On Qatari history, oil, and Doha’s skyline

Late posting my review of Allen Fromherz’s Qatar: A Modern History, which ran in the National last month. The book fills a vital gap in scholarly accounts of Qatar’s political and economic history, beyond what is mostly superficial media coverage (which I highlight at the outset of the piece). In particular Fromherz offers a compelling reading of the historical roots of Gulf authoritarianism through the 19th century British imperial treaties with what were known as the Trucial States. British agreements created the kind of political rule that persists today; the Anglo-Qatari Treaty enshrined Sheikh Abdallah and his family as Qatar itself, legally inseparable. In their effort to find reliable political allies, the British eliminated rivalries and empowered the Al-Thani tribe internally while forcing them to cede their foreign affairs to the British government. In this way, Fromherz writes, “the British elite’s understanding of the sheikhdoms as authoritarian, desert aristocracies created the legal foundations of present-day authoritarianism.”

Here is the opening:

Qatar is captured in images. A favourite is the new and expanding skyline of Doha, variously described by The New York Times as “medieval Baghdad crossed withBlade Runner” and “a cluster of spaceships about to blast off”. The Baghdad connection is never really explained, but that’s the point: Qatar is what you want it to be, as long as you have a good metaphor and a picture to back it up. Foreign Policyrecently attempted to amend some of these rhetorical flourishes – what it derided as the “rank hyperbole” of much western media coverage of Qatar – but produced its very own. The Sheraton Hotel, the go-to diplomatic meeting spot and 1980s-era landmark on Doha’s redeveloped Corniche, was likened to the bar scene from Star Wars, “with French paratroopers strolling by as djellaba-clad Darfuri rebels and western oil executives sip tea in the hotel’s towering lobby”.

With its newness, wealth and diplomatic attempts to be all things to most people, Qatar is compelling. What seems most impressive (and perhaps most familiar for anyone who has spent any amount of time in this part of the Arabian Gulf) is the nation’s quick ascent from “a penniless swatch of sand and rock inhabited by nomads and fishermen”, in the words of one of those recent New York Times articles. The impression of such descriptions is a place without history. But was it really so different, the spaceship skyline aside? And who were those nomads and fishermen?

Read the rest at the National. Photo by me, from a visit to Doha in 2009 (the skyline has changed since then).