Qatar is home to a number of tribal families in addition to the ruling al-Thani family. These include the al-Khalifa, the al-Sudan, the al-Saud, the Utubi, the Bani Khalid, the Qawasim, the al-Musallam, the al-Ainain, the al-Attiyah, and the al-Kuwari. Several of these families, such as the al-Sudan and the al-Musallam, predate the al-Thani family’s arrival in Qatar. The al-Khalifa and the al-Saud are kin to the rulers of Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, respectively, while the al-Sudan and the Bani Khalid are among Doha’s oldest residents. The latter received exceptional rights and privileges, including exemption from the pearl taxation. Thus, without the intervention of the British in 1868, either Bahrain or Saudi Arabia might have subsumed the Qatar peninsula under the al-Khalifa or al-Saud family or an old, established family might have emerged organically as the kingdom’s ruler.
Doha neighborhoods are effectively tribal neighborhoods and the family council, or majlis, makes decisions about both personal and community matters. Tribal allegiance carries over into the structure and processes of Qatar’s political system. Where electoral systems exist, most citizens vote according to their tribe; this divides representative institutions along tribal lines, helping to diffuse dissent.
The al-Khalifa, a branch of the Utubi Arabs from Central Arabia, migrated to Kuwait and from there expanded their trading, fishing, and piracy activities into Bahrain and northern Qatar. By the 19th century, they were the dominant family in the Northern Gulf region. Under the al-Khalifa, the northwestern city of Zubarah served as the economic center of Qatar. The rise of the Doha-based al-Thani family and its successful efforts to separate Qatar from the al-Khalifa-led Bahrain shifted the balance of power and the center of trade to the south. This centuries-old tribal rivalry continues, embodied by the dispute between Bahrain and Qatar over the Hawar Islands. However, there is an extensive web of intermarriage between the two families and today, the al-Khalifa are considered the second most powerful tribe in Qatar.
The al-Attiyah are another historically important family that have also strategically married into the al-Thani family. The mother of former Sheikh Hamad was a member of the al-Attiyah family. These marriages have resulted in prominent state appointments, including Qatar’s first chief of police and, more recently, Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Energy, and chief of staff of Qatar’s armed forces. The family is historically associated with the army.
The al-Sudan tribe accompanied the al-Khalifa on their migration from Arabia, settling in in northern Qatar where they undertook both agricultural and fishing activities. They are among the oldest of the tribes, as evidenced by their domestic presence in a central Doha neighborhood.
The Bani Khalid were a powerful Arab tribe that asserted their independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century. In Qatar they established fishing villages and ruled much of al-Hasa and Qatar before the rise of the al-Sauds. They are among the oldest of the tribes but have lost almost all of their influence. The al-Ainain family was the tribe’s most prominent clan, controlling Doha until its exile in the 1820s to Wakra in the southernmost part of Qatar.
The Al-Musallam have the longest recorded history in Qatar. An Ottoman source from the 16th century designates a member of the family as the Sheikh of Qatar. They dominated the northern Qatar settlements of al-Huwaila and Zubara until the arrival of the Utubi al-Khalifa. However, by the 1820s, they were outnumbered by the al-Thanis and other allied tribes.
The al-Kuwari family shares a common ancestor with the al-Thanis and cooperates closely with the ruling family. This makes them highly influential and results in appointment to important government posts. Originally based in Doha, in 1878 they moved to Fuwayrat on Qatar’s northeast shore in protest of Jassim bin Muhammad bin Thani’s alliance with the Ottoman Empire.
Christopher M. Blanchard. Qatar: Background and US Relations. Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 2010.
Allen Fromherz. Qatar: A Modern History (Washington D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2012).
Mehran Kamrava. "Royal Factionalism and Political Liberalization in Qatar." The Middle East Journal 63(2009): 401-420.
Rosemarie Said Zahlan. The Making of the Modern Gulf States: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. (Reading: Ithaca Press, 1998).