Life in Qatar
A “Lonely Planet” Introduction to Qatar
For most of its recorded history, Qatar has been dominated by the Al-Thani family, who arrived in the mid-18th century, when Qatar was already well established as a pearling centre, and became the peninsula's rulers about 100 years later. Historically, Doha (now the capital) was never a particularly important trading port, and throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries Qatar remained shockingly poor, even by pre-oil Gulf standards. Places like Zubara were so hotly contested precisely because they controlled access to the one thing which provided enough money to feed the local populace: the pearl beds.
Qatar's first Al-Thani Emir established his capital at Doha in the mid-19th century. To strengthen his position vis-??-vis the other tribes in the area, he signed a treaty with Britain in 1867. He and his son who followed became masters at maintaining their independence by playing the British off against the Turks. In 1872 the Emir signed a treaty with the Turks allowing them to place a garrison in Doha. Over the years the small Turkish garrison began to seem more destabilizing than reassuring. The garrison was forced to be withdrawn from Qatar in 1915, after Turkey entered WWI on the side of Germany.
With Britain and Turkey on opposite sides in WWI, and the British controlling the rest of the Gulf, switching alliances seemed like a wise move, especially since Qatar had to worry about the founder and future king of Saudi Arabia, who was then in the process of conquering most of eastern Arabia. After expelling the Turks, Qatar's Emir signed an exclusive agreement with the British in 1916, under which Britain guaranteed Qatar's protection in exchange for a promise that the ruler would not have any dealings with other foreign powers without British permission.
Even before the collapse of the pearl market around 1930, life in Qatar was rough. With poverty, hunger and disease all widespread, the Emir welcomed oil prospectors who first arrived in the early 1930s. A concession was granted in 1935 and the prospectors struck oil in 1939. Because of WWII, however, production did not begin for another 10 years. At that point things began to move very quickly.
Qatar's oil reserves were not huge, but the country's tiny population had plenty of cash to go around. Much of the early revenue went to modernizing the country: the first school opened in 1952 and health care facilities were upgraded. The injection of funds did wonders for the Emirs' lifestyle, and from the mid-1950s, successive Emirs took less and less interest in government and more and more interest in falconry, jet-setting and fancy cars. Despite this, the amount of wealth, more or less evenly distributed, blunted the political interests of most Qataris, and there were few calls for democracy or an end to the monarchy.
When the British announced that they would leave the region by the end of 1971, Qatar entered talks with Bahrain and the Trucial States (now the United Arab Emirates) with the intention of forming a confederation. When Bahrain pulled out of the talks, Qatar followed suit almost immediately, declaring independence on 1 September 1971. Six months later Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, a cousin of the Emir and for many years Qatar's ruler in all but title, took power in a palace coup. The years following the coup were marked by political stability and, as was the case throughout the Gulf, the dramatic rise in oil prices in 1974 gave the government more than enough money to build one of the world's great all-encompassing welfare states.
Since independence, Qatar has retained its close defense ties with Britain and has increased defense cooperation with both the US and France. For many years Qatar's foreign policy followed the lead of Saudi Arabia, but in the 1990s that began to change. Doha ruffled some feathers around the Gulf by seeking closer ties with Iran. In 1993 Qatar became the first Gulf country to have open diplomatic contact with Israel and then in 1995 to start an economic relationship with the Jewish state, agreeing to supply Tel Aviv with natural gas. In June 1995 Emir Shaikh Khalifa was unexpectedly deposed by his son Hamad, until then the crown prince and defense minister, in a bloodless coup. The new Emir quickly won widespread foreign and domestic support for his regime; his father eventually returned to public coffers US$3.6 million he'd squirreled away as Emir in a gesture interpreted as grudging support for Hamad's policies.
Shaikh Hamad continues to establish Qatar as a maverick voice within the Gulf. He lifted official censorship of the press, although prudent journalists exercise some self-censorship, particularly when covering the royal family. Despite a difficult relationship with former Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, Qatar managed to maintain diplomatic relations with Israel, as well as Iran and Iraq. The May 1998 election of the 18-member Chamber of Commerce and Industry, prestigious positions that had been subject to the emir's appointment alone since independence, marked Qatar's first exercise in democracy. Although only a fraction of the population registered to vote, women not only cast their ballots but ran for office in the historic 1999 elections; all six ladies lost, but did manage to usher in a new political era along the way.
Qatar only began issuing tourist visas in 1989, but after a slow start Qatar has begun to reap the benefits of its new openness. Visitors are welcomed to a land of glitzy new hotels, towering sand dunes, ancient rock carvings and distinctive architecture.
Best known for being unknown, Qatar has a habit of falling off the world's radar. Most foreign maps of Arabia drawn before the 19th century don't show the Qatar peninsula, and most people in the West don't even know where it is. Fewer still can pronounce it (somewhere between 'cutter' and 'gutter').