Qatar – its history, culture and present day
by Daria Trinkhaus
Qatar has gained fame over the past year mainly due to the FIFA 2022 games taking place there. In truth – Qatar is the first Muslim country to host the World Cup in the world. What we have noticed over the past few weeks, however, is the prevailing criticism of the country despite the enormous efforts of the Qataris to cope with this not-easy task. So this text was written to respect the efforts of all those who contributed to making this event possible.
Criticism of Qatar comes mainly on the subject of the strict laws of that society, as well as the difficult working conditions of the immigrants who worked to build the stadiums and all the infrastructure needed for the FIFA 2022 competition. And hey! I don’t think I know everything. And yes – Qatar’s culture is different from “Western culture” in some aspects. And yes, the streets were swarming with people working with sweat to build almost everything. But guess what? Most of the people we met in Doha were happy that they got the job and preferred Qatar over, say, Dubai. Do I agree with all of Qatar’s rules? Of course not, but I also understand why they exist.
Visiting this country we had positive impressions and fact – we were very well welcomed by the “locals”. A brief explanation, however, at the very beginning: visiting Qatar, we adopted the mentality that we were visiting someone’s home and will respect the rules there and the hosts themselves.
Stay open to Qatar
The main idea is to respect differences and not try to change someone by force. People personally change and countries, along with their cultures, also change. If one pattern of manners and direction of change were imposed on every person and country, what a boring world we would live in.
We believe that sometimes criticism or conflict can be alleviated with knowledge and understanding. The latter helps, especially in treating each other with respect. That’s why this article has been on my mind for several days now.
The country of Qatar – origins
At the outset only – this will be a really brief summary of the history of Qatar. The history itself is not clear. Many sources tell it from different points of view, and it is difficult to establish one version of the story. We must remember that Qataris are descended from Bedouin families, who were often not bound to one place. The Bedouins lived scattered around the Qatari peninsula for centuries. Under such conditions, it isn’t easy to have one common narrative. Nonetheless, I leave links to three of the more important sources of knowledge about Qatar: the Visit Qatar website, Encyclopedia Britannica and, of course, Wikipedia. So if you want to delve deeper into the topic, I wish you a pleasant read!
For those who have not yet read the previous articles about Qatar on Sumfinity and are at the beginning of gaining knowledge about the country, here is a brief introduction. Qatar is a country in West Asia, occupying a small peninsula named “Qatar” on the northeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. It borders Saudi Arabia to the south, Iraq to the north and the Persian Gulf to the east. A strait in the Persian Gulf separates Qatar from Bahrain.
Although it seems that Qatar is relatively young, in reality, the country’s history dates back to ancient times. Qatar, and parts of Saudi Arabia, were already settled by humans some 50,000 years ago. This is confirmed by archaeological excavations – numerous Stone Age encampments and tools. Mesopotamia was the first civilization to be present in the area during the Neolithic period.
The history of the area can be divided into three distinct eras: the Pre-Islamic Era (before 700 AD), the Islamic Era (after 700 AD) and the Modern Era (after 1800).
The first era has already been mentioned: the human occupation of Qatar dates back 50,000 years. The Qatar Peninsula was also the cradle of Bronze Age culture, dating roughly between the years 3000 BC to 2200 BC. During this time and until about 3000 BC, it was an important trade centre where goods were exchanged for crafts. Some of the significant excavations from this time can be found in the Al Khor area.
During the early settlement period, the peninsula was the centre of several different empires, including the Seleucids, Parthians and Sassanids.
In 628 AD. Mundhir bin Sawa Al Tamimi, the Christian ruler of the Al Hasa region of the Qatari peninsula, embraced Islam. With this event, the Islamization of the local tribes began.
However, apart from a few transmissions and relics, we know little about this time of Qatar’s development. This is probably due to the fact that only a few tribes inhabited the peninsula. What is known, however, is that from the 8th century onward, the area became a significant centre for the pearl and camel trade.
A major breakthrough for the Qatar Peninsula came during the Middle Ages and later the Renaissance in Europe. And it was largely due to the arrival of European visitors.
In 1507, the Portuguese gained control of six coastal cities on the west coast of India (including Kutch) and established trade routes with Malacca. They built forts in nearby places such as Diu (1531), Daman (1555), Agra (1556) and Bombay (1662). The British East India Company followed suit, establishing a trading post here in 1608. Both nations had a significant impact on Qatar’s economy and culture.
In 1515 (921 AH), Manuel I of Portugal led an invasion of Qatari towns and villages with a force of 1,800 men. The Portuguese forces were able to capture the entire Qatari coast, including the country’s capital Doha. However, the Portuguese were not the only ones tempted to conquer Qatar. In the 16th century, there was significant rivalry between the Portuguese and the Ottomans, with a particular interest in the Bahrain region, which the Portuguese occupied from 1521-1602. The Ottomans recaptured the area, but in the end, in the 1570s, a sheikh from the Banu Khalid tribe pushed them out of Al Hasa.
Qatar’s modern era
This, however, is not the whole story of tense Qatar-Ottoman relations. Ottoman troops, who occupied the nearby province of Al-Ḥasā in Saudi Arabia, occupied Qatar in 1871. Qatar only freed itself from Ottoman occupation after the reconquest of Al-Ḥasā by the Sauds in 1913. At this time, Britain entered the stage of history. The British, in 1916, signed a treaty with Qatar’s leader that gave them control over the country’s foreign policy in exchange for British protection.
But in 1971, Qatar gained independence from the British under Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani and became an autonomous emirate within the newly declared State of Qatar. In 1986, Qatar became a full member of the Arab League.
Governance and population of Qatar
Today, Qatar is a sovereign state. The Thani family has ruled Qatar since Mohammed bin Thani signed a treaty with the British, which recognized the separate status of the area. Qatar is a constitutional monarchy, with the emir as head of state and government. A referendum was held in 2003, with 98% of the vote approving the constitution. The emir appoints the prime minister from within the ruling family. The emir, who has ruled since 1995, is Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani. The prime minister is Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani.
Qatar’s population was estimated at 2,043,693 as of July 31, 2017, according to the Census Department of the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics (MDPS). Interestingly, only 313,000 people are original Qataris. The remaining population in Qatar came to the area for economic purposes.
In 1961, Qatar joined the United Arab Emirates to form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). In 2001, Qatar joined other members of OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. According to some sources, Qatar exports the most natural liquefied gas compared to other countries.
Qatar’s economy has grown rapidly in recent years thanks mainly to its natural gas reserves, which account for about 80% of its export revenues. However, the country has been able to diversify into other industries thanks to its foreign investments. This includes stakes in such well-known companies as Volkswagen AG (OTC:VLKAY), HSBC Holdings PLC (LON:HSBA), Barclays PLC (LON:BARC), Credit Suisse Group AG (SIX:CSGN), Glencore International PLC (OTC:GLNCY) and Électricité de France SA (EPA:EDF). Qatar’s ruling family is also one of the largest landowners in the UK and has significant contributions to the Empire State Building.
Forbes magazine rated Qatar as the country with the highest GDP per capita in the entire world at $129,000 per person in 2013 ($23 billion total population).
In addition to this, Qatar has been described by some sources as one of the world’s wealthiest countries per capita – it has more than $250 billion in liquid assets available for investment. Above that, Qatar ranked first on Forbs’ list of billionaires for 2018 (with 25 billionaires).
You can sense the country’s prosperity by looking at the details. For example – did you know that water, electricity and phone calls in Qatar are free for the original Qataris? Fuel also costs almost a penny. With Nico, we rubbed our eyes several times, looking at the prices at the gas station. However, there are downsides to living in the desert as well. 90% of food products are imported into Qatar from other countries, and because of this, they are expensive. And although the government is working to establish efficient farms, the task is not easy or cheap. We are still talking about a country set in the desert.
Where does the water in Qatar come from?
What amazed us is how Qatar obtains its water – we are still on the topic of a country that is set in the desert (literally). It is estimated that Qatar receives only 82 mm of water per year. In the old days, Bedouins filtered sea water or that from wells through a piece of cloth. An extremely time-consuming process. And a method of little use if one thinks of breeding animals and farming products for food. So in 1953, the first desalination plant in Doha was put into operation. At first, water was delivered by truck to homes until professional water infrastructure was built.
Today, 99% of water in homes comes from destalinization. The problem with this water extraction is that it requires a lot of energy. Yet because Qatar lies on gas and oil deposits, this problem is less a financial one than an ecological one. The ecological issue is related to the formation of brine solution after desalination, which causes serious environmental problems. How to solve these challenges, especially if Qatar’s population is growing? The answer may not be easy.
Bedouins and their culture
When travelling in Qatar, it is essential to learn about the history and culture of this unbelievable country. The Bedouins are the original inhabitants of Qatar and are known for their hospitality.
Their generosity is legendary: it is said that when you visit Qatar as a guest, they will offer you everything they have – including food and shelter. If your car breaks down on the side of the road, don’t worry, if one of the Bedouins sees it, they will surely come to help you fix it while sharing stories over a cup of tea or coffee (or both).
Traditionally, Bedouins were nomadic herders of sheep, goats and cattle. They usually traded with other tribes for meat, dairy products and wool. Bedouins lived in tents woven from animal hair. These tents are called bayt al sha’ar. Centuries ago, the Bedouins traded in camels. However, they also kept these animals for transportation, milk and sometimes meat.
A leader – the Sheikh, ruled the Bedouins. Power was inherited from father to son. Women and men in Bedouin households were assigned traditional roles. Men took care of the larger animals, trade and defence of the tribe. In addition, these men were also hunters – they hunted animals with the help of domesticated falcons. Women took care of the house, cooking and raising children. In addition, they made beautiful textiles and sewed clothes.
The Bedouins also have a reputation for being brave and adventurous; throughout history, they have fought fearlessly against invaders, honouring traditions such as hospitality above all else – even in times when it was not safe or practical to do so.
Islam is the dominant religion, and Qataris are primarily Sunni Muslims. While in Qatar, you will hear chanting for prayer five times a day. Every time we heard that penetrating calling voice coming from nearby mosques, it sent shivers down our spine. There’s something so moving and almost ancient about this chanting that it feels like the air is vibrating from it. Qataris pray at dawn, midday, mid-afternoon, sunset and in evening. When praying, they traditionally turn toward Mecca (also known as Makkah) in Saudi Arabia.
Some of you may have heard of Ramadan. During Ramadan (the ninth month of the lunar year), Muslims fast daily from sunrise to sunset. This is considered a crucial time for spiritual reflection, which helps strengthen the social bonds between people who fast together. During this time, many people eat a large meal called Iftar (which means breaking the fast) before sunset. After sunset on Eid al-Fitr (the end of Ramadan), Qataris celebrate at family gatherings, where they exchange gifts with friends and neighbours. It is also common to sacrifice animals, which are traditionally eaten after Eid al-Adha.
Dress code in Qatar
Qataris are very modest when it comes to dressing. Officially, men usually wear long white robes, and women wear black dresses that hide their bodies and faces in public. Qataris love their traditional dress, but they are also open to changes and new trends from abroad. If they are not in public places, women can dress modern, though with dignity. The dress code for women is conservative and modest, while men are expected to wear long pants or jeans with shirts that always cover the shoulders and arms.
Some of the most popular brands in Qatar are Al-Zaytoon, Mango and Zara. Qatar is a small country, so it’s easy to find stores in Doha selling clothes from all over the world. The malls in Doha do not differ in appearance and type of stores from other Western department stores. Besides, you’ll even find the widely known La Fayette gallery there! However, if you want to buy traditional Qatari attire – the best deal will wait for you at the Souq Waqif market (on the recommendation of our guide).
If I could advise anything, it would be to exercise moderation in your own attire. And yes – Nico loves his shorts, and I love my summer dresses, but overall we were content to wear clothes that covered our bodies. First: Qatar is mostly desert, and a naked body can quickly be burned by the intense sun. Second (very important) covering your assets (;-)) in public places is a sign of respect for the host. Overall, Qatar is a very, very safe country, but drawing attention to your attire can be an uncomfortable experience.
Food in Qatar
Last but not least! Probably my favourite part of the article. Food in Qatar is a big part of the culture, and you will notice it immediately. The food is very spicy and has a lot of flavours, making it appealing to people who like their food a little sharper.
A meal in Qatar is considered an important moment of the day, especially when you have guests in your home or when family members get together. It’s best not to rush through your meal because if you do, it will be considered impolite by Qatari standards. The most common main dishes include rice with chicken or lamb; lentils and meat with rice; steamed fish (usually grouper), grilled fish or shish taouk (marinated chicken kebab).
Dining in Qatar
What we also noticed in Doha and outside the Qatari capital was the variety of restaurants and food offered. Because Qatar has so many immigrants, the type of restaurants reflects this diversity. While in Qatar, we tried authentic Palestinian cuisine, Yemeni cuisine (the meal there is eaten with your hands while sitting on the ground), Indian cuisine (probably the best Indian meal we’ve ever had), Iranian cuisine, and so on. The number of restaurants and their variety is truly astounding. And in addition to the typical meat dishes, I could always find some vegetarian options (I didn’t even know there were so many types of hummus!). Bottom line: we will probably remember the culinary experience in Qatar for the rest of our lives.
If you are in Doha, be sure to visit Souq Waqif. This is where Qataris go shopping. There you can find stores with an incredible variety of local sweets, dates and spices. After shopping at this traditional market, our suitcase was suddenly filled with various dates and Qatari roses, which, when added to tea, make it wonderfully aromatic.
Drinks and alcohol in Qatar
The types of drinks served during meals can vary depending on where you eat (e.g., whether it is fast food or a restaurant with service). Non-alcoholic beverages such as Coca-Cola or Fanta are usually available in all restaurants.
Alcohol is not consumed in Qatar. For us, this was not a significant problem. On the contrary, it was really refreshing to watch how people celebrate on Friday, how they can dance and have a wonderful time without alcohol. Maybe that’s also why I felt safer on the streets of Doha after sunset than in many European cities. In the evening, the city was filled with crowds of laughing people, and there was no aggression or foolish behaviour among them.
Being in Qatar was like visiting a different world. One where the country’s culture has not yet been diluted by ubiquitous globalization. The social principles and the construction of values refer not only to the Muslim religion but to the centuries-old, fascinating Bedouin tradition. Yes, some things may seem a bit different from Western culture, but if you accept them as they are, you can really find yourself in an old Arabian fairy tale. I heard in a Deutsche Welle documentary that visiting the Souq Waqif is the closest experience to finding yourself in a “Tale of 1001 Nights.” In my opinion, immersing yourself in the entire Qatari culture is like experiencing a leap from the reality of ancient Arab fairy tales and a futuristic reality at once. We have not had this kind of experience until visiting Qatar.