Initial Contacts with the British

Britain's first contacts with the Qatar peninsular was, seemingly inevitably at this time, in dealing with pirates. The whole southern stretch of the Gulf region was known as the pirate coast and Qatar was no exception. When the Al-Khalifa family left Qatar for Bahrain in 1783 they left something of a power vacuum that led to a whole series of minor sheikhs claiming suzerainty of the area. The most famous of these transitory sheikhs was Rahmah ibn Jabir al-Jalahimah, whom the British regarded as little more than a pirate and directed considerable Naval effort to curbing his, and rival pirates, excesses.

Establishment of Formal Relations

The Al-Khalifa family which had moved to Bahrain, still had effective control over the North West corner of the peninsular and claimed yet more of Qatar. Likewise, the British considered the peninsular as a Bahraini dependency. The inhabitants of the peninsular did not feel the same attachment to these overlords and rose up into what turned into a major rebellion. The fighting became bitter and Doha was virtually destroyed. The British and a major Qatari family; the Al-Thani family now saw mutual advantage in recognising each other. The British saw an opportunity to gain some influence on the peninsular and the Al-Thani saw that they would gain a paramountcy and legitimacy that would lead to a more secure rulership over the peninsular and help resist any more Al-Khalifa claims. In 1868 the two parties signed a treaty. It was this treaty that would later form the legal basis of Qatari independence.

However, despite this promising start for the British, any plans that they had for exerting any control in the area were dashed when Sheikh Mohammed Bin Thani died in 1870 and was succeeded by his son Jasim. Jasim, invited the Ottomans, who had recently conquered the nearby Al-Hasa province, to station troops in his country. Jasim became a master of playing the Ottomans and the British off of one other. This was to last until Jasim died in 1913. The Ottoman troops left shortly after and the British quickly reasserted control in the area, especially when the war started and the British found themselves pitted against the Ottomans. On top of expelling the Ottomans, Sheik Abdullah, the successor to Jasim, also had to contend with the rise of Al-Saud who was busy conquering most of Eastern Arabia. Again, mutual necessity brought the Qataris and British together. In 1916, the British signed an agreement with Shaikh Abdullah that mirrored agreements made with other Gulf rulers. The British undertook to protect the local ruler in return for a promise that the ruler would not have any dealings with other foreign powers without express British permission. This agreement was extended and modified by another treaty in 1934. The British received more security and a definite expulsion of the Ottomans, whilst the Qataris almost certainly forestalled any Al-Saud incursion into their lands.

In Gulf terms, Qatar was staggeringly poor, even before oil made its impact upon the region. Qatar had no major port and the only industries were pearl fishing and animal husbandry. With no port and no business to speak of, the only British interest in the area was to prevent anybody from having an interest in the area. This negative policy could quite easily enough be administered from the much more commercially and militarily significant neighbour of Bahrain. It was therefore left to the British political representative based in Bahrain to administer British interests in and around Qatar: Quite a strange state of affairs when you consider the obvious hostility between the two rival families of Al-Khalifa and Al-Thani.

Oil was discovered in 1939, but was not commercially produced for another 10 years. It was only when this production started that the British saw that it would be necessary to post a political agent directly in Doha. However, things then moved quickly and the British thought it prudent to appoint a financial adviser to the Sheikh to help him deal with the unexpected amounts of money resulting from the oil and gas reserves. Although Sheikh Abdullah was prudent enough to maintain some financial independence by appointing an independent Egyptian financial adviser.

It is plain to see that the British preferred to administer their affairs with the minimum of effort and manpower throughout their relationship with the Sheikhs. There were never more than a handful of British individuals stationed in Doha. There were not even any military personnel in the area for most of the period. However, they were always on call from Bushire or from Bahrain.

Role within the Empire
Qatar was always a minor player in the scheme of Imperial things. Its initial interest to Britain was purely to put an end to piracy in the area; to deny bases and hiding places to these pirates. After this was achieved, Britain had little interest in the peninsular until the discovery of oil. However, even this discovery did not greatly influence the Empire. Britain was already divesting itself of many colonies and had withdrawn from the most important colony of India. Therefore a combination of economics and timing kept Qatar out of any major imperial designs and plans.
Withdrawal from Empire
Britains withdrawal from Qatar was swift in action. Britain made an announcement that it would withdraw from all of the Gulf countries in 1968. Negotiations were quickly concluded with all of the affected Gulf countries as they renegotiated treaties and agreements. Qatar toyed with the idea of joining a federation with Bahrain and the Trucial Oman but quickly decided on its own independence. Qatar officially became independent in 1971 in a relatively smooth transition and one that maintained strong links to Britain. Qatar did have a coup in 1972, but this was not wholly unexpected and the new incumbent, Sheikh Khalifa, still maintained robust defence and commercial links with the British.

Maps of Qatar
map of Qatar
1660 Map of the Middle East
1765 Map of the Middle East
Imperial era flag of Qatar
Flag of Qatar
n.b. All Gulf Sheikhdoms were requested by the British to include the colour white in their flags in order to signify that they had signed the Anti-Piracy Treaties.
Images of Imperial Qatar
Historical Qatar
Historic Qatar Images
Britain's Arabian Oil Empire
David Holden gives an account of how Britain's involvement in the Middle East mutated from a Nineteenth Century concern about security of maritime trade routes and the defence of India into a Twentieth Century preoccupation of guarding the flow of oil and attempts to contain rising nationalist aspirations in the region.
1766 Al-Khalifahs move from Kuwait to Qatar
1783 Al-Khalifahs move from Qatar to Bahrain
1867 Fighting breaks out between Al-Khalifahs based in Bahrain and Qataris
1867 Mohammed Al-Thani signs treaty with British
1871 Ottoman forces invited to Qatar
1913 Ottoman forces leave Qatar
1916 Exclusive Agreement with British
Capital moves to Doha
1934 Modifications to Treaty with British
1935 Oil concession granted to Iraq Petroleum Company
1940 Oil discovered
1949 Commercial extraction of oil begins
1963 General Strike
1968 Britain declares intention of withdrawal from the Gulf
1971 Independence granted
Rulers of Qatar
Mohammed Bin Thani
1860 - 1870
1870 - 1913
1913 - 1948
1949 - 1960
1960 - 1972
1972 -
Suggested Reading
The Ottoman Gulf

Oil and Politics in the Gulf: Rulers Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar

The Making of the Modern Gulf States: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman

The Creation of Qatar


The Merchants: The Big Business Families of Arabia

Middle East in the Twentieth Century

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by Stephen Luscombe