The Colonial Era (1820-1971)

The rise of Qatar parallels the rise of the ruling al- Thani family, which emerged from among numerous competing elements in 19th century Qatari society to become the dominant, dynastic political entity. This was done with the solicited assistance of the British, who, though they did not colonize Qatar as such, had a hegemonic and stabilizing presence in the Gulf between the years of 1820 and 1971.[1] Modern Qatar is therefore a product of the collaboration between shrewd al- Thani emirs and British naval officers who sought the pacification and cooperation of coastal tribes in order to clear naval routes to India. The flexibility of Qatari foreign policy is a consequence of al-Thani political strategy, which maintains power through diplomacy as leaders negotiate with and leverage others’ competing territorial and strategic interests in the peninsula.

The 1798 Napoleonic invasion of Egypt raised British concerns over French expansion in the Near East, which threatened to sever British routes to India. In response, the British made inroads among coastal Gulf leaders and secured the Persian Gulf under British naval control. The threat of piracy as well as naval disruptions caused by internal struggles among local sheikhs gave rise to the 1820 General Treaty of Peace and 1853 Perpetual Maritime Truce, which officially recognized certain leaders as representative of their particular area along the coast. That is, the British took steps to empower certain sheikhs as leaders as a way of organizing and making “sense” of these tribes in the best way they knew how—namely through the lens of monarchy.[2]

The al-Thani family, led by Muhammad bin Thani, was one of several tribes in Qatar, and one which had a longstanding presence in the area now known as Doha. In 1868, Muhammad bin Thani took advantage of British power by signing a treaty with Britain’s Colonel Pelly to become the ‘official’ ruler of Qatar, thus creating the foundations for a family legacy of inherited leadership rights. However, contrary to popular national narratives, the al-Thani family is a relatively young dynasty and was never historically entitled to regional political power, unlike other nearby families such as the ruling al-Sabah of Kuwait, the Khalifa of Bahrain, or even the al-Saud in Saudi Arabia.[3] In signing its treaty with the al-Thani, Britain replaced the traditional style of leadership among equals through baya, the Islamic oath of allegiance, or shura/majlis, councils of respected elders, with a monarchical model that set the foundation for political power in modern Qatar.

The Ottoman Empire also played a role in the rise of the al-Thani family. The Ottomans warily eyed growing British influence in the Gulf region and sought to reclaim territories that it had once held, particularly in the last days of the Empire when, with the loss of the Balkans, Sultan Abdulhamid II attempted to consolidate power among fellow Muslims and to secure the Empire’s vulnerable boundaries.[4] While Muhammad bin Thani accepted British authority, his son Jassim agreed to a non-tributary Ottoman suzerainty. However, Jassim never permitted the growth of a permanent, politically dominant Ottoman authority, and in 1892 repelled an Ottoman invasion that might have established such a presence. This feat has taken on near-mythical proportions and Jassim is remembered as a hero on National Day.[5] It was also under Jassim that most Qataris adopted the Wahhabi school of Islam as a means of repelling potential Saudi interference.[6]

In emphasizing Jassim as the “founder” and “unifier” of Qatar against the Ottomans, the ruling al-Thani have emphasized their family’s heroic status as well as Jassim’s particular lineage over that of competing al-Thani lineages and over other tribes. Against the backdrop of the First World War in 1916, Britain signed the Anglo-Qatari treaty with Jassim’s son, Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim al-Thani, formally recognizing Qatar as a British protectorate and Sheikh Abdullah as its unquestioned leader.

The Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC, later British Petroleum) was founded in 1908, marking the inception of an era of oil that would radically alter the destinies of Gulf nations. With the early 20th century decline of the pearl industry, Sheikh Abdullah capitalized on the creation of the Standard Oil Company of California and encouraged competition between the Americans and British. In 1935 he signed a contract with APOC granting them an oil concession that laid claim to all petroleum off of Qatar’s coast, which kept the British involved in the Gulf even after Indian independence in 1947 made shipping channels to India less important. As British colonies declared independence in the mid- century, the British Empire seemed less and less relevant and British politicians were pressured by its former subjects to leave the entire Middle East.


[1] James Onley, “Britain and the Gulf Shaikhdoms, 1820–1971: The Politics of Protection,” Center for International and Regional Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar, Occasional Paper No. 4 (2009).

[2] Fromherz, Qatar: A Modern History), p. 77.

[3] Ibid., p.  53.

[4] Frederick F. Anscombe, The Ottoman Gulf: The Creation of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

[5] Fromherz, Qatar: A Modern History, p. 62.

[6] Ibid., p. 82.

Image Credits:

"Attentive After Prayer," Omar Chatriwala (2012), Flickr Creative Commons

"At an official welcome ceremony with the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani," Presidential Press and Information Office, from Wikimedia Commons.