The Al Thani

Persian Gulf States Table of Contents

In the early 1990s, the Al Thani ruling family comprised three main branches: the Bani Hamad, headed by Khalifa ibn Hamad (r. 1972- ); the Bani Ali, headed by Ahmad ibn Ali; and the Bani Khalid, headed by Nasir ibn Khalid (minister of economy and commerce in 1984). The family had 20,000 members, according to one estimate.

The two preindependence rulers, Ali ibn Abd Allah (r. 1949- 60) and his son, Ahmad ibn Ali (r. 1960-72), had no particular interest in supervising daily government, content to hunt in Iran and Pakistan and spend time at their villa in Switzerland. Thus, somewhat by default, those duties were assumed, beginning in the 1950s, by Ahmad ibn Ali's cousin, Khalifa ibn Hamad, the heir apparent and deputy ruler. By 1971 Khalifa ibn Hamad not only had served as prime minister but also had headed the ministries or departments of foreign affairs, finance and petroleum, education and culture, and police and internal security.

On February 22, 1972, with the support of the Al Thani, Khalifa ibn Hamad assumed power as ruler of Qatar. Western sources frequently refer to the event as an overthrow. Qataris regarded Khalifa ibn Hamad's assumption of full power as a simple succession because leading members of the Al Thani had declared Khalifa ibn Hamad the heir apparent on October 24, 1960, and it was their consensus that Ahmad ibn Ali should be replaced.

The reasons for the transfer of power were not entirely clear. Khalifa ibn Hamad reportedly stated that his assumption of power was intended "to remove the elements that tried to hinder [Qatar's] progress and modernization." Khalifa ibn Hamad has consistently attempted to lead and to control the process of modernization caused by the petroleum industry boom and the concomitant influx of foreigners and foreign ideas so that traditional mores and values based on Islam can be preserved. He and other influential members of the ruling family are known to have been troubled by the financial excesses of many members of the Al Thani. Ahmad ibn Ali reportedly drew one-fourth, and the entire Al Thani between one-third and one-half, of Qatar's oil revenues in 1971. The new ruler severely limited the family's financial privileges soon after taking power.

Family intrigue may also have played a part in the change of rulers. Factionalism and rivalries are not uncommon, particularly in families as large as the Al Thani. Western observers have reported rumors that Khalifa ibn Hamad acted to assume power when he learned that Ahmad ibn Ali might be planning to substitute his son, Abd al Aziz, as heir apparent, a move that would have circumvented the declared consensus of the Al Thani.

The Merchant Families

The merchant sector in Qatar differed from other gulf Arab countries before the exploitation of oil in its small size (Doha was an insignificant port compared with ports in Kuwait, Bahrain, or Dubayy), in the absence of foreigners (the Indians were forced out in the late 1800s, leaving Qatar the only gulf amirate without Indians until the 1950s), and in the dominant role of a single family, the Al Thani. Although there were merchants before oil, there was no merchant class as in Dubayy or Kuwait. Two important families before oil were the Darwish and the Al Mana, who made their living through trade, pearling, and smuggling and who competed for favor with the ruler. The Darwish and the Al Mana maintained their influence by trading loans and advice to the shaykh for monopolies and concessions.

With the arrival of Petroleum Development (Qatar), the Darwish reaped huge profits through their monopoly on supplying labor, housing, water, and goods to the oil company. This monopoly ended, however, when workers, small merchants, and antiBritish Qataris used Abd Allah Darwish, the patriarch of the Darwish family, as one of several convenient targets for an antiregime strike in 1956. By this time, however, with oil revenues growing, the shaykh could remove himself from financial dependence on the merchants, who lost a measure of political influence.

A series of citizenship and commercial laws promulgated in the 1960s helped to channel economic benefits in the direction of Qatari nationals in general and the merchants and ruling family in particular. Only Qataris were permitted to own land, for example, and companies were required to be at least 51 percent Qatari owned. In the 1970s, some laws were enacted that worked against merchant interests by limiting prices and profits.

As they had before the discovery of oil, the Al Thani continued engaging in trade and in other enterprises. Sometimes they used their family connections to win lucrative contracts for themselves or for firms in which they had more common business partners, such as the Jaidah, the Attiyah, and the Mannai families.


Because no public dissent is tolerated in Qatar, opposition usually manifests itself in royal family intrigue or behind-the- scenes grumbling by aggrieved parties. The apparent public tranquillity is cultivated by the amir and by the private but closely controlled media. Incidents in the 1980s, however, demonstrated that opposition to the regime existed.

In September 1983, for example, a conspiracy to assassinate the ruler or a GCC head of state was uncovered by Qatari authorities, and seventy people were arrested. Contradictory press reports said that either some military people were involved or that the plot reflected a squabble among members of the ruling family. Qatari security forces learned of the plot from Egyptian intelligence via the Saudi Arabians. Informed that the plotters were backed by Libya, Qatar declared the Libyan chargé d'affaires persona non grata. The target of the plot, according to conflicting reports, was either Shaykh Khalifa ibn Hamad or GCC heads of state who were coming to Doha for a November summit. Since then, there have been other reported assassination attempts.

In August 1985, it was reported that Shaykh Suhaym ibn Hamad Al Thani, one of the amir's brothers, disappointed that the position of crown prince was given to Shaykh Khalifa ibn Hamad's son, Hamad ibn Khalifa, plotted a coup and maintained a cadre of supporters and a cache of weapons in the north of the country. When Shaykh Suhaym ibn Hamad died suddenly, his sons blamed Minister of Information and Culture Ghanim al Kuwari for not responding promptly to the call for medical help. After supporters of Suhaym ibn Hamad and his sons attempted to kill Ghanim al Kuwari, they were imprisoned.

Soon after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Palestinians and Iraqis living in Qatar came under intense government scrutiny. Dozens were deported, and many more were forced to leave after their contracts were not renewed.


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Source: U.S. Library of Congress