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Qatar History

The History of Qatar: An Overview

Qatar: From Ancient Times to the Present

An overview of Qatar's history with links to more detailed resources

Early History

Arrow Heads
Arrowheads
discovered in Qatar

While little is known of the early history of Qatar, many exciting discoveries have been made recently that have been pushing at the frontiers of our knowledge. One theory is that Qatar, as well as much of the rest of the Middle East, had a much more moderate climate than it does today. This theory has been backed up by the recent discovery of hunting tools on what is thought to be a freshwater lake in Qatar. Certainly, the large animals thought to have been hunted with these tools could not have survived without access to water and vegetation.

These discoveries are also exciting because, if the dating is correct, they are pushing back the dates of the first people to be in Qatar. The tools - as well as dwellings that have also been discovered - are thought to be between 700,000 and 800,000 years old.

Early inhabitants may have been hunter gatherers, gathering what plants and killing what animals they could. As the climate of the country changed, these nomads would have had to adapt survive: perhaps abandoning cattle and domesticating cattle to become the Bedouin of Arabia.

Ancient seals used in the time of Dilmun

Dilmun Seals
By Desert Island Boy

Ancient Cultures

It is now thought that Qatar was not continuously inhabited, but ancient cultures have at least touched on the country. It was probably a part of Dilmun, a bronze age kingdom which is thought to have had a base in nearby Bahrain. Later on a small island was used in the bay of Al Khor to produce purple die: the colour used by royalty. Qatar was also visited by Nomadic tribes from the Najd and Al Hasa regions in Saudi Arabia, who took advantages of its water.

For more information see Qatar's Early History

Religion in Qatar

Prior to Islam idolatry thrived in the Middle East. Although there was a notion of a supreme God, each tribe had its own idol, which they would sometimes carry into battle. However, Christianity was also present in the Middle East. We know some nomadic tribes adopted Christianity, with Justin the Martyr speaking of the spread of the faith amongst the tented herdsman. These were joined by Nestorians, probably fleeing from persecution by the Zoroastrians, and by the 6th century Qatar was one of five bishoprics in the Gulf. Qatar also gave rise to Saint Isaac of Qatar (also known as Saint Isaac of Syria, who famously resigned as Bishop of Nineveh in order to spend his life studying the scriptures in the mountains.

Mohammed leading the way to Mekkah.
Mohammed on the
way to Mekkah

In 628 Al-Tamimi, the ruler of Qatar and Bahrain, met an envoy of Mohammed and embraced Islam. At the time, however, there was little conflict between the two Islam and Christianity: indeed Christians and Muslims often fought on the same side against more alien cultures and religions. Numbers must have slowly withered away, perhaps in part due to the higher taxes paid by non-Muslims. See A Haven for Christian Communities in the Gulf Times and Religion in Qatar for more information.

Trade and Commerce in Qatar

While Qatar never seems to have been much more than a backwater during these times, trade and commerce did grow, and during the time of the Ummayads (661- 750 AD) it became a famous center of breeding. The Abbayad period (720 - AD) also saw the start of the pearl fishing industry which would continue to the middle of the twentieth century.

War between Bahrain and Qatar

Villages along the coast of Qatar were bombed by the Portuguese on their way to invade Bahrain at the start of the 17th century. Rahman, in his book The Emergence of Qatar, argues that it was settlers dislodged from these villages that established the town of Zubara, which soon expanded to become a commercial centre.

The tribes that inhabited Zubara were joined, in 1766, by a tribe from Kuwait called the Al Khalifa, who were escaping from the quarrels with their kinsmen the Al Sabah. The Al Khalifa, not without some fighting, soon became the predominant force in Al Zubara.

An image of an historical fort in Bahrain
Bahrain Fort
by Joe Loe

The growing trade at Zubara became a cause of aggrievement for the Persians, who now controlled Bahrain, and 1777 saw the start of a number of attacks on Bahrain. From December 1782 to May 1783 the Persians blockaded Al Zubara before attacking the town - to their surprise they were roundly defeated. Joined by the Al Saba from Kuwait and a number of Qatar tribes, including Naim bedouin from the interior, the Zubaran invaded Bahrain, forcing the Persians to withdraw after a siege of two months.

That should have been the end of war between Zubara and Bahrain. Unfortunately the Khalifas fell out with the other tribes over the division of the spoils - leading, in one case to a forty year vendetta against them (see Rahmah Al Jaber - Scourge of the Pirate Coast). Nor was Zubara safe. In 1795 Wahabbis from Saudi took the town, partly as a result of Zubara harbouring their enemy and partly due to suspicions as to the purity of the towns folks' Islam, and in 1811, after the withdrawal of the Wahabbi garrison, the town was destroyed by forces from Muscat.

The Birth of the Capital

Bidda was first mentioned in 1765, but at the start of the 19th century it was still little more than a village. This wasn't enough to stop it from being destroyed by the British in 1821, probably for suspected piracy, and from being bombarded in 1841. In the 1840's the Bin Tarif settled in the town before their leader was killed in battle, clearing the way for the leader of Fuwairet, a certain Sahikh Mohammed AL Thani, to move to the area. It is around then also that we hear the name Doha-al-Shagir (little Doha) for the first time, a small little village just yards away from the old town. See the History of Doha for more information.

The Destruction of Doha and the Al Thanis rise to power

In 1867 the son of Mohammed Bin Thani was imprisoned by Bahrain and the Khalifas attacked and sacked the towns of Al Wakra and Doha. This attack broke the terms of a treaty Bahrain had with Britain, as well as disrupting trade - not least because of a Qatari counter attack on Bahrain which lead to a particularly bloody sea battle and a great loss of life. It also lead to a treaty signed with Sheikh Mohammed Bin Thani in which the Sheikh promised not to attack Bahrain. As part of the treaty, all of the tribes in Qatar were sent a note by the British notifying them of the treaty, and warning them against attacking the Al Thanis.

One of the Barzan towers
constructed by Jassim

As Mohammed Bin Thani grew older, his son, Sheikh Jassim, who had previously been imprisoned by the Khalifas, gradually took over his duties, and continued to extend the tribe's influence over the peninsula.

It was Sheikh Jassim who allowed the Ottomans to land in Qatar, against the wishes of his father, a move which worried the British. Relations did not always remain good between Jassim and the Ottomans, and in 1893 Jassim lead the Qataris into battle against the Ottomans, defeating them roundly. Although the Ottomans would not leave Qatar for a number of years (their final date of departure has been given both as 1913 and 1915), this battle is often seen as the origins of the Qatar nation.

See The Rise of the Qatar Ruling Family for more information.

Wahhabism and Qatar

The Al Thani family maintained good relationships with the Wahabbis, which probably contributed to tensions with Bahrain. Indeed, after Bahrain attacked Doha the Wahabbi Emir threatened to attack Bahrain in return. According to the library of congress studies Wahabbi ideas were often popular with the tribes in Qatar, many of whom were Bedouin tribes who would have regularly been crossing what is now the border of Saudi Arabia and Qatar on a regular basis. Jassim embraced Wahabbism after the turn of the century, a move which must have also decreased the risk of invasion from their powerful neighbour.

Treaties with the British

A balck and white picture of Sheikh Mohammed Bin Jassim Al Thani
Sheikh Abdulla,
Jassim's son

By the start of the 20th century both the Qataris and the British were anxious to sign a treaty. On the British side, the Qataris were the only state, if they could be called such at this time, along the Arabian Gulf not to have signed an agreement with Britain, while Qatar was a small fish in an area which was rapidly becoming dominated by the Sauds. The departure of the Ottomans removed the last obstacle to the treaty being signed between the British and Sheikh Abdullah, Bin Jassim Al Thani, Jassim's son, who is pictured to the right.

The treaty promised British protection against attack from the sea, although this still was not sufficient to calm the Qataris' nerves: The Records of Qatar in the Qatar National Library contain letters from the British resident in the area passing on requests from the Qatar emir for weaponry to defend Qatar against the Sauds. The granting of oil concessions in the area gave Qatar more leeway to play with, however, and the Qataris were granted protection from both outside and inside attacks in 1935.

From Poverty to Wealth

Qatar was in many ways a poverty stricken country, whose inhabitants lived out a tough living from the desert or from pearl diving. Raiding was both acceptable and common even in the first half of the twentieth century, with nomad tribes attacking both one another and the towns. Pearl diving in Qatar was little better, and every season there would be fishermen lost at sea. It has been reported that a former ambassador said to an old pearl diver that he must miss the old days; the pearl diver retorted that the ambassador would not have lasted one day in those harsh times. Despite the danger, pearl divers could still make a loss in bad seasons, and things got even worse after the Japanese started to cultivate pearls.

Oil would eventually transform Qatar's economy, but although oil was discovered in 1939, but the war interrupted any development, with the first export not taking place until 1949. While oil production has been declining since the 1980's, Qatar's future wealth has been assured by the 1971 discovery of a 6000 square kilometre offshore gas field.

While Qatar's began to use its oil and gas wealth to fund development of the country, the speed of development increased rapidly after the current Emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani took over the reins of power in 1995. Revenue and investment in Qatar also exploded, with American investment alone rocketing up from around 300 million in 1993, according to an interview with the current Emir, to an estimated 60 billion dollars in 2007.

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