A traveler passing through Qatar almost 100 years ago observed:
"It is from the sea, not from the land that the people subsist; and it is mainly on the sea that they dwell, passing amid its waters the one half of the year in search of pearls, the other half in fishery and trade. Hence, their real homes are in the countless boats which stud the placid pool, or stand drawn up in long black lines on the shore."
The Qataris are still fishermen and pearl divers, but now they have a relatively new industry—oil. Last year, income from petroleum reserves amounted to more than 50 million dollars, and practically all of the 8,670,919 tons of oil produced were exported.
Approximately 45,000 people live on the peninsula of Qatar, a Middle Eastern sheikhdom that juts 100 miles out into the Arabian Gulf. Fifty miles wide, its land area is roughly equivalent to the state of Massachusetts. Qatar's land borders are with Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, one of the seven Trucial Coast states, although these boundaries have never been officially demarcated.
There is not a great deal recorded about Qatar's history. It is possible that it was once an island, since the salt flats and seven-mile-long lake that define its inland frontier comprise a very low-lying area. Since 1956, a Danish archaeological expedition has paid an annual visit to the peninsula and has excavated some ancient burial mounds at Umm al-Ma on the west coast. The mounds are similar to those found on Bahrain, a neighboring island state, but the archaeologists have not yet released their findings. Nonetheless, there is widespread evidence of habitation that dates to prehistoric times and reflects the changing fortunes of Qatar.
The peninsula of Qatar is mostly flat desert lands with limestone hills, the highest of which is 250-foot Jebel Dukhan in the west. It is at Dukhan that the oil field and camp of the Qatar Petroleum Company, an affiliate of the British-controlled Iraq Petroleum Company, are located. They lie approximately 60 miles from the capital city of Doha on the east coast.
Although Qatar's ancient past is still a matter of speculation, her recent history is quite well documented.
Arabs in the southern regions of the Middle East have a saying: "The more barren the coast, the more piratical the inhabitants." This was the case as far back as Roman times when Pliny recorded the fact that archers were carried aboard ships that voyaged to Egypt. Twelve hundred years later Marco Polo described cordons of dhows stretched across the mouth of the Persian Gulf, making it impossible for a merchant ship to escape unscathed. Buccaneering was so fierce that even Captain Kidd was daunted, found the competition too rough when he tried to capture some of the lucrative Eastern trade and returned to his old stamping grounds on the Spanish Main.
The sailors of Oman were the most successful of the area's buccaneers, and their stronghold during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was the coastal plain between the peninsula of Qatar on the west and the promontory of Ras al-Masandam on the east. The inhabitants of this region called themselves Jawasmis after the most important local tribe.
In 1853, the Jawasmi sheikhs signed a Treaty of Peace in Perpetuity with the British, and this coast has ever since been known as the Coast of the Truce, or Trucial Coast. Then in 1892, the sheikhs agreed not to enter into treaty relationships with any powers other than the British. To this day, all the Arabian Gulf states except Kuwait are British protectorates, including Qatar, which is ruled by Sheikh Ahmed ibn Ali al-Thani.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Arabian Gulf produced half of the world's supply of pearls. At least 3,500 boats of pearl fishers operated off Bahrain and Qatar, one-fourth of them directly from the peninsula. With the development of Japanese cultured pearls in the 1930's, Gulf pearling declined considerably.
But the pearl beds that lie off the Trucial Coast have always been the most famous in the world and may very well account for Qatar's name, which is thought to mean "a drop of water." It was the Babylonians who originated the belief that pearls are raindrops caught by the oyster between its twin shells. "A big drop gives birth to a big pearl and out of a sprinkling the seed pearls are born," wrote thirteenth-century Arab geographer al-Qazwini in his "Wonders of Creation."
Qataris still gather pearls, some fish for a livelihood, and the 10,000 Bedouin in the interior graze animals. But a substantial proportion of the people of Qatar work in the oil industry or in activities directly related to its operations.
Oil came to Qatar in 1940, although the first exploratory well was started in 1938 and the concession agreement signed in 1935. Three wells were drilled, then plugged as a defensive measure during World War II. Operations began again in 1947 and two years later the first shipment of Qatar crude was loaded onto the tanker President Meny at the port of Umm Said and headed for Europe.
Between 1948 and 1957 alone, 58 wells were drilled. Of these, 48 were producer wells and the other ten were observation wells designed to allow petroleum engineers to determine the changing gas and water levels between which the oil lies.
With the coming of oil, Doha, the capital, has changed from a sleepy village to a bustling city with 30,000 inhabitants. The streets are paved, hotels and attractive residential areas have been built, the airport is large enough to accommodate jets, the commercial district is thriving, and there is a drinking-water system serviced by two distillation plants.
Health treatment and education are both free. A large hospital, one of the best-equipped in the Middle East, was opened in Doha in 1957 and a Women's Hospital was also constructed. Qatar will soon launch a comprehensive public health service. All these facilities are in addition to the modern ones maintained for its employes by the Qatar Petroleum Company in Dukhan and Umm Said.
Since the first school was opened in Doha in 1950, considerable advances have been made in the field of education. Last year, over 7,000 youngsters attended school, not only in the capital but in the northern villages as well. There are a number of kindergarten and elementary schools, a secondary school, an industrial institute and a teacher-training academy. Adult education classes in many areas have also been started.
Nearly two-thirds of the world's oil reserves are located under the sands of the Middle East, much of it in a huge arc around the Persian Gulf. Yesterday, today and tomorrow exist side by side in these states of the Gulf. But some of these countries are rapidly leaping into the twentieth century. Qatar is one of them.