretary of state, John Kerry, with whom he held meetings on Saturday.
As the crisis in Syria has escalated, Sheikh Tamim has also coordinated extensively with Saudi Arabia, often travelling to Riyadh.
At the most recent Arab League summit in Doha in March, it was Sheikh Tamim, rather than the emir, who was seen greeting delegations as they arrived.
Qataris describe him as down to earth and close to citizens, often seen at public events mingling with children or shaking hands with elders. "He has deep roots in society. He was involved in all the tribal consultations, for example during National Day in 2012, when he attended events put on by different tribes," said Mr Zweiri.
Among the pieces of the transition that remain unsettled are questions about who would take on the role of crown prince.
Qatar's constitution stipulates hereditary transfer of power, but a special family-appointed Regency Council would take control if a crown prince were younger than 18 at the time the power passed to him. Sheikh Tamim's eldest son was born in 2008.
The change also comes just months before Qatar had promised to hold its first ever legislative elections, promised for the second half of this year.
News of the possible transition has been greeted with pride by many Qataris, who have splashed comments across social media.
A Twitter hashtag, #ThankYouHamad, appeared as users thanked the outgoing emir for turning Qatar from a small backwater to a global centre since he took power in 1995.
This will be the fourth time in Qatar's history that an emir has transferred power peacefully either to a son or brother.