The written history of Qatar begins in grand fashion with a mention by the 5th-century Greek historian Herodotus, who identifies the seafaring Canaanites as the original inhabitants of Qatar. Thereafter, however, Qatar appears to be the subject more of conjecture than history. Although there is evidence, in the form of flint spearheads, pottery shards (in the National Museum), burial mounds near Umm Salal Mohammed and the rock carvings of Jebel Jassassiyeh to support the early inhabitation of Qatar (from 4000 BC), the peninsula has surprisingly little to show for its ancient lineage. Take Al-Zubara, for example: the famous ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy tantalisingly includes ‘Qatara’ in his map of the Arab world. This is thought to be a reference to Al-Zubara, Qatar’s main trading port right up until the 19th century. A visitor to the small modern town, however, would have difficulty imagining a dhow (traditional wooden boat) dodging the sandbanks at low tide, let alone a fleet of cargo ships moored in the harbour. Even Al-Zubara Fort, one of only a few in Qatar, was built as recently as 1938 and, although some 9th-century excavations further down the coast have revealed remnants of a sizable city with two mosques and a fort, as well as hints of life in other centuries, the surrounding desert is marked by absence rather than by strong historical presence.
Indeed, what is remarkable about the history of Qatar is not what has been left behind but the almost magical erasure of any visible sign of six thousand years of its human evolution. The history of Qatar, in many respects, is the history of the Bedouin, who traverse a land ‘taking only memories, and leaving only footprints’, footprints that are dusted away by frequent sandstorms. As such, history in Qatar is easier to spot in the living rather than the dead, for example, by the avid racing of camels at Al-Shahaniya, the trading of falcons in the Doha souqs, the hospitality towards guests in the coffeehouses of the city, and the building of camps (albeit with TV aerials and 4WDs) in the sand dunes of Khor al-Adaid.
Documents indicate that Qatar played an important role in the early spread of Islam through the assembling of a naval fleet used to transport the warriors of the Holy Jihad. Again, however, Islam is carried rather more stoutly in the conservatism of the modern people than in any monuments to that era. Even the Portuguese, who left forts in every country in the Gulf like modern businessmen leave calling cards, bequeathed only hearsay to Qatar’s coast line. The Turks helped drive out the Portuguese in the 16th century and Qatar remained under the nominal rule of the Ottoman Empire (and the practical governance of local sheikhs) for more than four centuries. Yet the comings and goings of even that great empire have made little impression on Qatar’s sands of time, metaphorically or physically.
Al-Khalifa (the current ruling family of Bahrain) controlled much of the peninsula until the arrival, in the mid-18th century, of the charismatic Al-Thani family, which remains in power to this day. Al-Thani is a branch of the ancient Tamim tribe of central Arabia, thought to have arrived in Qatar from the Gibrin oasis in southern Najd. Originally they were nomadic Bedouins, but the region’s sparse vegetation led them to settle in the peninsula’s coastal areas around Zubara, where they fished and dived for pearls. The first Al-Thani emir, Sheikh Mohammed bin Thani, established his capital at Al-Bida in the mid-19th century, thereby laying the foundations of modern Doha. He strengthened his position against other local tribes by signing a treaty with the British in 1867. In 1872 the second Al-Thani emir, Jasim, signed a treaty with the Turks allowing them to build a garrison in Doha (Doha Fort). The Turks were expelled under the third Al-Thani emir, Sheikh Abdullah (the emir who lived in the palace that now houses the National Museum), after Turkey entered WWI on the opposite side to Britain. Thereafter, the British guaranteed Qatar’s protection in exchange for a promise that the ruler would not deal with other foreign powers without British permission – an agreement that endured until independence was proclaimed on 1 September 1971.
Qatar’s history from WWI to the end of the 20th century reads rather like a fairy tale. Life in Qatar, even before the collapse of the pearl market in the 1930s, was marked by widespread poverty, malnutrition and disease. The arrival of oil prospectors and the establishment in 1935 of Petroleum Development Qatar, a forerunner of today’s state-run Qatar General Petroleum Corporation (QGPC), signalled the beginning of a brave new world, even though WWII delayed production of oil for another 10 years. Although not huge in comparative terms, the oil revenue instantly turned the tiny, impoverished population into one of the richest per capita countries in the world. Qatar’s first school opened in 1952 and a full-scale hospital followed in 1959, marking the beginning of long-term investment in the country’s modernisation. Most of these improvements occurred under the leadership not of Sheikh Abdullah’s son Ali, nor his grandson Ahmed, but under that of his nephew Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, who, over a period of 15 years, ran many of the country’s ministries, including foreign affairs, oil and the police. On 22 February 1972 Khalifa ousted his politically apathetic kinsmen in a palace coup. Astutely, one of his first gestures was to crack down on the extravagance of the royal household. Celebrating the stability that his reign and increasing oil prices brought to Qatar, Sheikh Khalifa invested in one of the world’s great, all-encompassing welfare states.
In June 1995, while holidaying in Switzerland, Sheikh Khalifa was unexpectedly replaced as emir by his son Hamad. Since assuming power, the popular new emir has accelerated the modernisation of the country through political and institutional reforms. These have included allowing women to drive and vote, encouraging education and training, and opening the country to tourism.
In 2001 Qatar hosted the World Trade Organization Conference and major development in the form of hotels and infrastructure was undertaken for the 15th Asian Games in 2006. Qatar is a member of the UN, the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the Arab League, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). As such, within the space of 70 years, Qatar has emerged from the virtual anonymity of its past to become a regional force to be reckoned with. Monuments to that achievement are found symbolically in the country’s modern infrastructure and its social welfare programmes. But also, perhaps for the first time in its history, they’re also found in a tangible, physical sense, by the growing ring of magnificent buildings that grace Doha’s corniche, and in the high-profile events that the country hosts, such as the Asian Games of 2006.