Qatar - A Country Overview

A brief overview of Qatar: its geographic location, history, government, climate, security, tourism and international community...

Geography

Qatar is located in the Middle East and has a land border with Saudi Arabia. It consists of a peninsula that juts 160 Km into the Persian Gulf, with a landmass of just under 11,500 Km, making it the 164th largest country in the world. Less than six percent of the landmass is used, or suitable for agriculture, but areas of vegetation exist along the east coast where spices are grown.

The majority of the country consists of low-lying, sand-covered, rocky plains. The highest point in the country is Qurayn Abu al Bawl at 103m above sea level.

To the southeast of the country lies the 'inland sea' of Khor al Adaid, while a range of elevated limestone formations runs from north to south along the west side of the country under the Dukhan oil fields.

Qatar lays claim to the islands of Sheraouh Beshairiya, Al Safliya, Al Aaliyahttp and Halul, which lie approximately 90 Km east of Doha. The Hawar Islands, 1.7 Km off the west coast of the country are the subject of a dispute with Bahrain, which currently administers them.

History

Human remains dating as far back as the 6th millennium BC have been discovered in the Shagra site in Qatar.

Islam arrived in the area in the 7th century when the prophet Muhammed sent a military envoy to the ruler of Bahrain, which then covered the area today known as Qatar. The ruler of Bahrain, Al Mundhir lbn Sawa Al-Tamimi, accepted the invitation to adopt Islamic teachings, thus converting the inhabitants of the area to the religion.

The Abbasid era from 750 to 1258 AD saw the establishments of several settlements in the area. Throughout the following centuries the area participated in the commerce of the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf trading routes. From 1517 to 1578 the land was temporarily ruled by the Portuguese, who were seeking to take advantage of the peninsula's situation in the Persian Gulf. Subsequently the area was lost to the Ottomans.

In the 18th century, the Bani Utbah tribe from Kuwait moved to Qatar's northwest coast and founded the town of Zubarah (now ruined and deserted). The town became a thriving centre for pearling in the Persian Gulf, and attracted many migrants to the area.

During the fighting by the local tribes and sheikhs in the early 19th century the British sought to increase their interest in the region as a result of their involvement with India. In an attempt to secure passage for its East India Company vessels, the British and the sheikhs signed the General Treaty of Peace. It acknowledged British authority in the area and aimed to end piracy and the abducting of slaves.

In 1867, a large Bahraini force attacked Doha and Al Wakrah. This, together with the resulting retaliation attacks, saw Colonel Lewis Pelly propose and authorise a peace treaty between Qatar and Bahrain. Mohammed bin Thani was appointed representative of the peninsula's tribes, and it is this agreement that is widely acknowledged as signifying the beginning of Qatar as a separate state.

The Ottoman Empire expanded into the region in 1871 and Jassim bin Mohammed accepted Ottoman sovereignty in 1872. Relations soured over the years until 1893, when the Ottomans sent a force to Doha to arrest the Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed over his refusal to allow an Ottoman customhouse in the city. However, supporters of the Emir drove the Ottomans out.

The Ottoman Empire officially withdrew from the area in 1913 and in 1916 the new ruler, Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani, signed a treaty with Britain for their protection. Britain was reluctant to aid the Qataris until the 1930s, when the need for oil became a priority, but it was territorial disputes over oil that gave rise to the need to fix international borders in the area. Following oil surveys in the 1920s and 1930s, a 75 year concession agreement was signed in 1935 between the British and Sheikh Abdullah Allah ibn Qasim to guarantee protection for the area and its oil reserves.

In 1937, Bahrain laid claim to the city of Zubarah but was defeated by a Qatari force. The British representative in Bahrain sided with Qatar, which resulted in Bahrain enforcing an embargo on travel and trade to Qatar.

Oil exportation began in 1949, marking a turning point for the country and its society. The 1950s saw the development of public services and governmental structuring under British guidance. The first telephone exchange arrived in 1953 and the first desalination plant in the following year. However, the Al Thani regime's new wealth was not without consequences, as those excluded from it showed outright discontent. In 1960, Sheikh Ali ibn Abdullah Allah abdicated, appointing his son Ahmed ibn Ali as ruler instead of the heir apparent Kalifa ibn Hamad.

Following unrest over increased funding for family members at the expense of Qatari development, anti-establishment groups united under the National Unity Front. They demanded a more decentralised power base, increased social services and recognition of trade unions. Although many leaders were jailed as a result of a general strike called by the National Unity Front, Ahmad ibn Ali approved plans for loans and the provision of land to the poor.

Britain announced its intention to withdraw its military from all areas east of Suez in 1968. Under the Basic Law of Qatar constitution (1970), the country gained its independence from Britain in 1971. In 1972 Kalifa ibn Hamad deposed Ahmad ibn Ali after the former leader began spending too much time away from the country. Under the new Emir, family expenses were cut and social programmes were once again invested in.

In 1995 Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani seized power from his father Khalifa bin Hamad in a peaceful coup d'état. He subsequently announced his intention to introduce more social reforms, to take Qatar towards democracy and to establish a more open press.

Politics and Government

Qatar is ruled by an absolute monarchy that recognises the Emir of Qatar as head of state and head of government. There are no free elections and the right to rule is passed down through the ruling Al Thani family.

The executive branch of the government is headed by the Emir. Government departments have been set up over recent years to facilitate social and economic progress; however, political parties are banned.

As set down in the 1970 Basic Law of Qatar, the Emir rules according to the tradition of consultation in line with the country's Islamic heritage. There is a Consultative Assembly that assists the Emir in policy-making, consisting of 35 unelected advisors. It was decreed in the 2003 Constitution of Qatar that the Consultative Assembly would increase to 45 members, 30 of whom would be elected by the people. The elections have currently been postponed three times and are now scheduled for 2013.

The legal system in Qatar is controlled by the Emir and although Civil Codes are slowly being implemented, personal and family matters are usually resolved through Sharia Law. Although it joined the United Nations' International Court of Justice in September 1971, Qatar has remained outside its jurisdiction.

Economy

Qatar's economy is primarily based on its natural resources of petroleum, natural gas, and to a lesser extent, fish. Its oil and gas reserves account for over 60 percent of its GDP and have made it one of the countries with the highest GDP per capita in the world. It is estimated the country holds reserves of up to 15 billion barrels of oil and is the world's third largest holder of natural gas reserves.

Although rich in natural resources, Qatar has begun diversifying into the private sector, and creating a knowledge-based economy to avoid over-exposing the natural resources economy. It has constructed the Qatar Science and Technology Park, Education City, and Doha Sports City, and continues to provide global financial serves through the Qatar Financial Centre.

With no income tax, Qatar has some of the lowest taxation rates in the world.

The unit of currency used in Qatar is the Riyal.

Climate

Qatar has a long summer from May to September, characterised by intense heat alternating with humidity. Temperatures can reach as high as 50°C in the summer. The average July temperature is 46°C.

The winter months are milder, with temperatures falling as low as 5°C, but still averaging 23° over December, January and February. Precipitation only occurs in winter, when there are occasional sudden, heavy, violent storms. The average annual rainfall in Qatar is less than three inches.

High winds also make dust storms a factor in Qatar. They reduce visibility, disrupt transport and industry and cause considerable damage.

Security

There has been evidence of terrorist activity in Qatar and further incidents cannot be ruled out. Those wishing to travel to Qatar are advised to check government warnings before travelling.

As Qatar is an Islamic country practising Sunni law, there are a number of laws that travellers should be aware of:

  • Although there is freedom to practice other religions, it is inappropriate to do so publicly in a way that may offend public order or morality
  • Alcohol consumption is illegal for Muslims in Qatar. Non-Muslim adults may consume alcohol in specially licensed premises or in private if they have first obtained a licence to do so from the Qatar Distribution Company. It is illegal to consume alcohol in public or offer it to a Muslim or a minor. Drink driving is strictly prohibited
  • It is illegal to import pork or pork products into the country
  • It is illegal to eat, drink or smoke in public during the daylight hours throughout the month of Ramadan
  • Capital punishment exists for threats against national security

Immigration

Qatar relies heavily on migrants and it is estimated that 94 percent of its labour force is made up of migrant workers. The immigrant population is estimated to be nearly 76 percent of the total number of inhabitants.

The net migration rate from Qatar was -2.28 migrants for every 1,000 workers (2008 estimate).

Tourism

Although not generally perceived as a tourist destination, Qatar is focused on increasing its share of the tourist market. A number of high-profile international events such as the 2006 15th Asian Games in Doha and the 2022 FIFA World Cup have raised Qatar's profile. It also made an (unsuccessful) bid to host the 2016 summer Olympic games.

With the planned opening of New Doha International Airport in 2012, Qatar authorities are also looking at increasing the market share of business tourism in the area. Meetings, conferences and exhibitions are all part of the government's long-term strategy in the tourism sector.

Qatar benefits from cultural tourism as well as sports tourism. The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha and sand skiing on the dunes above Khor al Adaid are two examples. Popular tourist attractions in Qatar include the traditional souqs, the Pearl of Qatar, an artificial island situated east of the West Bay, and the Moorish-style fort, Al Koot.