Once an impoverished British protectorate known mostly for its pearl-diving industry, today Qatar is the richest country on Earth, with over $100,000 US per capita GDP. It is a regional leader in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula, regularly mediating disputes among nearby nations, and is also home to the Al Jazeera News Network. Modern Qatar is diversifying from a petroleum-based economy, and coming into its own on the world stage.
Capital and Largest City
Doha, population 1,313,000
The government of Qatar is an absolute monarchy, headed by the Al Thani family. The current emir is Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who took power on June 25, 2013. Political parties are banned, and there is no independent legislature in Qatar. The current emir's father promised to hold free parliamentary elections in 2005, but the vote has been postponed indefinitely.
Qatar does have a Majlis Al-Shura, which acts only in a consultative role. It can draft and suggest legislation, but the emir has final approval of all laws. Qatar's 2003 constitution mandates direct election of 30 out of 45 of the majlis, but currently, all of them remain appointees of the emir.
Qatar's population is estimated at about 2.16 million, as of 2014. It has a huge gender gap, with 1.4 million males and just 500,000 females. This is due to a huge influx of primarily male foreign guest workers.
Non-Qatari people make up more than 85% of the country's population. The largest ethnic groups among the immigrants are Arabs (40%), Indians (18%), Pakistanis (18%), and Iranians (10%). There are also large numbers of workers from the Philippines, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
The official language of Qatar is Arabic, and the local dialect is known as Qatari Arabic. English is an important language of commerce and is used for communication between Qataris and foreign workers. Important immigrant languages in Qatar include Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, Nepali, Malayalam, and Tagalog.
Islam is the majority religion in Qatar, with approximately 68% of the population. Most actual Qatari citizens are Sunni Muslims, belonging to the ultra-conservative Wahhabi or Salafi sect. Approximately 10% of Qatari Muslims are Shi'ite. Guest workers from other Muslim countries are predominantly Sunni, as well, but 10% of them are also Shi'ite, particularly those from Iran.
Other foreign workers in Qatar are Hindu (14% of the foreign population), Christian (14%), or Buddhist (3%). There are no Hindu or Buddhist temples in Qatar, but the government does allow Christians to hold mass in churches on land donated by the government. The churches must remain unobtrusive, however, with no bells, steeples, or crosses on the outside of the building.
Qatar is a peninsula that juts north into the Persian Gulf off of Saudi Arabia. Its total area is just 11,586 square kilometers (4,468 square miles). Its coastline is 563 kilometers (350 miles) long, while its border with Saudi Arabia runs for 60 kilometers (37 miles). Arable land makes up just 1.21% of the area, and only 0.17% is in permanent crops.
Most of Qatar is a low-lying, sandy desert plain. In the southeast, a stretch of towering sand dunes surrounds a Persian Gulf inlet called the Khor al Adaid, or "Inland Sea." The highest point is the Tuwayyir al Hamir, at 103 meters (338 feet). The lowest point is sea level.
Qatar's climate is mild and pleasant in the winter months, and extremely hot and dry during the summer. Nearly all of the tiny amount of annual precipitation falls during January through March, totaling only about 50 millimeters (2 inches).
Once dependent on fishing and pearl diving, the economy of Qatar is now based on petroleum products. In fact, this once-sleepy nation is now the richest on Earth. Its per capita GDP is $102,100 (in comparison, the United States' per capita GDP is $52,800).
Qatar's wealth is based in large part on exports of liquefied natural gas. An astonishing 94% of the workforce is foreign migrant workers, mainly employed in the petroleum and construction industries.
Humans have likely lived in Qatar for at least 7,500 years. Early inhabitants, much like Qataris throughout recorded history, relied on the sea for their living. Archaeological finds include painted pottery traded from Mesopotamia, fish bones and traps, and flint tools.
In the 1700s, Arab migrants settled along the coast of Qatar to begin pearl diving. They were ruled by the Bani Khalid clan, who controlled the coast from what is now southern Iraq through Qatar. The port of Zubarah became the regional capital for the Bani Khalid and also a major transit port for goods.
The Bani Khalid lost the peninsula in 1783 when the Al Khalifa family from Bahrain captured Qatar. Bahrain was a center for piracy in the Persian Gulf, angering the officials of the British East India Company. In 1821, the BEIC sent a ship to destroy Doha in revenge for Bahraini attacks on British shipping. The bewildered Qataris fled their ruined city, not knowing why the British were bombarding them; soon, they rose against Bahraini rule. A new local ruling family, the Thani clan, emerged.
In 1867, Qatar and Bahrain went to war. Once more, Doha was left in ruins. Britain intervened, recognizing Qatar as a separate entity from Bahrain in a settlement treaty. This was the first step in establishing a Qatari state, which took place on December 18, 1878.
In the intervening years, however, Qatar fell under Ottoman Turkish rule in 1871. It regained some measure of autonomy after an army led by Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammad Al Thani defeated an Ottoman force. Qatar was not fully independent, but it became an autonomous nation within the Ottoman Empire.
As the Ottoman Empire collapsed during the course of World War I, Qatar became a British protectorate. Britain, from November 3, 1916, would run Qatar's foreign relations in return for protecting the Gulf state from all other powers. In 1935, the sheikh got treaty protection against internal threats, as well.
Just four years later, oil was discovered in Qatar, but it would not play a major role in the economy until after World War II. Britain's hold on the Gulf, as well as its interest in empire, began to fade with the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947.
In 1968, Qatar joined a group of nine small Gulf nations, the nucleus of what would become the United Arab Emirates. However, Qatar soon resigned from the coalition due to territorial disputes and became independent on its own on September 3, 1971.
Still under Al Thani clan rule, Qatar soon developed into an oil-rich and regionally influential country. Its military supported Saudi units against the Iraqi Army during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and Qatar even hosted Canadian coalition troops on its soil.
In 1995, Qatar underwent a bloodless coup, when Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani ousted his father from power and began to modernize the country. He established the Al Jazeera television network in 1996, allowed the construction of a Roman Catholic church, and has encouraged women's suffrage. In a sure sign of Qatar's closer ties with the west, the emir also allowed the US to base its Central Command on the peninsula during the 2003 Invasion of Iraq. In 2013, the emir handed over power to his son, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.