The Battle That Sealed the Deal: The Battle of Al Wajba (1893)
Battle scene from a reconstruction of the battle of Al Wajbah.
The year is 1893, and Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, the second Emir of Qatar, has found himself in a catch-22. He can either give himself up to the Ottomans and resign as ruler of Qatar, which would mean the end to any autonomy and renewed rule by the Ottomans, or he could refuse and risk the life of his brother Sheikh Ahmed, as well as 15 tribal elders, currently being held captive by the Ottomans at sea. What is he going to do?
The Ottomans Attempt to Consolidate Control in Qatar
Rewind 22 years to 1871, and Medhat Pasha, the Ottoman governor of Al Ihsaa, (the name for the region extending from Basra, through the Arabian Peninsula, to the south of Oman prior to independence from the Ottomans and the British), had sent an expedition of Ottoman soldiers to Qatar, in an effort to consolidate Ottoman influence in the country.
Sheikh Jassim, who at that time acted as deputy to the Emir Sheikh Mohammed bin Thani, agreed that the Ottomans could have limited presence in Qatar and welcomed them by allowing them to establish their headquarters in the fort at Al Bidda'. In return, Medhat Pasha granted Sheikh Jassim the post of governor of Qatar.
Relations Become Strained
However, when Sheikh Jassim took over as Emir in 1878, relations between Qatar and the Ottoman Empire became increasingly strained. Like any imperialist empire, the Ottomans wanted more and more control over their territory and they were not happy with the friendship which had flowered between Sheikh Jassim and the British. It was a threat to their presence and their influence, and the Ottomans felt that they were losing control.
In an effort to consolidate their control, in 1893 Medhat Pasha sent Sheikh Jassim a letter expressing his desire to increase troop presence in Qatar. Sheikh Jassim was no fool; he knew that the Ottomans were trying their best to take complete control over his country. When he refused, Medhat Pasha replied and demanded that Sheikh Jassim resign from his post as governor of Qatar. The Sheikh agreed to resign on condition that his brother, Sheikh Ahmed, should be given his post.
Things Turn for the Worse
Medhat Pasha was not satisfied with the Sheikh's proposal and wrote back refusing Sheikh Jassim's offer and demanding once more that the Sheikh resign. Resilient, the Sheikh refused once more. The Pasha then wrote him a letter demanding that the Sheikh give himself up and surrender by meeting the Ottomans on their fleet which lay off the coast of Doha nearby the fort at Al Bidda'.
Sheikh Jassim knew that this meeting spelt trouble, and that if he went on that barge, he may never leave it. So, he decided the best thing to do was to send his brother Sheikh Ahmed on his behalf as well as fifteen tribal elders to support him, in the hope that the men would be able to negotiate with the Ottomans.
Once on board, Sheikh Ahmed and the fifteen tribal elders were held captive. The decision was in Sheikh Jassim's hands: give himself up or risk the lives of his brother and the fifteen sheikhs.
A Tough Decision
Qatar had come far in establishing autonomy for itself; if the Sheikh gave up now and surrendered to the Ottomans, Qatar would be taking a step backwards and be plunged once more under the control of a foreign empire; she might never see independence. If he did not give himself up, his brother and the fifteen sheikhs could die, and his people would be fuming. There were at least 3000 Ottoman soldiers on the naval fleet, and additional soldiers on land at the fort of Al Bidda'. Did he even have enough men to go to war with the Ottomans? Sheikh Jassim was getting older; was he physically fit enough to fight? It was a tough decision and a precarious situation.
The Battle Commences
On March 25 1893, Sheikh Jassim made his decision. Men from all tribes, Bedu and non-Bedu came together and rode out that day with Sheikh Jassim on horseback to face the Ottoman army at the fort at Al Wajba, some fifteen kilos east of Doha. We do not have exact numbers of how many Qatari men went to fight that day, but what we do know is that the Ottoman army outnumbered them.
The sun glares down over the desert sands and in the eyes of Sheikh Jassim and his men who have gathered together, having arrived on horseback, camel and foot, to aid their Emir and fight for their country. They size up their enemy, who are equipped with more sophisticated weaponry, rifles, pistols and canons, while most of them bear nothing but their trusty swords. Here they stand, these courageous and patriotic men, waiting for the Sheikh's orders to charge.
Sheikh Jassim and his men charged at the Ottoman army. As in any battle, men died and became Qatar's martyrs. Within no time, Sheikh Jassim and his men conquered the fort at Al Wajba. Many of the Ottoman soldiers, afraid of the might of Sheikh Jassim and his men, fled terrified to seek sanctuary at the fort of Wadi Al-Shaqab, which lay between Al Wajba and Doha.
On charged Sheikh Jassim and his men to the fort of Wadi Al-Shaqab where the Ottoman soldiers surrendered and were held captive by the Qataris. Some of the Sheikh's men rode on to the Ottoman camp in Mushereib where they took the Ottoman soldiers captive. Panicking, Medhat Pasha sent a message offering to release Sheikh Ahmed and the fifteen sheikhs if Sheikh Jassim would release his soldiers.
A Victory for Sheikh Jassim
Sheikh Jassim's decision to ride out that day with his fellow Qatari men and face the Ottoman army was a risky one, but his plan had worked. He had taken the Ottomans by surprise, and unprepared, the Ottoman soldiers were quickly defeated and taken captive. Now, an exchange could be made and he could get his brother and the fifteen sheikhs returned safely.
The soldiers were released and Sheikh Ahmed and the fifteen sheikhs came home. A short time later, the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hameed sent Sheikh Jassim apologizing for what had happened and for the misconduct of Medhat Pasha. Ottoman captains were sent from Basra to Qatar to give Sheikh Jassim letters of apology and gifts.
But the greatest gift of all was the victory he had won and the increased love and support of his people. And what followed was a reign of peace, stability and prosperity. The Ottomans stayed on in the region with limited presence for another twenty years until the Ottoman Empire crumbled at the outbreak of the First World War.
Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani is considered the founder of modern Qatar. Al Wajba, which is in Al Rayyan, is now the current home of the Emir's palace.