For most of recorded history, the residents of Qatar eked out a meager living from the pearl beds along their coastline, mainly in the northern town of Zubara. There was little else to recommend Qatar; most of the land in this peninsular region was dry, gravelly desert which was not only unsuited for agriculture but which could barely support any vegetation at all. Even by the standards of the pre-oil Gulf the region was shockingly poor… especially when the introduction of cultured pearls devastated the pearling industry. But just when things looked hopeless, Qatar discovered that it sat atop vast reserves of oil and natural gas. Today Qatar is still struggling to come to terms with that newfound prosperity, and with various border disputes between its neighbors.
Like Saudi Arabia, Qatar is a stronghold of Wahhabi Islam. This strict fundamentalist sect of Islam was founded in the 18th century by one Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab, a scholar from central Arabia who spoke out loudly and frequently against the "idolatry" which he saw in many Shi'ite and tribal practices. His ideas found a ready audience with the Al Thani clan, the family which to this day rules Qatar. Of late many have come to associate Wahhabism with terrorism, a charge which the rulers and intellectuals of Qatar are doing their best to quell. In a 2001 letter to the London-based Arabic daily al-Hayat, 'Abd al-Hamid al-Ansari, the Dean of the Faculty of Islamic Law at the University of Qatar, blasted those who "become involved in acts of stupidity against those they perceive as the enemies of Islam." Qatar has volunteered its support to U.S. operations in Afghanistan, and is rapidly shaping up as a key American ally in any future war against Iraq. Qatari troops fought in Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait, and the Al-Thani family considers Iraq to be a major threat.
The Arabic-language satellite channel "Al-Jazeera," which is based in Qatar, rose to world prominence during the war in Afghanistan. One sure sign of Al-Jazeera's success and influence is the way in which it has angered liberals and conservatives alike. Many Islamic fundamentalists are outraged by the way in which Al-Jazeera brings "decadent Western ideas" to the Arabic world, while many Arabic modernists accuse it of providing a sounding board for Osama Bin Laden and other extremists. So far the Qatari administration has paid no heed to calls by other Arab leaders or by the Bush administration to curb Al-Jazeera. In the words of Najeeb Al-Nauimi, a former justice minister instrumental in Al-Jazeera's 1996 startup, "either you believe in freedom of expression or you don't." A constitution and elected parliament are in the making: Qatari women drive and work in hospitals, banks, other businesses and the government. The majority of Qatar's residents are not citizens, but foreign workers: some of whom have been in Qatar for generations but who still lack even the rights guaranteed to native-born Qataris.
Qatar does not have an elected government, and rights of assembly and protest are restricted. In 1998 the Education Minister, Abdulrahman Al-Nuaimi, distributed a letter criticizing Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khaleifa al-Thani for his decision to allow women to vote and hold office in the (advisory) municipal council. Al-Nuaimi was arrested and at last report remains in detention.
If the Qataris are wary of Sadaam Hussein, they are equally wary of their Saudi neighbors. Of late relations between the two countries have soured; the Saudis object to meetings between Qatari and Israeli officials, to Al-Jazeera's frequently critical coverage of Saudi policies, and to the increasingly cozy relationship between Qatar and America. As their ancestors signed treaties with the British in response to the Ottoman threat, the Qataris have worked to cement defense treaties with the United States against possible attempts by Hussein to expand Iraqi borders, and Saudi efforts to promote dissent in Qatar. There have already been hints by some high-ranking U.S. generals that they might move American troops from Saudi Arabia and into new bases in Qatar. There is some fear that this could result in the Saudis subsidizing attacks on American personnel stationed there. Hussein's overthrow is likely to set off destabilizing shockwaves throughout the region, and it is likely that the rigidly feudal Saudi monarchy will be among those most negatively affected. As the aftermath of September 11 continues to strain Saudi-U.S. relations, Qatar is likely to take advantage of this freeze to strengthen its own position.