As the forest of construction cranes now visible all around Doha strikingly illustrates, the state of Qatar is currently rolling out one of the largest infrastructure development programmes to be found anywhere in the world. Yet only a few decades ago, this small peninsular state, located halfway along the Gulf coast, was still something of a regional and international backwater. Today though, Qatari investments straddle the globe and the world’s top financial, construction, energy, retail and real estate businesses vie for a spot in this rapidly evolving marketplace.
This extraordinary growth is now being directed towards the goals of Qatar National Vision 2030. This ambitious plan, divided into a series of five-year National Development Strategies, sets out some major way-markers along the road to completion. These include the construction of a leading global sports capital, inspired by Qatar’s role as the host of 2022 FIFA World Cup; the creation of an entirely new city at Lusail; the implementation of a national and international rail system that will connect Qatar to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the wider region beyond; and the creation of an economy based on knowledge and innovation, rather than dependent on the current abundance of hydrocarbons, and particularly gas. The later resource does continue to play a major role for now, though, particularly as Qatar is the location of the world’s largest non-associated natural gas deposit. The North Field is a resource that gives the state the third-largest gas reserves of any nation, containing an estimated 14.3% of the globe’s entire proven gas reserves.
This has helped spur some spectacular economic growth over the years, with 2012 seeing Qataris become the richest people in the world, in terms of their per capita GDP at purchasing power parity. The country’s population has also increased significantly, passing the 2m mark in 2013.
At the same time, Qatar is becoming a more high-profile name on the global stage, taking on a key role in regional and international relations, as well as becoming more visible as a centre for finance, communications, transport and business.
Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of human habitation in Qatar stretching back some 50,000 years – while 2500 years ago, a major town existed 20 km outside Doha, at Al Wusail. Over subsequent centuries, many of the world’s empires have had some influence on Qatar. The Abassids, the Portuguese, the Ottomans and the British all established a presence on the peninsula, which was itself continuously inhabited by local Arab tribes. The local population converted to Islam in the 7th century, with the new religion accepted by the then ruler of Qatar and Bahrain, Munzir bin Sawa Al Tamimi.
With regional conflict often driving migration, Al Zubarah, on the north-west coast, later became the home of merchants who came from Kuwait and Basra. The town established itself as a major regional entrepôt in the 18th century, with a significant industry based around pearl diving – a trade Qataris have been involved in since ancient times.
Doha, then known as Al Bidda, was founded later, in 1825, by which time British influence in the region was strong and Ottoman influence on the wane. In 1882, the fort of Al Wajbah was built and the following year, Qatari forces, led by Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, defeated the Ottomans at the fort – a battle that many see as a defining moment in the establishment of modern Qatar. The country then became a British protectorate.
The first oil well was drilled in 1938, at Jebel Dukhan, although significant development of oil and gas reserves did not begin until after the Second World War. In 1971, the British withdrew, with Qatar becoming independent on September 3rd of that year. The year 1971 also saw the discovery of the North Field.
Since then, Qatar has seen spectacular economic growth. In June 1995 Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani became emir, with a new constitution approved by referendum in 2003 and entering into force in 2005. On June 25, 2013, Sheikh Hamad then handed over the throne to his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Qatar’s current ruler.
Qatar covers an area of 11,437 sq km, or the entirety of the low-lying Qatar Peninsula, a 100-km-long spur of land jutting out from the larger, Arabian Peninsula. Located midway along the western coast of the Gulf, the country’s only land border is shared with Saudi Arabia to the south. Qatar’s maritime neighbours are Bahrain to the north-west, and the UAE to the south-east. Iran lies on the other side of the Gulf, some 250 km away.
Much of the country consists of dry, barren plains covered with sand, with the west and north of the peninsula characterised mostly by limestone outcrops. Qurayn Abu Al Bawl is the state’s highest point, reaching 103 metres above sea level.
Qatar’s coastline is 550 km long and bounds the country to the west, north and east. Qatar’s coastal area contains mainly salt flats. On the south-eastern coast lies the Khor Al Udayd, or “inland sea”, an area of sand dunes surrounding an inlet that is now a nature reserve. Known locally as the “moving dunes”, this region attracts locals and tourists alike for weekend excursions. The climate is dry and hot, with temperatures in June-August averaging highs of 41°C. In the winter months, however, temperatures average highs of 22-23°C. Average annual rainfall is limited, amounting to just some 71 mm, with February the rainiest month and June-October seeing little rain.
According to the most recent population census figures published by the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics (MDPS), Qatar’s total population as of December 2013 numbered 2,045,239. This figure has grown rapidly in recent years, with the 2010 census putting the total at 1,699,435 and the 2004 census recording 744,000.
Foreign workers account for 94% of the total population. As many of these are construction workers, MDPS figures also show around 75% of the country’s population as male. Most of these workers come from the Indian subcontinent, the Philippines and other Arab countries, while most of the mid- to upper-level white-collar expatriates come from Western Europe, North America and Australia.
Of the country’s population, around half lives in Doha, the capital and financial centre of the country. Other prominent towns include Al Rayyan, Al Wakrah, Umm Salal, Al Khor, Dukhan, Al Shamal, Ras Laffan and Mesaieed.
Language & Religion
Arabic is the official language of the state, but English is widely spoken and has in practice become the second language of Qatar. Most people involved in business and the service industry speak English, although some government staff may be less fluent. Other languages spoken include Hindi, Urdu, Tagolog, Bengali and Malayalam, due to the large number of expatriate workers. Qatar’s official religion is Islam.
Due to the nomadic nature of earlier civilisations, Qatari culture has many similarities to those of other countries in the GCC region. The local cuisine is very similar to that of the wider Gulf area and Middle East, while seafood has also traditionally been a staple of the Qatari diet. Dates have historically been an important food source, while rich Arabian coffee is also common in Qatari households – and something likely to be offered at business meetings, too. One of the most common dishes, machbous, is a communal platter of rice and delicately spiced meat and/or seafood.
In addition, due to the rise in the expatriate population over the past decade, many foreign restaurants and fast-food chains have also recently sprung up across the capital. Doha now offers Indian, Lebanese, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French and many other Western and Asian cuisines.
The most popular form of music is known as Khaliji, a traditional Gulf style based on Bedouin poetry, song and dance. Qatar boasts a large facility devoted to folk music in the Qatari Gulf Folklore Centre. Doha is also home to the Museum of Islamic Art, with one of the world’s most comprehensive collections, while the Qatar Foundation is well known for its sponsorship and support for educational initiatives, as well as science and research.
Until recently, Qatar operated a dual judicial system, with one strand based on the principles of sharia law and the other based on British common law. In 2003, however, the Judiciary Powers Law merged the two systems into one. The subsequent new constitution then established in its first article that sharia law was to be the main source of all of the country’s legislation.
Under the new system, the Supreme Constitutional Court rules on all matters regarding the constitution forwarded to it by the other courts, while the Court of Cassation is the final and highest level for appeals. Below that is the second instance Court of Appeal, and below that, the Court of First Instance.
At the same time, the Qatar Financial Centre (QFC) has its own civil and commercial court, working according to the provisions of the 2005 QFC Law and its subsequent amendments.
Qatar is a constitutional monarchy, with the emir as head of state. Since before independence from Britain in 1971, the emirs have come from the Al Thani family, a ruling dynasty that was established in the mid-19th century by Sheikh Mohammed bin Thani. The right to rule is inherited by the son who is appointed heir apparent, in accordance with the conventional hereditary system. Since June 25, 2013, Sheikh Tamim has been emir, after he succeeded his father, Sheikh Hamad.
Sheikh Hamad’s reign was one characterised by significant economic development and government reform, with the latter including the creation of a new constitution, alongside a push for further social development. The new constitution, which was approved by a referendum in April 2003 and came into effect in 2005, describes Qatar as having a democratic political system with all citizens equal before the law.
The new constitution also rules against all discrimination on grounds of gender, race, language and religion. The constitution further enshrines the separation of powers, with the executive authority residing with the emir, assisted by the Cabinet and the six supreme councils, and the legislative authority residing with the Shura Council.
The independence of the government’s judicial arm is also enshrined in the new constitution, with judicial authority to be exercised in the courts, where the principle of innocence until proven guilty is also constitutionally supported.
On the executive side, the constitution also specifies that the emirs are to be from the Al Thani family, with male successors chosen by the ruling emir. The emir also appoints members of the Cabinet, or Council of Ministers, who head the government ministries, or have other duties within the government. Thus, the Cabinet appointed after the succession of the new emir in June 2013 contains 20 members, 18 of whom head ministries, with the other two being the prime minister and deputy prime minister, who are also appointed by the emir.
The new Cabinet also includes one female minister, Hessa Sultan Al Jaber, as minister of information and communications technology. She became the third female Cabinet minister in Qatar’s history to take office. The prime minister, as head of the government, is the second most powerful authority in the country, after the emir. The post is currently held by Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, who also holds the interior minister portfolio.
The emir is also assisted by the views of the six supreme councils, which specialise in areas spanning education, health, the environment and justice. Another important body around the emir is the Amiri Diwan, which undertakes the duties of supervising emiri affairs, including foreign visits, briefing the emir on current affairs, enabling protocol and communicating emiri orders to other parties. It is organised into a number of departments, such as those dealing with political affairs, media affairs, legal and economic studies.
In regards to the legislative branch of the government, the constitution sets out a clear role for the Shura Council, which has traditionally had a largely advisory function. Its 45 members are currently all appointed by the emir, although there is provision in the constitution for 30 of the members to be elected, while the other 15 remain emiri appointees.
Elections for these positions had been widely slated for the second half of 2013, but were then postponed, with the change over of emir and the changes of political and administrative personnel that followed. The previous Emir, Sheikh Hamad, issued a proclamation just before handing over power declaring that the mandate of the existing Shura Council had been extended by three years.
Draft laws from the Cabinet are passed to the Shura Council for their consideration. Members of the council may also make their own proposals, under the constitution, which are then referred to one of the council’s committees, then, after consideration, pass the draft back to the full council for consideration. If the council approves the proposal at this stage, it passes to the Cabinet for its review. Ultimately, every draft law must also gain the approval of the emir, although there is provision for a two-thirds majority vote of the council to return a previously rejected law to the head of state. The emir does, however, retain the right to suspend implementation of a law for an indefinite period, if he deems it in the best interests of the country.
At the local level, Qatar has a Central Municipal Council, which has held four elections since 1999, the most recent being in 2011. Its members are elected from 29 different constituencies, for four-year terms, by universal suffrage and with a voting age of 18. The 29 constituencies spread over some 230 regions across the country. While the council is independent of the government, it works closely with the Ministry of Municipality and Urban Planning to address local community needs and issues.
Qatar is active at the international level. It is a founding member of the GCC, as well as a member of the UN, IMF, World Trade Organisation, Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Gas Exporting Countries Forum and the Arab League, among other multilateral institutions. In recent years, Qatar has taken a more high-profile role in efforts to resolve regional conflicts, in both the Middle East and North Africa.
The development of education is one of Qatar’s top priorities, with this seen as key to diversification away from a hydrocarbons-based economy towards one based on knowledge and innovation. In consequence, spending on education has rocketed in recent years, while Qatar has also become home to a range of well-regarded foreign universities. These include Texas A&M, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern, the College of the North Atlantic, the University of Calgary, University College London, Virginia Commonwealth University and Weill Cornell. The Qatar Foundation’s Education City has taken the lead in this development, with a major expansion of research also under its wing at the Qatar Science and Technology Park. At the same time, Qatar University is undergoing new development, as the country’s leading domestic institute of higher education.
Qataris enjoy a high standard of literacy – 95.6% of the native population can read and write, according to the MDPS – while education is compulsory between the ages of six and 16. High incomes and government assistance have also made Qatar the home country of many overseas students in the UK, US and Australia. There is a high demand too for international school places, with 77 international schools operating in Qatar in 2013. Independent schools are also flourishing, with these existing in both the public and private sectors.
The deep foundation of Qatar’s wealth is its sizeable hydrocarbons sector, which in recent years has focused on the giant North Field natural gas deposit. This begins under the northeast corner of the peninsula, then extends out under the waters of the Gulf towards the Iranian coast. It is also home to an estimated 885 trn cu feet of gas. At the 2012 rate of production, this resource will last well into the 22nd century, with the government well aware of the necessity to manage output with the long-term future in mind. For this reason, a moratorium on further exploitation has been in force since 2005, with this expected to last for some time.
Monetising this precious resource has been successfully achieved in part via the development of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry, with Qatar now the largest exporter of LNG worldwide. The country’s integrated production and distribution system sees LNG production divided between Qatar Gas and RasGas, with Qatar Petroleum a leading stakeholder in both, while ExxonMobil, Total, Mitsui, Shell, ConocoPhillips and Marubeni also have important shares. The Qatar Gas Transport Company then takes the LNG to market in its fleet of tankers – the largest LNG fleet anywhere in the world – with Japan and South Korea both being important long-standing customers.
Qatar has also long been in the lead with developments in gas-to-liquids (GTL) technology. In 2011 the world’s largest GTL plant was opened in the state, a joint venture with Shell, which reached full capacity in October 2012, producing 140,000 barrels per day (bpd) and providing nearly 8% of Shell’s worldwide production. At the same time, Qatar possesses a significant oil industry, with output of 723,000 bpd in October 2013. Most of this is exported, making Qatar the world’s 16th-largest oil exporter. The fields cover an area of 43,426 sq km and include the onshore Dukhan field, and the offshore Maydan Mahzam and Bul Hanine fields, owned and operated by Qatar Petroleum, and the Al Shaheen field, operated by Maersk Oil Qatar under a production-sharing agreement.
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