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 revenues generated from having the third-largest proven natural gas reserves globally, Qatar has one of the world’s highest GDPs per capita: at current prices it stood at QR234,586 ($64,400) in 2017.
Prior to 2010 the country was mostly known internationally for its vast gas reserves and for being the home of the media network Al Jazeera. However, this changed when Qatar won the contest to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup in December of that year. Now, it has become well known in the international arena for many reasons, from its extensive international investments and ample spending at home on substantial infrastructure projects, to the diplomatic rift within the GCC since June 2017.
With one of the fastest-growing economies worldwide, the country enjoys some of the highest international standards in education and health care. Moreover, the population has grown rapidly due to the influx of foreign workers, increasing by an estimated 40% since 2010.
The modern state of Qatar became an independent country on September 3, 1971 after declaring independence from the UK. However, it celebrates Qatar National Day on December 18, marking the unification of all Qatari tribes in 1878 under Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, who is regarded as the founder of what is now known officially as the State of Qatar.
Although a relatively young nation, the peninsula of Qatar has a long history of human habitation, with archaeological finds dating objects 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 areas of 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. The region as a whole, including Qatar, had contact with the Seleucid Empire, a successor of Alexander the Great’s empire.
The Persians established control in the Gulf around 250 BCE and the country became an important trading hub, producing pearls and dye, while also acting as an important trans-shipment point. The Persians maintained control of the area until the early years of the formation of Islam. The Prophet Muhammad sent an envoy to the area 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 over the medieval period. Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries both the Portuguese and the Ottomans fought for control of the modern day Gulf region. The Bani Khalid Arab tribal federation took over in 1670. Al Zubarah, Qatar’s only UNESCO World Heritage site, was then established as a trading and commercial city on the north-west coast.
The modern city of 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 region, 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 Thani as the ruler of Qatar.
In 1893 Sheikh Mohammed’s son, Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani, defeated an Ottoman force at the fort of Al Wajbah with a Qatari army of several thousand men. This resulted in the acknowledgement of Qatar’s autonomy. Although it officially remained part of the Ottoman Empire, it is seen as one of the key moments in the foundation of Qatar as an independent state. 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 became emir following a bloodless coup, with a new constitution approved by referendum in 2003 and entering into force in 2005. A range of social reforms have since taken place, and the role of women in public life has greatly increased. On June 25, 2013 Sheikh Hamad handed the throne to his son, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the current emir.
Qatar is located on the Arabian Peninsula and has a total land area of 11,437 sq km, making it roughly comparable in size to Montenegro or Gambia. The country is a 160-km peninsula jutting out into the Gulf. Its only land border – a 60-km stretch shared with Saudi Arabia – was officially demarcated in 2001. Qatar also shares maritime borders with Bahrain to the north, Iran to the northeast and the UAE to the south-east.
The peninsula lies only 30 km from the main island of Bahrain. Furthermore, the Hawar Islands, which belong to Bahrain, are only 1.5 km from the Qatari coast. A decision by the International Court of Justice in 2001 resolved the long-standing dispute between the two countries over the islands. Another equally important maritime boundary with Iran cuts through the world’s largest natural gas field, meaning that approximately 60% of the field – commonly known in Qatar as the North Field – lies in Qatari territorial waters. The remainder of the field that is on the other side of the maritime boundary is referred to as the South Pars Field and is under Iranian control.
Qatar has a number of islands surrounding the mainland, the most important of which is Halul Island, which serves as a loading and storage terminal for neighbouring offshore oilfields, making it the closest inhabited island to the maritime border with the UAE. The total coastline of the country is 563 km long, 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 one of the country’s most renowned natural tourist attractions.
Qatar has a hot and humid summer, and a relatively mild winter. The Qatar Civil Aviation Authority classifies December to February as winter and May to September as summer. Average maximum temperatures for 2016 ranged from 25.4°C to 33.6°C. The highest-ever recorded temperature was 49.6°C in July 2000, and the lowest on file was 1.5°C in February 2017. The average temperatures over the past 45 years were 35.1°C and 14.4°C, respectively, for July and January, which are the hottest and coldest months. The average annual humidity for 2016 ranged from 24.5% to 66%.
Qatar is fairly windy throughout the year, with the lowest average wind speed over 45 years recorded at 6.7 knots in the months of September and October, and the highest monthly average at 9.8 knots in June. Due to the prevailing wind 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 rainfall of 77 mm per year. The government has stated that groundwater is being extracted almost four times faster than the rate at which it can recharge naturally, at 220 cu metres per year in comparison to the 60 cu metres per year replenishment rate. Groundwater is used almost exclusively for agricultural purposes, and farming has declined primarily due to reductions in available water from natural aquifers. Therefore, the majority of water for residential, commercial and industrial use comes from desalination.
Due to the country’s extreme weather conditions, soil limitations and water scarcity the government has stated that there is only approximately 240 sq km of arable land in the country. Qatar therefore imports over 90% of its food requirements due to a lack of agricultural production. The state at present only has water reserves to last for two days, and has recently launched the Water Security Mega-Reservoirs Project, which extends water storage capacity by up to seven days, in line with anticipated demand in 2026 (see Utilities chapter).
According to the Ministry of Development Planning and Statistics, the total population of the country in 2016 was approximately 2.6m (see analysis). Of these, 1.97m were male and 642,098 were female. The 2015 national census broke down the population according to where individuals resided. Almost 40%, or some 956,457 people, lived in the municipality of Doha or within the city limits of the capital. Additionally, the vast majority of the population of the country resides on the east coast of the peninsula.
Al Rayyan, the largest municipality, has the second-highest number of residents, at 605,712. 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.
Other major population areas are directly north and south of the capital, namely the two largest cities after Doha. Al Wakrah Municipality, home to the second-largest city, Al Wakrah, has a population of 299,037, while Al Khor Municipality, home to Al Khor City, has a population of 202,031. Both cities are located close to major industrial areas, and the majority of their residents work within these cities. Al Khor, which is close to Ras Laffan City, is the centre of Qatar’s oil and gas industry, and is home to industry giants like Qatargas and RasGas. Al Wakrah, close to Mesaieed Industrial City, is the centre of the country’s industrial manufacturing and hosts companies like Qatar Fertiliser Company, Qatar Petrochemical Company, Qatar Fuel Additives Company and Qatar Steel, among others.
Another key indicator included in the 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 the majority of households, or around 80% of the population, prefer to live close to the capital.
Arabic is the official language of Qatar, although English is widely spoken, and, given the sizeable non-Arabic-speaking population, is often used as the de facto language of everyday communication. 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 in Arabic, and in the case of any dispute, Qatari authorities refer to the Arabic version; therefore it is important to ensure that contracts are issued in both Arabic and English (see Legal Framework chapter).
In February 2016 the Council of Ministers passed a draft law with provisions for the protection of the Arabic language in the country. It has stated that once the law comes into effect, all ministries, official public institutions and public educational institutions would be required to use Arabic for all instruction, documents, contracts, transactions, correspondence, advertisements and so on. The aim of the law is to protect 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, or choose not to.
Islam is the state’s official religion. The country has adhered to Islam since the 7th century, during which time 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. It is estimated that 90% of the population is Sunni and there is a minority Shia population.
The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and national law recognises the Abrahamic religions. An official register is maintained of approved Christian denominations granted legal status, including Catholic, Anglican, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic, Maronite, Filipino Evangelical and Indian Christian churches. Non-Abrahamic faiths are not allowed to establish houses of worship, although they are allowed to worship privately. The eight 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. Qatar’s government is widely viewed as practicing 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 public order.
Qatar is an absolute monarchy with all power vested in the emir, who operates as the head of state. The powers of the monarch are not limited, and as in constitutional monarchies, the emir maintains the power to reject any suggested legislative changes. The state is a hereditary monarchy and has been ruled by the Al Thani family since the mid-19th century. Sheikh Tamim is the current emir and assumed his position on June 23, 2013, when his father, Sheikh Hamad, handed power over to him. During his almost two-decade rule, Sheikh Hamad has been widely credited with overhauling the state to establish and strengthen the economic and political powerhouse that Qatar is today.
The constitution dictates that rulers should be male descendants from the Al Thani family. The successor should be a son of the emir appointed as his heir apparent. The emir also has the power to name another member of the family as the heir apparent if he does not have a son, or if his son is unable to assume the position. The emir may reappoint an heir as well. Sheikh Abdullah bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani was appointed as the deputy emir in November 2014 by his half brother, Sheikh Tamim. He is presently designated successor to the emir, as the emir has not yet appointed an heir apparent. However, it is very likely that Sheikh Tamim will appoint his eldest son as the heir apparent once he is of age.
The head of government in Qatar is the prime minister, who is appointed by emiri decree and is the second-most-powerful official after the emir. Sheikh Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani is serving as the current prime minister as well as the minister of interior, and was appointed in Sheikh Tamim’s first Cabinet in 2013.
The main executive body is the Council of Ministers, which serves as the Cabinet, with all ministers being appointed by the emir. The Council of Ministers is headed by the prime minister, and all ministers report directly to the emir. The current Cabinet was reshuffled on January 27, 2016. This was the first ministerial reshuffle since Sheikh Tamim appointed his first official Council of Ministers after taking power in 2013 (see analysis).
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 emir and the other two-thirds elected. However, at present the Advisory Council is still operating as per pre-constitutional law, with 35 members all appointed by the emir.
There have been discussions over the past several years over holding elections as per the 2003 constitution. Given the restructuring of the government following the handing over of power and responsibility from Sheikh Hamad in 2013, the Advisory Council’s term was extended to 2016, and then for another three years until 2019.
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 emir 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 Qatar. Members are elected democratically to four-year terms by Qataris, 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. Elections took place on May 13, 2015, with voter turnout of 70%.