Historical Background

Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

QATAR IS A SMALL COUNTRY dominated by the Persian Gulf's largest ruling family, the Al Thani. The amir, Shaykh Khalifa ibn Hamad Al Thani, is the country's ruler, but his son, Shaykh Hamad ibn Khalifa Al Thani, in addition to being the heir apparent and minister of defense, wields considerable power in the day-to-day running of the country. The Al Thani regime tolerates no political opposition. The social mores of the country are shaped by a somewhat milder version of Wahhabi Islam than is found in neighboring Saudi Arabia. Women are permitted to drive if they obtain permits, for example, and non-Qatari women need not veil in public.

Occupying a barren peninsula scorched by extreme summer heat, Qatar was transformed between the mid-1960s and the mid-1980s from a poor British protectorate noted mainly for pearling into an independent state with modern infrastructure, services, and industries. The state was built using mostly foreign labor and expertise, with funding from oil revenues. And as in other states where oil dominates the economy, Qatar's fortunes have followed those of the world oil market. The late 1980s and early 1990s were times of relative austerity, with development projects canceled or delayed. But those years were also a period of significant transition when Qatar began its shift from an economy reliant almost entirely on oil to one that would be supported by the exploitation of natural gas from the North Field, the world's largest natural gas field.

The early 1990s also constituted a watershed period in foreign relations because the invasion of Kuwait by Iraq on August 2, 1990, changed regional and world alignments. Qatar sent troops to fight for Kuwait's liberation and, reversing its previous opposition to the presence of foreign forces in the region, permitted United States, Canadian, and French air force fighter aircraft to operate from Doha (also seen as Ad Dawhah). This placed Qatar firmly on the anti-Iraq side of the great rift that split the Arab world after the invasion and weakened the full support for the Palestine Liberation Organization that the country had previously shown.

Human habitation of the Qatar Peninsula dates as far back as 50,000 years, when small groups of Stone Age inhabitants built coastal encampments, settlements, and sites for working flint, according to recent archaeological evidence. Other finds have included pottery from the Al Ubaid culture of Mesopotamia and northern Arabia (ca. 5000 B.C.), rock carvings, burial mounds, and a large town that dates from about 500 B.C. at Wusail, some twenty kilometers north of Doha. The Qatar Peninsula was close enough to the Dilmun civilization (ca. 4000 to 2000 B.C.) in Bahrain to have felt its influence. A harsh climate, lack of resources, and frequent periods of conflict, however, seem to have made it inevitable that no settlement would develop and prosper for any significant length of time before the discovery of oil.

The peninsula was used almost continuously as rangeland for nomadic tribes from Najd and Al Hasa regions in Saudi Arabia, with seasonal encampments around sources of water. In addition, fishing and pearling settlements were established on those parts of the coast near a major well. Until the late eighteenth century, the principal towns were on the east coast--Al Huwayla, Al Fuwayrit, and Al Bida--and the modern city of Doha developed around the largest of these, Al Bida. The population consisted of nomadic and settled Arabs and a significant proportion of slaves brought originally from East Africa.

The Qatar Peninsula came under the sway of several great powers over the centuries. The Abbasid era (750-1258) saw the rise of several settlements, including Murwab. The Portuguese ruled from 1517 to 1538, when they lost to the Ottomans. In the 1760s, the Al Khalifa and the Al Jalahima sections of the Bani Utub tribe migrated from Kuwait to Qatar's northwest coast and founded Az Zubarah. Because the Bani Utub had important trading connections with Kuwait and were close to the rich oyster banks, Az Zubarah became a thriving center of trade and pearling, despite hostilities between the Al Khalifa and the Al Jalahima.

In response to attacks on Az Zubarah by an Omani shaykh who ruled Bahrain from Bushehr in Iran, the Bani Utub of Kuwait and Qatar, as well as some local Qatari tribes, captured Bahrain in 1783. The Al Khalifa claimed sovereignty over Bahrain and ruled it for several years from Az Zubarah. This angered the Al Jalahima, who felt they were deprived of their share of the spoils, and so they moved a few kilometers up the Qatari coast to establish Al Khuwayr, which they used as a staging point for maritime raids against the shipping of the Al Khalifa and the Iranians.

Most of the Al Khalifa migrated to the more desirable location of Bahrain and established a shaykhdom that endures to this day. That they left only a token presence in Az Zubarah meant initially that the Al Jalahima branch of the Bani Utub could achieve ascendancy in Qatar, with their leader, Rahman ibn Jabir Al Jalahima, earning a reputation as one of the most feared raiders on the surrounding waters. It also meant that with the economic decline of Az Zubarah (because the Al Khalifa shifted their trade connections to Bahrain), the peninsula would once more become a relative backwater. With no dominant local ruler, insecurity and rivalry characterized tribal relations. Settled tribes built walled towns, towers, and small forts to keep raiding beduin at bay.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, continuing bloody conflict involved not only the Al Khalifa, the Al Jalahima, and the Iranians but also the Omanis under Sayyid Said ibn Sultan Al Said, the nascent Wahhabis of Arabia, and the Ottomans. The period also saw the rise of British power in the Persian Gulf as a result of their growing interests in India. Britain's desire for secure passage for East India Company ships led it to impose its own order in the gulf. The General Treaty of Peace of 1820 between the East India Company and the shaykhs of the coastal area--which became known as the Trucial Coast because of the series of treaties between the shaykhs and the British-- was a way of ensuring safe passage. The agreement acknowledged British authority in the gulf and sought to end piracy and the kidnapping of slaves. Bahrain also became a party to the treaty, and it was assumed by the British and the Bahrainis that Qatar, as a dependency, was also a party to it.

But when, as punishment for piracy, an East India Company vessel bombarded Doha in 1821, destroying the town and forcing hundreds to flee, the residents had no idea why they were being attacked. The situation remained unsettled in 1867, when a large Bahraini force sacked and looted Doha and Al Wakrah. This attack, and the Qatari counterattack, prompted the British political agent, Colonel Lewis Pelly, to impose a settlement in 1868. His mission to Bahrain and Qatar and the peace treaty that resulted were milestones in Qatar's history because they implicitly recognized the distinctness of Qatar from Bahrain and explicitly acknowledged the position of Muhammad ibn Thani ibn Muhammad, an important representative of the peninsula's tribes. The Al Thani were originally beduin from Najd, but after settling in Qatar, they engaged in fishing, pearling, date palm cultivation, and trade.

With the expansion of the Ottoman Empire into eastern Arabia in 1871, Qatar became vulnerable to occupation. Muhammad ibn Thani opposed Ottoman designs on Qatar, but his son, Qasim ibn Muhammad Al Thani, accepted Ottoman sovereignty in 1872. Although Qasim ibn Muhammad privately complained of the Ottoman presence, he hoped that with Ottoman support he could dominate those shaykhs in other towns who opposed him and rebuff Bahrain's claims on Az Zubarah. The question of Az Zubarah became moot in 1878, however, when Qasim ibn Muhammad destroyed the town as punishment for the piracy of the Naim, a tribe that resided in the north of Qatar but was loyal to the shaykh of Bahrain. Moreover, Qasim ibn Muhammad's ambivalent relations with the Ottomans deteriorated to the point that in 1893 they sent a military force to Doha to arrest him, ostensibly over his refusal to permit an Ottoman customhouse in Doha. Fighting broke out, and Qasim ibn Muhammad's supporters drove out the Ottoman force. This defeat, and Qasim ibn Muhammad's embrace after the turn of the century of the resurgent Wahhabis under Abd al Aziz ibn Saud, marked the de facto end of Ottoman rule in Qatar.

The Ottomans officially renounced sovereignty over Qatar in 1913, and in 1916 the new ruler, Qasim ibn Muhammad's son, Abd Allah ibn Qasim Al Thani, signed a treaty with Britain bringing the peninsula into the trucial system. This meant that in exchange for Britain's military protection, Qatar relinquished its autonomy in foreign affairs and other areas, such as the power to cede territory. The treaty also had provisions suppressing slavery, piracy, and gunrunning, but the British were not strict about enforcing those provisions.

Despite Qatar's coming under British "protection," Abd Allah ibn Qasim was far from secure: recalcitrant tribes refused to pay tribute; disgruntled family members intrigued against him; and he felt vulnerable to the designs of Bahrain, not to mention the Wahhabis. Despite numerous requests by Abd Allah ibn Qasim--for strong military support, for weapons, and even for a loan--the British kept him at arm's length. This changed in the 1930s, when competition (mainly between Britain and the United States) for oil concessions in the region intensified. In a 1935 treaty, Britain made more specific promises of assistance than in earlier treaties in return for the granting of a concession to the Anglo- Persian Oil Company.

The scramble for oil, in turn, raised the stakes in regional territorial disputes and put a dollar value on the question of national borders. In 1936, for example, Bahrain claimed rule over a group of islands, the largest of which is Hawar, on the west coast of Qatar because it had established a small military garrison there. Britain accepted the Bahraini claim over Abd Allah ibn Qasim's objections, in large part because the Bahraini shaykh's personal British adviser was able to frame Bahrain's case in a legal manner familiar to British officials. The question of domain continued in the early 1990s. Triggered by a dispute involving the Naim, the Bahrainis once again laid claim to the deserted town of Az Zubarah in 1937. Abd Allah ibn Qasim sent a large, heavily armed force and succeeded in defeating the Naim. The British political resident in Bahrain supported Qatar's claim and warned Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, the ruler of Bahrain, not to intervene militarily. Bitter and angry over the loss of Az Zubarah, Hamad ibn Isa imposed a crushing embargo on trade and travel to Qatar.

Oil was discovered in Qatar in 1939, but its exploitation was halted between 1942 and 1947 because of World War II and its aftermath. The disruption of food supplies caused by the war prolonged a period of economic hardship in Qatar that had begun in the 1920s with the collapse of the pearl trade and had increased with the global depression of the early 1930s and the Bahraini embargo. As they had in previous times of privation, whole families and tribes moved to other parts of the gulf, leaving many Qatari villages deserted. Even Shaykh Abd Allah ibn Qasim went into debt and, in preparation for his retirement, groomed his favored second son, Hamad ibn Abd Allah Al Thani, to be his successor. Hamad ibn Abd Allah's death in 1948, however, led to a succession crisis in which the main candidates were Abd Allah ibn Qasim's eldest son, Ali ibn Abd Allah Al Thani, and Hamad ibn Abd Allah's teenage son, Khalifa ibn Hamad Al Thani.

Oil exports and payments for offshore rights began in 1949 and marked a turning point in Qatar. Not only would oil revenues dramatically transform the economy and society, but they would also provide the focus for domestic disputes and foreign relations. This became frighteningly clear to Abd Allah ibn Qasim when several of his relatives threatened armed opposition if they did not receive increases in their allowances. Aged and anxious, Abd Allah ibn Qasim turned to the British, promised to abdicate, and agreed, among other things, to an official British presence in Qatar in exchange for recognition and support for Ali ibn Abd Allah as ruler in 1949.

The 1950s saw the cautious development of government structures and public services under British tutelage. Ali ibn Abd Allah was at first reluctant to share power, which had centered in his household, with an infant bureaucracy run and staffed mainly by outsiders. Ali ibn Abd Allah's increasing financial difficulties and inability to control striking oil workers and obstreperous shaykhs, however, led him to succumb to British pressure. The first real budget was drawn up by a British adviser in 1953. By 1954 there were forty-two Qatari government employees.

A major impetus to the development of the British-run police force came in 1956 when about 2,000 demonstrators, who coalesced over issues such as Gamal Abdul Nasser's pan-Arabism and opposition to Britain and to Shaykh Ali ibn Abd Allah's retinue, marched through Doha. This and other demonstrations led Ali ibn Abd Allah to invest the police with his personal authority and support, a significant reversal of his previous reliance on his retainers and beduin fighters.

Public services developed haltingly during the 1950s. The first telephone exchange opened in 1953, the first desalination plant in 1954, and the first power plant in 1957. Also built in this period were a jetty, a customs warehouse, an airstrip, and a police headquarters. In the 1950s, 150 adult males of the Al Thani received outright grants from the government. Shaykhs also received land and government positions. This mollified them as long as oil revenues increased. When revenues declined in the late 1950s, however, Ali ibn Abd Allah could not handle the family pressures this engendered. That Shaykh Ali ibn Abd Allah spent extravagantly, owned a villa in Switzerland, and hunted in Pakistan fueled discontent, especially among those who were excluded from the regime's largesse (non-Al Thani Qataris) and those who were not excluded but thought they deserved more (other branches of the Al Thani). Seniority and proximity to the shaykh determined the size of allowances.

Succumbing to family pressures and poor health, Ali ibn Abd Allah abdicated in 1960. But instead of handing power over to Khalifa ibn Hamad, who had been named heir apparent in 1948, he made his son, Ahmad ibn Ali, ruler. Nonetheless, Khalifa ibn Hamad, as heir apparent and deputy ruler, gained considerable power, in large part because Ahmad ibn Ali, as had his father, spent much time outside the country.

Although he did not care much for governing, Ahmad ibn Ali could not avoid dealing with family business. One of his first acts was to increase funding for the shaykhs at the expense of development projects and social services. In addition to allowances, adult male Al Thani were also given government positions. This added to the antiregime resentment already felt by, among others, oil workers, low-ranking Al Thani, dissident shaykhs, and some leading individuals. These groups formed the National Unity Front in response to a fatal shooting on April 19, 1963, by one of Shaykh Ahmad ibn Ali's nephews. The front called a general strike, and its demands included a reduction of the ruler's privileges, recognition of trade unions, and increased social services. Ahmad ibn Ali cracked down by jailing fifty leading individuals and exiling the front's leaders. He also instituted some reforms, eventually including the provision of land and loans to poor Qataris.

Largely under Khalifa ibn Hamad's guiding hand, the infrastructure, foreign labor force, and bureaucracy continued to grow in the 1960s. There were even some early attempts at diversifying Qatar's economic base, most notably with the establishment of a cement factory, a national fishing company, and small-scale agriculture.

In 1968 Britain announced its intention of withdrawing from military commitments east of Suez, including those in force with Qatar, by 1971. For a while, the rulers of Bahrain, Qatar, and the Trucial Coast contemplated forming a federation after the British withdrawal. A dispute arose between Ahmad ibn Ali and Khalifa ibn Hamad, however, because Khalifa ibn Hamad opposed Bahrain's attempts to become the senior partner in the federation. Still giving public support to the federation, Ahmad ibn Ali nonetheless promulgated a provisional constitution in April 1970, which declared Qatar an independent, Arab, Islamic state with the sharia (Islamic law) as its basic law. Khalifa ibn Hamad was appointed prime minister in May. The first Council of Ministers was sworn in on January 1, 1970, and seven of its ten members were Al Thani. Khalifa ibn Hamad's argument prevailed with regard to the federation proposal. Qatar became an independent state on September 3, 1971. That Ahmad ibn Ali issued the formal announcement from his Swiss villa instead of from his Doha palace indicated to many Qataris that it was time for a change. On February 22, 1972, Khalifa ibn Hamad deposed Ahmad ibn Ali, who was hunting with his falcons in Iran. Khalifa ibn Hamad had the tacit support of the Al Thani and of Britain, and he had the political, financial, and military support of Saudi Arabia.

In contrast to his predecessor's policies, Khalifa ibn Hamad cut family allowances and increased spending on social programs, including housing, health, education, and pensions. In addition, he filled many top government posts with close relatives.

In 1993 Khalifa ibn Hamad remained the amir, but his son, Hamad ibn Khalifa, the heir apparent and minister of defense, had taken over much of the day-to-day running of the country. The two consulted with each other on all matters of importance.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress