History of Qatar

Mother Earth Travel > Country Index > Qatar > Map Economy History

Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates have assumed added prominence as a result of Operation Desert Shield in 1990 and the Persian Gulf War in 1991. These states share certain characteristics while simultaneously differing from one another in various respects. Islam has played a major role in each of the Persian Gulf states, although Kuwait and Bahrain reflect a greater secular influence than the other three. Moreover, the puritanical Wahhabi Sunni sect prevails in Qatar; Bahrain has a majority population of Shia, a denomination of the faith that constitutes a minority in Islam as a whole; and the people of Oman represent primarily a minor sect within Shia Islam, the Ibadi.

The beduin heritage also exerts a significant influence in all of the Persian Gulf states. In the latter half of the twentieth century, however, a sense of national identity increasingly has superseded tribal allegiance. The ruling families in the Persian Gulf states represent shaykhs of tribes that originally settled particular areas; however, governmental institutions steadily have taken over spheres that previously fell under the purview of tribal councils.

Historically, Britain exercised a protectorate at least briefly over each of the Persian Gulf states. This connection has resulted in the presence of governmental institutions established by Britain as well as strong commercial and military ties with it. Sources of military matériel and training in the late 1980s and early 1990s, however, were being provided by other countries in addition to Britain.

Because of the extensive coastlines of the Persian Gulf states, trade, fishing, shipbuilding, and, in the past, pearling have represented substantial sources of income. In the early 1990s, trade and, to a lesser extent, fishing, continued to contribute major amounts to the gross domestic product of these states.

Of the five states, Oman has the least coastal area on the Persian Gulf because its access to that waterway occurs only at the western tip of the Musandam Peninsula, separated from the remainder of Oman by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Partly as a result of this limited contact with the gulf and partly because of the mountains that cut off the interior from the coast, Oman has the most distinctive culture of the five states.

In general, the gulf has served as a major facilitator of trade and culture. The ancient civilization of Dilmun, for example, in present-day Bahrain existed as early as the fourth millennium B.C.

The Persian Gulf, however, also constitutes a ready channel for foreign conquerors. In addition to Britain, over the centuries the gulf states have known such rulers as the Greeks, Parthians, Sassanians, Iranians, and Portuguese. When England's influence first came to the area in 1622, the Safavid shah of Iran sought England's aid in driving the Portuguese out of the gulf.

Britain did not play a major role, however, until the early nineteenth century. At that time, attacks on British shipping by the Al Qasimi of the present-day UAE became so serious that Britain asked the assistance of the ruler of Oman in ending the attacks. In consequence, Britain in 1820 initiated treaties or truces with the various rulers of the area, giving rise to the term Trucial Coast.

The boundaries of the Persian Gulf states were considered relatively unimportant until the discovery of oil in Bahrain in 1932 caused other gulf countries to define their geographic limits. Britain's 1968 announcement that in 1971 it would abandon its protectorate commitments east of the Suez Canal accelerated the independence of the states. Oman had maintained its independence in principle since 1650. Kuwait, with the most advanced institutions--primarily because of its oil wealth--had declared its independence in 1961. Bahrain, Qatar, and the UAE followed suit in 1971. In the face of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, all of the Persian Gulf states experienced fears for their security. These apprehensions led to their formation, together with Saudi Arabia, of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in May 1981.

In preparation for independence, Qatar enacted a provisional constitution in 1970 that created an Advisory Council, partly elected. Twenty members are selected by the ruler from nominees voted in each of ten electoral districts; fifteen members are appointed directly by the ruler. In January 1992, fifty leading Qataris petitioned the ruler for an elected council "with legislative powers" and "a permanent constitution capable of guaranteeing democracy and determining political, social, and economic structures"; as of early 1994, no action had been taken on these requests. Governmental control has clearly remained in Al Thani hands; in January 1994, ten of eighteen members of the Council of Ministers belonged to the family.

Exploitation of the oil discovered in Qatar in 1939 was delayed until after World War II. The petroleum industry has grown steadily, and in 1991 the North Field natural gas project was inaugurated; the North Field, a 6,000-square-kilometer offshore field considered to be the world's largest, extends slightly into Iranian territorial waters. The Qatari government, however, has sought to encourage diversification and investment in such industries as steel, fertilizers, and petrochemicals. The work force is predominantly foreign; in 1992 Qataris were estimated to represent only 20 percent of the approximately 484,000 total population.

In part because most Qataris belong to the Wahhabi sect that originated in the Arabian Peninsula, Qatar historically has enjoyed close relations with Saudi Arabia, with which it settled its 1992 border dispute in 1993. Although Qatar supported Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88, it subsequently improved its relations with Iran, undoubtedly in part because of its shared gas field. As a GCC member, Qatar sent forces against Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War but continued to maintain a diplomatic link with Iraq. Qatar's relations with the United States improved following Operation Desert Storm, and the two countries signed a defense cooperation agreement in June 1992 that includes a provision for the pre-positioning of supplies.

The Persian Gulf War brought with it the realization that the GCC was inadequate to provide the gulf states with the defense they required. As a result, most of the states sought defense agreements with the United States, Britain, France, and Russia, more or less in that order. Concurrently, the gulf countries have endeavored to improve the caliber and training of their armed forces and the interoperability of military equipment through joint military exercises both within the GCC framework and with Western powers. The United States has sought to complement GCC collective security efforts and has stated that it does not intend to station forces permanently in the region.

At a November 1993 meeting, GCC defense ministers made plans to expand the Saudi-based Peninsula Shield forces, a rapid deployment force, to 25,000. The force is to have units from each GCC state, a unified command, and a rotating chairmanship. The ministers also agreed to spend up to US$5 billion to purchase three or four more AWACS aircraft to supplement the five the Saudi air force already has and to create a headquarters in Saudi Arabia for GCC defense purposes. The UAE reportedly considered the proposed force increase insufficient; furthermore, Oman sought a force of 100,000 members.

In addition to these efforts, directed at the military aspects of national security, declining oil revenues for many of the states and internal sectarian divisions also have led the gulf countries to institute domestic efforts to strengthen their national security. Such efforts entail measures to increase the role of citizens in an advisory governmental capacity, to allow greater freedom of the press, to promote economic development through diversification and incentives for foreign investment, and to develop infrastructure projects that will increase the standard of living for more sectors of the population, thereby eliminating sources of discord. The ruling families hope that such steps will promote stability, counter the possible appeal of radical Islam, and ultimately strengthen the position of the ruling families in some form of limited constitutional monarchy.

SOURCE: Country Studies/Area Handbook by the US Library of Congress

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