Book Review: The Emergence of Qatar
The Emergence of Qatar: The Turbulent Years 1627-1916
by Habibur Rahman
If you are interested in more than a brief account of Qatar's history, this book will be a lifeline. The only other detailed source of information about Qatar's history that I have seen is the records of correspondence by the British - along with some accompanying commentary - which is kept in Qatar's national library. Rahman himself states that his is the first to have covered this period in depth.
Rahman starts in the period after the Portugese bombardment of Qatar. After a brief coverage of the history of Qatar up to 1627 - I would have liked a longer one, if only because it is so difficult to find elsewhere - the book details the internal and external strife of Qatar from the arrival of the Al Khalifas and their invasion of Bahrain to the final signing of the much delayed treaty of protection between Qatar and Britain in 1916.
Particularly interesting is the account of Rahman Bin Jaber, a maritime adventurer who raided the ships of many countries at one time or another, although he was always sensible enough to remain friendly to the British. The book's account of his life is the most detailed I have seen, and of course it contains an account of his famous death, when he was fighting and losing a sea battle against Bahrain:
"Having, therefore given orders for his vessel to grapple with the enemy, he took his youngest son (a fine boy about eight years old) in his arms and seizing a lighted match, directed his attendants to lead him down to the magazine. Although acquainted with the determined character of their chief, and of course aware of the inevitable destruction which awaited them, his commands were instantly obeyed, and in a few seconds the sea was covered the scattered timbers of the exploded vessel, and the miserable remains of Rahman Bin Jaber and his devoted followers."
(Samuel Hennell, Acting Resident in the Gulf, quoted in The Emergence of Qatar)
The book has a wealth of detail, and I was happy that it cleared up details that I had previously found confusing. For example, I have never understood why many sources stated that Doha was founded in 1850's while other sources reported that it was bombed by the British in the 1820's. The answer, it seems, is that present day Doha emerged from three seperate villages. Al Bidda (now an alterntive name for Doha) which was certainly around before the start of the nineteenth century, was the oldest. The other two villages, Doha and Little Doha, were both established around 1850, and were within a kilometer of Al Bidda.
For some readers the detail may prove too much. The book has an academic leaning, and the pages detailing negotiations leading up to treaties may be worth skipping for those with a general interest in Qatar.
Names of places and tribes are also difficult to keep track of, and perhaps a glossary of names could have been added to the glossary of terms at the beginning of the book - this would have saved me scanning through about 20 pages trying to work out who the Qassimi were.
I also felt that the book was a little dry - I would have liked it if the book had been a little broader in scope, covering not just the politics and wars of the time, but how people lived, thought and fought at the time.
In fairness this was not the aim of a book, quite academic in tone, which covers the events leading up to Qatar becoming a protectorate. And, at times, you do get an intriguing glance into how people thought. One such glimpse was Shaikh Jassim's thoughts, at a time when he was searching for a suitable here, on what qualities his heir would requite:
"...the ruler of Doha should at once be both a solider and a statesman, able to beat out the tribes and to march long distances whenever necessary, and while in Doha to keep order in the town, to remain conciliatory with the different tribes and to keep himself out of playing in the hands of the Turks."
Habibur is perhaps the ideal person to write this book. He currently works for the Historical Documents and Research Division at the National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage for the Government of Qatar, and before this worked in the office of HH the Amir of the State of Qatar for over two decades, and has visited almost all of the historical sites of Qatar. He is currently working on a second volume as a follow up to the Emergence of Qatar.