Since gaining independence in 1971 Qatar has quickly risen to prominence both regionally and internationally to become an economic, political and cultural powerhouse in the Middle East. With a relatively small local population and substantial revenue generated from having the third-largest proven natural gas reserves globally, Qatar has one of the world’s highest GDP per capita: $70,700 at current prices in 2020, according to IMF estimates.
Prior to 2010 the country was primarily known for its vast gas reserves; however, Qatar’s global profile received a major boost in 2010 when it won the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup in November and December of that year. Now, the country is recognised in the international arena for many reasons, such as its extensive international investments and substantial infrastructure projects at home, which led to the population growing by an estimated 50% since 2010 due to an influx of foreign workers.
Backed by sustained levels of economic growth, Qatar is leveraging its resources to become a knowledge-based economy. Indeed, with recent positive economic trends, the country has been working to translate this growth into greater activity and sustainability throughout the private sector. As such, it has been investing in strategic sectors such as agriculture, services, and research and development to further diversify its economy and attract greater foreign direct investment.
The modern state of Qatar became a self-governing country on September 3, 1971 after declaring independence from the UK. However, it celebrates Qatar National Day on December 18 to mark the unification of all Qatari tribes in 1878 under Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, who is regarded as the founder of the state. Although a relatively young nation, the peninsula of Qatar has a long history of human habitation, with archaeological finds dating back to the Ubaid civilisation of Mesopotamia, which flourished in what is now Iraq and Syria between the 7th and 4th millennia BCE. In the late 3rd and early 2nd millennia BCE the area came under the influence of the Dilmun civilisation, which covered the northern Gulf including Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the eastern portions of Saudi Arabia. This era was marked by the development of pearl diving and trading, which would later become mainstays of the developing Gulf economies.
Both the Babylonians and the Assyrians had influence over the region following this era. All territories, including Qatar, had contact with the Seleucid Empire, a successor of the empire built by Alexander the Great. The Persians established control in the Gulf around 250 BCE and the country became a prominent regional trading hub, producing pearls and dye, while also acting as an important trans-shipment centre. The Persians maintained control of the area until the early years of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad sent an envoy to the region in 628 CE, and eastern Arabia was one of the first areas that adopted the religion in the 7th century. A number of Islamic dynasties flourished in the region during the medieval period. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries both the Portuguese and the Ottomans fought for control of the Arabian peninsula. The Bani Khalid Arab tribal federation took over in 1670. Al Zubarah, Qatar’s UNESCO World Heritage site, was established at that time as a trading and commercial city on the north-west coast.
Qatar’s capital, Doha, was originally founded as Al Bidda in 1825 at a time when the British were beginning to increase their influence across the Middle East, which had strategic importance as a crossroads between Europe and India. British officials eventually acknowledged Qatar and Bahrain as distinct entities, and Sheikh Mohammed bin Al Thani as the ruler of Qatar. In 1893 Sheikh Mohammed’s son, Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, staved off an Ottoman attack at the fort of Al Wajbah with an army of several thousand men. This resulted in the acknowledgement of Qatar’s autonomy by the Ottoman sultan of the epoch. Although it officially remained part of the Ottoman Empire, the event is considered by many as one of the key moments in the foundation of Qatar as an independent state.
Later on, as the Ottoman Empire declined in the early 20th century, Qatar, like many of its neighbours, became a British protectorate. In 1971 the anticipated British withdrawal was finalised and Qatar became independent. In June 1995 Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani came into power, with a new constitution approved by referendum in 2003 and entering into force in 2005. A wide range of social reforms have since taken place, and the role of women in public life has greatly increased over recent years. On June 25, 2013 Sheikh Hamad handed the throne to his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who remains in power.
Qatar is located on the eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula and extends approximately 160 km out into the Gulf, with its only land border being a 60-km stretch shared with Saudi Arabia, which was officially demarcated in 2001. Qatar also shares maritime borders with Bahrain to the north, Iran to the north-east and the UAE to the southeast. The peninsula lies around 30 km from the main island of Bahrain, and Bahrain’s Hawar Islands are only 1.5 km from the Qatari coast. A decision by the International Court of Justice in 2001 acted to resolve a long-standing dispute between the two countries pertaining to the islands.
Another equally important maritime boundary with Iran cuts through the world’s largest natural gas field, meaning that around 60% of the field – known in Qatar as the North Field – lies in Qatari territorial waters. The remainder of the field is referred to as the South Pars Field and is under Iranian control.
A number of islands surround the country’s mainland, the most important of which is Halul Island, as it serves as a loading and storage terminal for neighbouring offshore oilfields. It is the closest inhabited island to the maritime border with the UAE and the state is almost entirely surrounded by the waters of the Gulf. The peninsula is low-lying, with the highest point – Qurayn Abu Al Bawl, in the south – being just 103 metres above sea level.
The majority of the country is composed of predominantly flat desert, covered by loose sand and rock. Khor Al Udaid, known as the Inland Sea, is a large natural water inlet that is surrounded by lofty sand dunes. It is a largely uninhabited nature reserve, which serves as the country’s most widely renowned natural tourist attraction.
Qatar has a hot and humid summer, and a relatively mild winter. The Qatar Civil Aviation Authority (QCAA) classifies December to February as winter and May to September as summer. According to QCAA statistics, mean maximum temperatures from 1962 to 2013 ranged from 22°C to 41.9°C. The highest recorded temperature was 50.4°C in July 2010 and the lowest on file was 1.5°C in February 2017. The mean temperatures over the past 45 years were 35.3°C and 17.4°C, respectively, for July and January, which are the hottest and coldest months. Meanwhile, the mean relative humidity for the same period ranged from 45% to 74%. Qatar is fairly windy throughout the year, with the lowest average wind speed over 45 years recorded at 6.7 knots in September and October, and the highest monthly average at 9.8 knots in June. Due to prevailing winds from the north and the hot summer conditions, June features occasional strong sandstorms.
With no surface freshwater and depleting aquifers, Qatar is a water-scarce country with average annual rainfall of 77 mm. The government has stated that groundwater is extracted almost four times faster than the rate at which it can recharge naturally, at 220m cu metres per year in comparison to a replenishment rate at close to 60m cu metres per year. Groundwater is used almost exclusively for agricultural purposes, and given the extreme weather conditions, the limited arable land and water scarcity in the country, Qatar currently imports most of the food it requires. The majority of water for residential, commercial and industrial use comes from desalination plants. In December 2018 Qatar launched the Water Security Mega Reservoirs Project, which will extend water storage capacity by up to seven days, in line with anticipated demand in 2026. Qatar has also been a leading member of the Global Dryland Alliance, a UN-supported collaborative undertaking to ensure that dryland countries are food-secure. The Executive Council of the alliance held its first session in February 2018 with eight member states in Doha, the city where the organisation is headquartered.
According to the Planning and Statistics Authority, the total population of the country in the third quarter of 2019 was 2.77m. Of these, more than 2m were male and around 710,000 were female. The 2015 national census is the latest population census available, though a new 2020 census has been in preparation since November 2019. The former broke down the population according to where individuals resided. Almost 40% of the people lived in the municipality of Doha or within the city limits of the capital. Indeed, the vast majority of the population resides on the east coast of the peninsula. Al Rayyan, the largest municipality in Qatar, has the second-highest number of residents. Almost completely surrounding Doha and serving as a suburban area for the capital city, Al Rayyan has a number of notable sites, including the Aspire Zone – also known as Doha Sports City – Education City and the Industrial Area.
The country’s other major population centres are located directly north and south of the capital. Al Wakrah Municipality, home to the second-largest city of Al Wakrah, had a population of 299,037, while Al Khor Municipality, home to Al Khor City, had a population of 202,031. Both cities are close to large industrial areas and the majority of their residents work within these zones. Al Khor, which is close to Ras Laffan City, is the centre of Qatar’s oil and gas sector and home to industry giants Qatargas and RasGas. Al Wakrah, close to Mesaieed Industrial City, is the centre of Qatar’s industrial manufacturing and hosts companies like Qatar Fertiliser Company, Qatar Petrochemical Company, Qatar Fuel Additives Company and Qatar Steel. Another key indicator of the 2015 census listed the total number of households in Qatar at 201,432. Figures show 159,552 of these were located in Doha or the suburbs of Al Rayyan Municipality, indicating that around 80% of the population prefers to live close to the capital.
Arabic is the official language of Qatar, although English is also widely spoken, and, given the sizeable non-Arabic-speaking population in the country, is often used as the de facto language of everyday communication. A number of other languages – such as Hindi, Malayalam, Nepali, Tagalog, Bengali and Urdu – are also well represented in the large communities from the Indian subcontinent and South-east Asia. However, all employment contracts and commercial contracts are normally required to be drawn up in Arabic, and in the case of any dispute, the Qatari authorities will refer to the Arabic version. It is therefore important that any contracts be issued in both Arabic and English.
In January 2019 the Council of Ministers passed Law No. 7 of 2019 on the protection of the Arabic language in the country. It states that all ministries, government agencies and NGOs are required to use Arabic for meetings, documents, contracts, transactions, correspondence, advertisements and so on, with translations into other languages allowed as necessary. Concerned bodies had until mid-June 2019 to make the necessary changes, and fines for non-compliance range up to QR50,000 ($13,700). The aim of the law is to protect the state’s cultural identity and ensure that younger generations of Qataris are able to speak Modern Standard Arabic. Rapid globalisation has resulted in a high percentage of youth who can no longer speak Arabic properly or choose not to use it as their primary language.
Qatar’s official religion is Islam. The country has adhered to Islam since the 7th century, when the religion spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula. The state religion follows the Sunni branch of Islam, and is in many respects similar to that of neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Around 90% of Qatar’s population is Sunni and there is a minority Shia population. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and national law recognises the Abrahamic religions. A register is maintained of approved Christian denominations granted legal status, which are Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, Maronite, Filipino Evangelical and Indian Christian churches. The approved Christian denominations have facilities located in a religious complex in Mesaimeer, Al Rayyan.
Given the demographics of the labour force, there are also large Hindu and Buddhist communities. Non-Abrahamic faiths are not allowed to establish houses of worship, although they can worship privately. Qatar’s government is widely viewed as employing a consistent policy of non-interference regarding matters of faith and allowing religious freedom, under the provision that one’s practice does not infringe on the public order.
Qatar is an absolute monarchy and, as with constitutional monarchies, power is vested in the Amir, who operates as the head of state. The position is currently held by Sheikh Tamim, who first assumed his position on June 23, 2013, when his father – Sheikh Hamad – handed power over to him. Having ruled successfully for almost two decades, Sheikh Hamad is widely credited with overhauling the state to establish and strengthen the powerhouse that Qatar is today.
The head of government is the prime minister, who is appointed by Amiri decree and is the second-most powerful official. Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani currently serves as prime minister, as well as minister of interior, and was appointed in January 2020.
The main executive body of government is the Council of Ministers, which serves as the Cabinet, with all ministers being appointed by the head of state. The body is lead by the prime minister and all ministers report directly to the head of state. The Cabinet was completely reshuffled on January 28, 2020 in the second change since Sheikh Tamim appointed his original Council of Ministers after he assumed power from Sheikh Hamad in mid-2013.
The constitution places legislative authority under the purview of the Advisory Council, also known as the Shura Council, which was established in 1972. As per the 2003 constitution, the Advisory Council should be a unicameral body made up of 45 individuals, with one-third being appointed by the head of state and the other twothirds elected. However, at present the Advisory Council is still operating as per pre-constitutional law, with all members appointed by the Amir. In late October 2019 Sheikh Tamim ordered that a committee be established to organise the country’s first elections of the council. Given the government restructuring following the handing over of power and responsibility from Sheikh Hamad in 2013, the Advisory Council’s term was extended subsequently to 2016, 2019 and mid-2021.
The legislative body has three primary functions: reviewing and approving the state’s budget; overseeing the performance of state ministries; and suggesting, discussing and proposing legislation that will require final approval from the Amir before being passed into law. Proposed legislative changes are additionally shared with the Council of Ministers for review, and the Council of Ministers may also propose legislation to the Advisory Council, although the Advisory Council is not legally obliged to either incorporate their reviews or comments, or to vote on any proposed legislation. The Central Municipal Council was established in 1998 and is composed of 29 members who represent 29 constituencies across the country. Members are elected democratically to four-year terms by citizens, and are required to be over the age of 18 and residents within their constituency. The council, however, actually has no legislative authority, and can only provide recommendations to the Ministry of Municipality and Environment. The last elections took place on April 14, 2019 with a voter turnout of around 50.1%.
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