Historical Legacies

In 2007, Qatar shifted its celebration of National Day from September 3rd, marking the date that the British departed in 1971, to December 18th, on which Jassim bin Muhammad al-Thani in 1893 repelled an Ottoman invasion and united a number of local tribes under his rule. The change from a passive event—in fact, many Qataris did not want the British to leave—to one which enshrines Sheikh Jassim as a national hero and “founding father,” is useful in the construction of a coherent national identity that grounds al-Thani claims to leadership.[1]

Qatar was historically a stopping point along maritime Indian Ocean trade routes that linked overland trade ending at ports in Basra, Iraq to India, Southeast Asia, and China. Settled coastal Qataris relied on provisions from nomadic Bedouin and passing trade ships, and at times resorted to piracy to secure food.[2] Pearl diving was the predominant local trade, in which nearly half of all Qataris were engaged prior to its devastating collapse in the 1940s.

Qatar’s population, both historically and today, has largely clung to its coastline. The region’s blazing heat makes the interior miserable for most of the year; only 3% of the land is cultivable and another 5% suitable for herding and grazing. Yet, the name “Qatar” means grazing ground, referring to the periodic incursions of the nomadic al-Naim and al-Murrah Bedouins to graze their animals, particularly after the winter rains.[3] Remnants of nomadic life are barely visible today, and the government has settled Qatar’s Bedouin populations. Texts on Qatar typically emphasize its radical transformation from a “sleepy backwater” or a “fishing village” to a cosmopolitan, hypermodern cityscape. Older generations of Qataris recall life before wealth, remembering with particular bitterness the years of hunger that followed the ruin of the pearl industry that began with the cultivation of Japanese Mikimoto pearls and ended with the complete disruption of trade in WWII. The tensions between security/insecurity, indulgence/hunger, power/weakness, and excess/poverty subtly inform many of the changes that have taken place in Qatar.


[1] Shannon Mattern, “Font of a nation: Creating a national graphic identity for Qatar,” Public Culture, Vol. 20, No. 3 (2013), pp. 479–496; Michael Stephens, “Qatar and national identity,” Open Democracy, December 27, 2012.

[2] Fromherz, Qatar: A Modern History, p.  44.

[3] Ibid., p. 36.

Image Credits:

"Warmup,"  Christian Senger (2010), Flickr Creative Commons