Little physical evidence remains of Qatar's early history, but the heritage of its semi-nomadic Bedouin population lives on in beloved traditions such as falconry and camel racing. The rise to power of the Al Thani family, which established a capital at Al Bida (now a district of Doha) in the mid-19th century, laid the foundations for the modern country. Still under Al Thani rule, Qatar has been undergoing rapid change over the past two decades, with no sign of stopping.
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 of history. Although there is evidence – in the form of flint spearheads, pottery shards, burial mounds near Umm Salal Mohammed and the Jassasiya Rock Carvings – of the early inhabitation of Qatar (from 4000 BC), the peninsula has surprisingly little to show for its ancient lineage.
Take Al Zubarah, for example: the famous ancient Greek geographer Ptolemy tantalisingly includes ‘Katara’ in his map of the Arab world. This is thought to be a reference to Al Zubarah, 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 ships moored in the harbour. Bar a few minor archaeological remains, the surrounding desert has few historical relics.
The Rise of Islam
The history of Qatar, in many respects, is the history of the Bedouin, who traversed the desert and lived a semi-nomadic life. As such, history in Qatar is easier to spot in the living rather than the dead, for example, in the racing of camels at Al Shahaniya, the trading of falcons in Doha's 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 coastline. 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 made little impression on Qatar’s sands of time, metaphorically or physically.
Al Thani Family Dynasty & the British
The transience of historical record changes in the mid-18th century with the arrival of the charismatic Al Thani family, which remains in power to this day.
A branch of the ancient Tamim tribe of central Arabia, Al Thani were originally nomadic Bedouin, but the region’s sparse vegetation led them to settle in the peninsula’s coastal areas around Zubarah, 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.
Sheikh Mohammed strengthened his position against other local tribes by signing a treaty with the British in 1867. In 1872, the second Al Thani emir, Jasim, allowed the Turks to build a garrison in Doha (Doha Fort), but they were expelled under the third Al Thani emir, Sheikh Abdullah, 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 in 1971.
Rags to Oil Riches
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 to 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 citizens of 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 or his grandson Ahmed but 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.
In 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, Sheikh Khalifa invested in Qatar, particularly in terms of developing an all-encompassing welfare state that provides free education and health care, job opportunities in the public sector and generous pensions for Qatari nationals.
In 2011, Qatar was notable among its regional neighbours for the lack of Arab Spring protests, despite having no elected representatives in government and key government posts being occupied by members of the emir's family. The most likely explanation for Qatar's lack of protests is the ruling family's generosity in spreading the country's wealth and its allowing a degree of (albeit limited) free speech.