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Allen J. Fromherz, Qatar. A Modern History

‘We are all from the highest to the lowest slaves of one master, Pearl’ (114). In this way a local chieftain, Muhammad Ibn Thani, summarised the Qatari condition for the benefit of the English traveller William Palgrave. It was 1863 and the British Empire, in its aim to guarantee navigation safety, began to take interest in the remote peninsula that juts out into the waters of the Gulf. Five years later Colonel Pelly, having invited all the local sheikhs aboard the ship Vigilant, was to name that same Muhammad Ibn Thani as the only interlocutor of the English government. Modern Qatar was born.

 

At that time nobody could have foreseen the extraordinary luck that the country was to have from the second half of the twentieth century onwards. The only reason for a human settlement in such a hostile climate (hot and damp, but without rain) was pearl fishing. The inhabitants lived concentrated in a few settlements along the coast, while the inland areas were more or less uninhabited. Enslavement by the pearl was translated in a total dependence on the ups and downs of the market. While during the mid-20s there were about 60,000 pearl fishers in the country, they had dropped to just one tenth of this number in 1944 owing to the decline in demand. These were the ‘years of hunger’, which the older generations still remember, until the discovery of oil and then gas was the start of an era of apparently unlimited wellbeing. Today the country has 225,000 inhabitants, but about one and a half million expatriates and its economy is growing at rates of 16-18% per year, on the strength of the huge fields of natural gas which is liquefied in the Ras Laffan plants. Its strategic importance is increased by the al-Udeid air-base, headquarters of the US Central Command, one of the six theatres of operations of the American army.

 

In the face of such a radical change there is a strong temptation to see the events from the viewpoint of total discontinuity. Fromherz’s book puts itself in the opposite perspective, tending to highlight the elements of continuity: ‘So much has changed in the infrastructure and physical, built environment of Qatar. So little has changed within the Qatari citizen’s basic social milieu’ (13). The author manages to prove his argument convincingly as far concerns the capacity for diplomatic mediation which Qatar now displays and which is shown as being deeply rooted in the country’s history. In fact Qatar is ‘one of the world’s most unlikely political entities’(41) and the fact that it has emerged as an independent state, despite its closeness to politically more organised countries like Bahrain or the Saudi Kingdom, is worthy of an explanation in itself. The reason probably lies in that very Qatari ability to count on the British presence to counter the Ottoman advance and the pressure of its neighbours: still today the battle of Wajbah (a modest clash which took place in 1892, in which the forces of sheikh Jassim got the better of 200 Turkish soldiers) is celebrated as a national holiday. This same tradition continues to be shown in the Qatari potentiality to play at different tables: it hosts the biggest American base in the region, but keeps good relations with Iran, in 2008 it managed to reconcile all the Lebanese factions and then attempted to do the same with the Palestinian ones, but until 2009 kept an Israeli business office on its territory. And above all, by means of the television al-Jazeera, it supported the Arab revolutions practically everywhere (especially in Libya and now in Syria), except at home or in nearby Bahrain.

 

A second aspect of continuity that Fromherz dwells on is the persistence of tribal ties. Even if the tribe is an elusive entity for western political organisations, the impression is that in this case Fromherz gives too much importance to a social reality that, even though vital until a few years ago, now seems to have been taken over by a definite concentration of power in the hands of the al-Thani family.

 

In both cases nevertheless, the impact of modernity on a traditional society remains the basic question. To answer this question the author adopts Durkheim’s category of anomy. The hypothesis is that the huge presence of expatriates has so far allowed the Qataris to enjoy only the positive fruits of modernity. ‘The price [...] is the existence of an expatriate culture. However, this expatriate culture is kept subservient, in terms of rights and access to Qatar’s economy’ (10). Hence the curious observation by the president of the University of Qatar, Professor Sheykha Abdullah al-Misnad, on the ‘lack of postmodernism’ among the young which would represent the most important challenge for the future of the country, far more demanding than economic diversification.

 

Fromherz’s bbok would have gained from a few more months of elaboration. He would thus have avoided a number of repetitions and divided up the topics in a more structured way. Even the sources are limited, almost all in western languages and more articles than books, although the lack of literature on the subject offers a justification in part. Despite these limitations, the book offers a rich collection of data on a country that is still little known but which has carved out a central role in the contemporary Arab world for itself, and originally exploits the various categories attaining to the human sciences.

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