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History & Background

The State of Qatar juts out into the Arabian/Persian Gulf from the Arabian Peninsula, a peninsula itself protruding from Arabia into the Gulf, comprising 11,437 square kilometers (4,416 square miles) of low lying land surrounded by a number of reefs and small islands. The main cities in Qatar are the capital city of Doha, the industrial city of Misaiaeed, and the smaller cities of Al Khor, Al Wakrah, Dukhan, Al Shamal, Al Zubarah, and Ras Laffan. The population of Qatar in 1998 was about 600,000 people, although of this number, only an estimated 120,000-150,000 were national Qataris. The rest of the population was foreign workers, mainly from Iran and Pakistan, as well as India and other countries of Asia. Most Qataris are of the strict Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam, and the country has socioreligious restrictions, for example the prohibition of alcohol and the veiling of women. The official language is Arabic, but other languages are used such as English and Urdu.

After World War I, Qatar became a British protectorate, this following four centuries of Turkish control. The country was an economically stagnant backwater until oil exports began in 1949. Oil revenues enabled an accelerated pace of development, and today there are attempts underway to diversify the economy because Qatar's petroleum reserves are not expected to last for much longer. The oil reserves are relatively insignificant in comparison to the vast reserves held by neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, but Qatari natural gas reserves are extremely large, the third biggest proven reserves after Russian and Iranian reserves.

Historically Qatar has been continuously inhabited since the fourth millennium B.C. The Ubaid culture of Mesopotamia encompassed the Qatari Peninsula, and historians such as Herodotus noted the navigational skills and marine trading of the early inhabitants of the region. On Ptolemy's map of the ancient Arab world, Qatara is listed in reference to an important commercial seaport of the time.

The marine profession of pearling created economic growth in the fourteenth century Abbasid era. The demand for pearls by the Baghdad Caliphate benefited the local pearling and trade-based economy. In the sixteenth century Qatar aligned with the Turks in order to resist the Portuguese, and for the next 400 years Ottoman rule was effected through the headship of local Arab tribal sheikhs subordinated to the Ottomans.

Qatar became an independent nation on September 3, 1971. There had been talk of the emirates of Qatar and Bahrain joining the federation of the United Arab Emirates (UAR), but when Bahrain declared to become a sovereign state instead of joining the UAR, Qatar followed suit, not wanting to be outdone by its rival sheikhdom. Recent (since 1986) rivalry and mistrust between Bahrain and Qatar stems from territorial disputes over the Hawar Islands and gas fields, but the disputes are not considered to be serious and the countries are cooperating with arbitration efforts.

Originally from the Najd region in Saudi Arabia, having moved to the Qatari Peninsula in the eighteenth century, the Al Thani ruling family dominates Qatar today. The emir or ruler of the country, HH (His Highness) Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, deposed his father Sheikh Khalifa Al Thani in a 1995 bloodless coup supported by the military and the Al Thani family. Executive power is vested in the Emir Sheikh Hamad, who governs by royal decrees. No political parties are allowed, but there is a consultative council, the Majlis As Shura, a largely powerless entity performing only consultative duties for issues that the Emir places on the council's agenda. There is talk of establishing a permanent constitution and an elected parliament, and there may possibly be some important changes in Qatar's system of governance as the country again follows the trail of its neighbor Bahrain where there now exists a greater degree of political freedom than before.

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