DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Qatar's new ruler emphasized his commitment to the Gulf nation's policies Wednesday, suggesting no major changes in its role as a leading backer for Syrian rebels, even as activists say the civil war's death has surpassed 100,000.
In his first public address since taking a day earlier, the 33-year-old emir, Sheik Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, said the shift in leadership "doesn't mean the challenges and the tests at hand have changed."
Sheik Tamim's decisions will be closely watched for any signs of new priorities in a country that has used vast energy riches to surge on the world stage as a regional political powerhouse. It provided key support for rebel forces in Libya in 2011 and is now a main sponsor of Syrian rebel forces seeking to topple the regime of Bashar Assad.
The new emir mentioned Qatar's support for Palestinians — whose rival factions opened reconciliation talks brokered by Qatar last year — while giving indirect but clear signals that its Syria policies will remain in force by saying Qatar backs the "aspirations of Arab people to live in freedom."
Qatar last week hosted a Syrian opposition conference whose participants included U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Qatar is a hub for the anti-Assad political leadership and played a central role in March in crafting an Arab League decision to transfer Syria's seat to opposition forces.
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that has been tracking the death toll over 27 months of conflict, said it has now tallied more than 100,000 dead in the fighting. The group's count includes 36,661 civilians and 25,407 members of Assad's armed forces.
Sheik Tamim took power Tuesday with the abdication of his 61-year-old father, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in a stunning transition that thrust a new generation into the forefront of Middle Eastern affairs.
The new emir is now expected to move quickly to name his inner circle, possibly putting his own stamp on the top political and diplomatic posts.
The Doha-based Al-Jazeera television — which was founded by Qatar's government — reported that Sheik Tamim will select the country's top domestic affairs official for the powerful prime minister role. The possible choice of Sheik Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani could hint at a greater emphasis on internal issues, such as development projects, after aggressive outward-looking policies and investments.
Al-Jazeera also reported that the emir's choice for foreign minister is likely Khaled al-Attiyah, now the minister of state for foreign affairs.
Qatar has made no official announcements on appointments, but Al-Jazeera is close to the country's leadership and often reflects internal decisions.
Such moves would mark the departure of one of Qatar's most prominent figures, Sheik Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, who served in the dual roles as prime minister and foreign minister and was one of the architects of the country's surge onto the world stage over the past decade.
Sheik Hamad and the former emir are expected to retain important roles behind the scenes.