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Saturday, November 04, 2006

The rise of the Qatari ruling family

The Al-Thanis are the ruling family of one of the richest countries in the world. But it wasn't always this way...

Up until the nineteenth century, Qatar appears to have been a sort of no-man’s land uninhabited apart from a few self-ruling and often warring tribes and settlements. It also provided a place of refuge from those running from enemies. The Khalifas were one such group, and briefly established a port and trading settlement at Zubarah before going on to conquer Bahrain. They maintained their claim over Qatar, though, and were paid tribute. Territorial claims were not completely settled until 2001 (Wikipedia: History of Qatar).

By the mid-nineteenth century the Al-Thani family already had some influence in parts of Qatar. Sahikh Mohammed Bin-Thani was known as the headman of the village of Al-Bida (also known as Doha), collecting revenue and taxes in and around his village and handing at least some of it to Bahrain. The British also had influence, though their main concern was to maintain peace so their trading activities could proceed unhindered. To achieve this aim, they were involved in frequent negotiations with warring parties in the region.

In 1867 Bahrain attacked Doha and the town of Al-Wakra after they displayed signs of restiveness, sacking both towns to the extent of removing the doors and rafters from each house. The inhabitants fled, and for a brief time the towns were uninhabited. The British were furious and eventually removed the Sultan of Bahrain, replacing him with his more compliant brother.

The British also decided to initiate talks with the local people of Qatar. They were received by Sahikh Mohamad Bin Thani on behalf of “all the Sheikhs and tribes” in the peninsula (A.de L. Rush), who signed a treaty to maintain peace, and agreed that future disputes would be referred to the British for peaceful mediation. However, this signified an increase in the influence and power of the Al Thanis, rather than the start of their rule over a unified Qatar.

As Sahikh Mohamad grew older, more of Doha’s affairs were run by Sahikh’s son, Qassim. However, Sahikh was very much against Qassim's decision to assist the Ottomans in their attempt to consolidate their hold on the area. When the Turks landed in the area, in 1872, Qassim “accepted” the Turkish flag while his father continued to fly the Arabian flag over his own residence. In return for Qassim’s support, the Turks made Qassim their “Qaim Magam” or Deputy Governor of Qatar.

The British accepted the change in affairs. Their main concern was to maintain dominance of the seas, and they already had a treaty with Turkey. However they were annoyed when, after harassment, many of the British-Indian traders left the area. Qassim, a pearl trader and businessman as well as a ruler, seems to have been lax in preventing this harassment, and benefited from the subsequent lack of competition.

By the 1880’s Qassim was facing rebellion in various areas of the country. He was annoyed by a lack of support from the Turks, and relationships deteriorated, culminating in Qassim resigning the Deputy Governorship. In 1893 the Ottomans sent a large force against Qassim. Qassim initially tried to avoid conflict, seeking compromise. When forced into battle, the ruler, though now an octogenarian, was successful in rallying local forces and defeating the Ottoman force in a particularly bloody battle, becoming Qatar’s first national hero in the process. The Turks were forced to remove a land and sea blockade, accept Qassim’s resignation as Qaim Magam and pardon him for any crimes. Although the Ottomans maintained a presence in the country for some years, (they were finally kicked out in 1915), Qassim’s victory in battle over the Ottomans appears to have marked the real ascendancy of the Al-Thanis and the origins of Qatar as a state.

Note – I have used the same spelling as Rush for Sahikh Mohammad Bin Thani. Elsewhere this is spelt Shaikh.


- A.de L. Rush (Ed) Ruling families of Arabia
- Penelope Tucson (Ed) Records of Qatar 1820 – 1966
- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Qatar
- Qatar year book 1978-1979

Also see: Pearl Fishing in Qatar

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