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The flag of the State of Qatar. The maroon color symbolizes the blood shed in the Qatari wars, while white stands for peace.

One of the tiniest Arabic-speaking countries is Qatar, just off the northern coast of Saudi Arabia. Officially known as the State of Qatar, this small peninsula nation is known as being one of the richest countries in the Middle Eastern region. This is primarily due to the country’s oil and natural gas reserves, which are the largest per capita in the world. In addition, Qatar consistently has one of the world’s highest gross domestic products, per capita. However, previous to their massive oil production, Qatar was considered one of the poorest countries in the Middle East.

Qatar is strategically positioned next to some very large oil reserves in the Persian Gulf. The landmass of the country juts north off from the Arabian Peninsula nearly one-hundred miles. At its widest point the peninsula is just over fifty-five miles wide. The majority of Qatar’s terrain is flat, rocky, and extremely arid. However, there are several substantial sand dunes along the southeast coast and also some prominent limestone deposits along the western coast. Although the region is primarily desert- less than two percent of the country’s landmass is arable- there are some very minute places where sturdy forms of vegetation may grow. These regions are primarily on the eastern coast of Qatar.

Map of the State of Qatar

It was just off the southeastern coast that some of the first evidence of human civilization within the country was discovered. This site at Shagra dates to the sixth millennium BCE. Indication of pottery and small tools are present within the settlement as well as rock carvings and burial mounds. Also, archaeologists have found proof of a simple trade economy with civilizations to the north- primarily those that were present in modern-day Iraq.

Other than small, seasonal settlements there were few permanent residents on the peninsula. The majority of peoples found in the area were nomads from the Saudi Arabia region. Additionally, there have been a few settlements found along the coast that show a presence of Greco-Roman fishermen that may have also used the peninsula as a temporary site to prepare and store their catches.

It was not until after the rise of Islam that the Abbasid Dynasty came into power during the late eighth century CE and a rise in settlements took place. It was also during this time that the Qatari tradition of pearling began. Most of these pearling settlements were located along the eastern portion of the country. Along with pearling, the people on the peninsula at this time also dealt in another luxury item- purple dye. Under the Abbasids, there was also a fairly large transportation of slaves into the area. The majority of these people were transported from the East African region.

Flat, arid landscapes such as this create the majority of central Qatar.

The Abbasid Empire declined in the thirteenth century and by the sixteenth, Qatar was under control of the Portuguese. Portugal also had control of several other areas in the region. This was primarily due to their discovery of the trade route around the southern tip of Africa in 1498. The route opened up trade between Europe and India, therefore diminishing the role of the Middle East merchants as mediators between the two regions. Persian control of the region remained until 1650, when they were finally defeated by soldiers under an alliance between the Persians and the British. For the rest of the seventeenth century trade in the Gulf was dominated by the British and Dutch East India Companies and Persian control over Qatari cities rose, while Ottoman control in the region declined.

During the first half of the eighteenth century a new dynasty had gained control of the eastern Arabian Peninsula- the Bani Khalid. Under their control was the area stretching from Qatar, northward to modern-day Kuwait. Zubara became the administrative center for the entire region. Under the Bani Khalid, there was a movement among the Qatari people to follow a more orthodox strain of Islam. By the early nineteenth century, the Arab control over the region, which was so profitable to the British East India Company, began to threaten their trade monopoly there. The British accused the Sheiks and Sultans of the region of breaking a peace treaty and sent in reinforcements to the city of Doha, which was bombarded and set aflame.

Image of Doha, Qatar's capital city, at night.

Out of this conflict rose a national hero by the name of Sheikh Mohammed bin Thani Al-Thani. He took the position as leader of Qatar and for nearly forty years was able to combat both the British and Ottoman foreign threats. In 1893, Ottoman tensions rose with a surprise attack on the Qatari capital, Doha, which resulted in an overwhelming Qatari victory. Qasim’s rule came to an end when he died in 1913. He was succeeded by his son, Abdullah.

During the First World War, Britain granted protection to the independent state of Qatar, thus putting them under a British protectorate. In return, Qatar pledged neutrality. This relationship helped to protect Qatar throughout World War I. However, it also allowed Britain to gain a strong foothold in the Gulf area. The time between the two World Wars proved to be instrumental in shaping the majority of Qatar’s modern history. Two major developments have changed the politics of the country forever. The first of these was the Japanese invention of synthetic pearls, which decimated the traditional pearling industry of the country. With this critical blow to the economy, Qatar had to find a new industry to turn to. It came in the discovery of oil reserves off the coast of the country in 1932. After a brief interruption by World War II, Qatar began exporting oil in 1949. Since 1952, under agreements with international oil extracting companies, Qatar has been receiving at least fifty percent of the profits from the oil off its shores. This has allowed them country to escape the economic depression that resulted from the loss of its pearling industry.

In 1971, Qatar was officially released from the British protectorate it had been under since the First World War. Originally, Qatar planned on joining a federation with several other Arab nations that would later evolve into the United Arab Emirates. However, the country withdrew and became and independent and sovereign state.

Khalifa International Stadium - one of the venues for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and also home to the 2006 Asian Games.

Since the middle of the nineteenth century, the Al-Thani family has been ruling the country of Qatar. The current Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, who came into power in 1995, is the head of state under an absolute monarchy form of government. Currently, there is no government body that is elected by the people of Qatar, such as a parliament, but there are some movements within the country that suggest at the formation of one in the years to come. The majority of law within Qatar is based upon Muslim tradition. However, unlike some other theocratic states, Qatar is surprisingly liberal in its approach towards equality and civil liberties.

As with many Arabic-speaking countries, Qatar is predominantly Muslim. Yet, there are also several other religions present in the country. Large amounts of the people living with Qatar are not actually Qataris. Rather, they are foreign workers who have immigrated to the country for economic opportunities. Thus, the culture within the country has influences of many cultures. In 2010, Qatar won the bid to host the FIFA World Cup of 2022. Many believe that it will be an opportunity for the country to allow even more diversity within its borders. The acquisition of the 2022 bid is considered by some a remarkable achievement for a country that was less than a century ago one of the poorest countries on the planet. It appears that Qatar, which is today an immensely rich and somewhat powerful nation, has a bright future in the years to come.

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