The history of Qatar spans over 4 millennia, but for almost all of these 4000 years, it consisted of scattered tribes inhabiting the peninsula and fighting each other for spheres of influence. I will tell you how the State of Qatar emerged, about the Qatar crisis of 2017, and how the economy of one of the richest countries in the world coped with it. There will be many interesting details and minimal dry information.

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The history of Qatar before the 20th century


I won’t be copying Wikipedia, with its dozens of difficult names and terms that may not mean anything to you or me. If you want to learn more about this in detail, you can read it here. Instead, I will only provide the main historical points to help you understand how Qatar came to be, where it all started, and how the country achieved success.

In brief, the earliest part of Qatar’s history:

  • Excavations show that ancient tribes lived on the Qatari Peninsula as early as 3000 BCE, having migrated from Mesopotamia.
  • If we look at the world map, Qatar is situated in the region where the first signs of statehood, empires, and rulers emerged, such as the Sumerians, Egyptians, Phoenicians, and so on.
  • It’s known that the first Qatari tribes engaged in trade with the Sumerians, who were known as the first state on our planet.
  • Ancient rock art has been found in modern-day Qatar. Scientists are still debating the dating, but there are authoritative opinions that it dates back to 4000 BCE. You can find these petroglyphs in Qatar’s desert, 80 km away from Doha, along with more information in the article: Top 12 attractions beyond Doha.
history of qatar and doha
These petroglyphs in the desert depict boats carved into the rocks.

Starting from the 3rd century BCE, Qatar was plunged into endless periods of military conflicts and conquests. Here are the main conquerors of Qatar in chronological order:

  • Alexander the Great adds Qatar to his empire.
  • The Ancient Iranian Kingdom.
  • In the 7th century CE, Qatar becomes part of the Arab Caliphate.
  • In the 10th century, the neighboring Bahrain annexes it.
  • It was only in the 11th century that Qatar briefly gained independence for the first time in its history. At that moment, there was still no state, just local large Arab tribes residing on the Qatari Peninsula.
qatar history
Pearl diving was the basis of Qatar’s entire economy and trade until the 1930s. Due to pearls, Qatar was of interest to all its neighbors, and it was conquered dozens of times.

Once these lands gained independence, the region’s economic growth began. Pearl diving was where Qatar started. The active pearl diving began in the 11th-12th centuries.

The period of independence was short-lived.

Thanks to selling pearls to their neighbors, the local rulers quickly became wealthy. And where there is money, there are internal wars for influence and power. While these military conflicts were going on inside Qatar, which greatly weakened the current rulers, the Qatari Peninsula was again seized by Bahrain in the 13th century.

  • In the 15th century, the Qatari Peninsula became part of the Ottoman Empire.
  • Later, these lands were seized by the Portuguese. After 50 years, the Turks included Qatar in the Ottoman Empire again.
  • Since the 17th century, an endless war has been going on for these lands between the Ottomans, Iranians, and Europe has already joined in: England and the Netherlands. It lasted until the end of the 19th century. The participants, winners, rulers changed, but only the residents of local settlements suffered, who were constantly killed and “wiped out” in entire villages.

The first signs of the emergence of an independent modern Qatar appeared in 1878. One of the local rulers, a sheikh from the famous Qatari Al Thani dynasty (I recommend remembering this name), was able to unite all the scattered and warring families of Qatar.

Thanks to this, it was possible to expel the hostile Ottomans and withstand the attempt of capture from neighboring Bahrain, once again. And it was then that Qatar began to establish itself as an independent country.

Modern history of Qatar before the constitution

qatar before oil and gas
This is how Doha looked in 1904, the photo is not mine but archival. Doha was the largest settlement in Qatar then and now.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the second sheikh of the Al Thani dynasty concluded a strategically advantageous alliance with the world’s most powerful state at the time, Great Britain. The essence was simple:

  • Britain was entirely responsible for Qatar’s security and foreign policy but did not interfere in the country’s internal affairs.
  • In exchange, Britain received exclusive rights to pearl diving in local waters. In fact, at this point, Britain virtually began to manage Qatar’s entire economy, but more on that below.

Interesting fact:

To help you understand how much wars and internal conflicts that have been going on for over a thousand years have affected the population of Qatar, by 1920 the population of Qatar, where people have been living for 4,000 years, was only 25,000.

The most significant event in Qatar’s history occurred in the late 1930s when huge oil reserves were discovered, followed by gas reserves a few years later. To put it in perspective, tiny Qatar is currently ranked 13th in the world for oil reserves and 3rd for gas reserves (after Russia and Iran).

Development of these reserves and commercial production of oil began immediately after World War II. This is what Doha looked like 70 years ago, before it experienced revenue from the sale of oil and gas.

qatari crisis 2017
The upper photo shows Doha in 1950, while the lower photo shows it in 2024.

Good to know:

England had a strong influence in Qatar, particularly in the economy. Therefore, it is not surprising that almost all of the revenue from oil and gas went to London, leaving Qatar with almost nothing. It is also not surprising that all rights to Qatar’s reserves were held by Shell, a private British company.
  • In 1960, mass riots and a coup d’etat overthrew the Sheikh of the Al Thani dynasty, and a new Sheikh, also an Al Thani relative, came to power.
  • As a result of the coup, the unrest did not subside, and the situation in Qatar remained unstable. England was making huge profits while Qatar was practically starving. By the way, at that time, half of the government positions were held by British citizens, so you can imagine their influence.
  • Since England wanted to stabilize the situation, in 1962 they handed over one-third of all reserves to Sheikh Al Thani. Income from oil and gas began to flow into the country, the lives of the locals improved slightly, and a period of stability began.

State of Qatar and Al Thani dynasty

It was only in 1970 that Qatar, under the leadership of Sheikh Al Thani, formed a temporary constitution for the country. From there, events developed rapidly. The next five years became the foundation of the wealthy Qatar we know today:

  • The 1960s and 1970s are known as the period when England granted independence to all its overseas colonies around the world. Sheikh of Qatar took advantage of this.
  • Two months after the formation of the temporary constitution, a new government was formed in Qatar. There was not a single foreign official in it. Moreover, 80% of all posts went to relatives of the Emir of Qatar Al Thani.
    • Learn all about the rulers of Qatar, the difference between Emir and Sheikh, and who Sheikha Moza is.
al thani dynasty qatar history
The history of Qatar for 8-9 centuries has been inseparably linked to pearl fishing on such ships. And when oil was discovered, pearls became of no interest to anyone.
  • In 1971, Qatar was recognized as an independent state by a huge number of countries, including all European countries, the USSR, and the United States.
  • 1971 – Qatar becomes an independent state for the first time in its 4,000-year history and appears on the world map as a separate country. Imagine, the country has been known for 4 millennia, but Qatar as a state is only 50 years old today.
  • At the end of 1971, the world’s largest oil field was discovered in Qatar.
  • In 1972, as a result of another coup, a new Emir came to power, but as you might have guessed, again from the Al Thani dynasty. He was the cousin of the previous Emir. But this was not the last coup :).

Interesting fact:

In 1974, members of the Al Thani dynasty bought out all rights to all deposits from Shell, and the General Petroleum Corporation of Qatar was created. From that moment on, all gas and oil in Qatar belonged to Qatar and not to foreigners. An economic boom began, and hundreds of billions of dollars flowed into the country each year.
doha 50 years ago
Doha, 1980, this is when the country’s rapid development began.

Shell did not want to sell its rights to the deposits for any amount of money, as both sides understood that there were trillions of dollars underground there for hundreds of years. But there is an opinion (unofficial information) that the issue was put on edge by the new Emir Al Thani: either take the money and leave Qatar now, or we will nationalize everything, and Shell will not get a dollar.

  • According to the 1971 Constitution of Qatar, the form of government is absolute monarchy.
  • The Emir of Qatar has absolute power in the country and is above the Constitution. The Emir of Qatar is only subject to Sharia law and nothing else.
  • In 1995, there was another coup. Can you guess which dynasty the new Emir was from? Correct, it was the Al Thani dynasty, but in this case, it was the son of the previous Emir who had ruled the country from 1960 to 1995. He came to power when the country was feudal, impoverished, and even without its own statehood. And his own son deposed him when Qatar was an independent state and one of the richest countries in the world.
  • In 2013, power was transferred to a new Emir without a coup for the first time. The current Emir himself abdicated in favor of his son Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. He is the Emir of Qatar to this day. And his and his father’s portraits are present in every establishment in Qatar, in all hotels, and sometimes even in restaurants. You will see it for yourself when you come here.

Qatar Crisis of 2017

Above was a very brief history of Qatar to help you understand how such a prosperous state emerged from inter-tribal conflicts. But I also want to tell you about another significant event in the history of Qatar – the Qatar Crisis of 2017. And the purpose of this short story is not a historical background, but to show how strong the country’s economy has become thanks to the Emir’s skillful actions in the country’s oil and gas industry and the “expulsion” of Shell.

Good to know:

Qatar received and receives enormous amounts of money from gas and oil exports. But officially, all of this does not belong to the country but to one family – Al Thani. They could have lived in luxury (although they already do), and the people and the country would somehow cope. There are many examples of countries with huge oil reserves that cannot escape poverty: Venezuela, Libya, and so on.

On June 5, 2017, almost all of Qatar’s neighbors announced a complete severance of diplomatic relations with Qatar. These events are now called the Qatar Crisis.

  • The reason was that the Qatari government was accused of supporting banned terrorist groups such as the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and so on.
  • Not just sanctions but a complete blockade was imposed, with the closure of all diplomatic missions and the expulsion of all diplomats.
  • Here are the countries that declared a boycott of Qatar: Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, and the Maldives. If you look at the map, all the neighboring countries around except Iran.
  • These countries closed all their borders for the transit of all cargo to Qatar. They even closed their airspace for Qatari aircraft, which had to change their routes to reach their destinations.
  • To understand the situation: Qatar is a small country located in the Persian Gulf. They produce very little, and almost everything, including fresh water and food, is imported. There is only one land border, with Saudi Arabia, and a few maritime borders with other countries. All of these countries announced a complete blockade.
qatar crisis history
Qatar crisis of 2017: the map. Countries that joined the blockade in one way or another are marked in red, while the green country in the center is Qatar.

Interesting fact:

for the past 10+ years, starting in 2012, the exchange rate of the Qatari riyal to the US dollar has always been 3.64. Interestingly, as of today in 2024, long after the Qatar crisis has ended, the exchange rate is still 3.64. It has not changed by even 1% in over 10 years.

Naturally, panic ensued within the country after the complete blockade was announced. Any economy of any small country could have simply collapsed, and neighboring countries were counting on this. The country was not at risk of hunger, but almost all import of food and other critical goods came to a halt.

Nevertheless, the Qatari riyal exchange rate during the Qatar crisis “collapsed” by less than 0.1%. It went from 3.64 to 3.65, and even reached 3.67 on one day. By local standards, this was an unprecedented increase and definitely a collapse 🙂

The active phase of the crisis lasted about a year. The country’s economy was not shaken in the slightest. Qatar proudly withstood the pressure placed upon it. Billions of oil and gas dollars helped to cover the deficit of all domestically consumed goods. The local population hardly felt the Qatar crisis of 2017. The biggest difficulty was in air travel, as all planes had to make a big detour via Iran to bypass all the countries that imposed the blockade.

A year later, the crisis began to subside, and in 2021, four years after its start, a reconciliation agreement was signed with all countries.

In conclusion, although the history of Qatar dates back almost 4,000 years, the country itself as a state is very young, only 50 years old. It is not like Egypt, where statehood existed 2,000 years before our era. But the Qatar crisis of 2017 confirmed that in these 50 years, the ruling Al Thani dynasty created an independent country with a powerful economy.

Resources to help you plan your dream trip to Qatar

  • Flights at the best prices with discounts
  • Car rental: DiscoverCars
  • Hotels and apartments in Doha:
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    • Agoda – the best selection of hotels in Qatar.
    • Booking – the main competitor of Agoda.
  • Tours, excursions and activities (including extreme ones):
    • GYG – more than 400 tours
    • Viator – excursions and activities throughout the country
  • Travel insurance: EKTA
  • Airport transfer: Intui
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