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By Mary Anne WeaverPhotographs by Robb Kendrick



First he overthrew his father. Now the ruler of the rich Persian Gulf nation of Qatar strives to modernize a conservative Islamic society by royal decree.




Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

I arrived in Doha after an absence of 18 months; much had changed since my previous visit, which came before the tragedies of September 11. In late 2000 Qatar had assumed leadership of the influential Organization of the Islamic Conference, and in November 2001 it had successfully hosted the leaders of the World Trade Organization. It had also experienced its first terrorist attack, when a gunman opened fire on U.S. troops at a Qatari air base; he was killed in the exchange.

Qatar seemed considerably richer than on my last visit, and I soon discovered why. Its economy—arguably the fastest growing in the world—was being lifted by revenues from natural gas. As a result, Sheikh Hamad's subjects, whose per capita income is estimated to be more than $28,000 a year, are now among the richest in the world. And wealth had brought its own kind of revolution.

At night the sparkling lights of Doha, which had always resembled a necklace of pearls, were now studded with neon baubles from McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken. For morning coffee I had a choice of Starbucks (where a crowd of young men told me how wonderful Osama bin Laden was) or a coffeehouse in the suq (where a crowd of old men told me how wonderful Saddam Hussein was).

Both men and women are increasingly flocking abroad to Western, including American, universities. On their return to the sheikhdom, many become part of the growing number of young technocrats who serve in the government. Others take over professional and managerial posts. Everyone is encouraged to take up jogging, tennis, or golf—the influence of Sheikh Khalifa, who, as other Persian Gulf sheikhs were transforming their nations into mercantile centers and financial hubs, was riding around Doha in a black Mercedes, inspecting the construction of museums and sports clubs. So today young women, shrouded from head to toe in black abayas, can be seen jogging along Doha Bay in bright new running shoes.

Qatari society is so small that everyone seems to know everyone else—with the possible exception of the guest workers. Of the sheikhdom's total population of 600,000, less than 200,000 are citizens of Qatar. The other 400,000 are foreigners, who tend to live in their own compounds and keep to themselves. Qatar's oil and gas industries are run in part by Americans, Canadians, Britons, and French; its government offices are frequently staffed with Palestinians, Syrians, and Egyptians; its taxicabs and restaurants, with Filipinos, Indians, and Pakistanis.

Take to an airplane and Qatar recedes to a tan flatness, but on the ground its deserts become undulant mountains of sand rolling down to the sea. Geographically, the country is a peninsula the size of Jamaica: 4,400 square miles (11400 square kilometers) of land protruding from Saudi Arabia into the Persian Gulf.

Not so long ago, the borders of Arabia were imaginary lines in the sand laid down by warring tribes, and it was into what is now Qatar that Sheikh Hamad's al-Thani ancestors migrated from the vast central desert of Arabia in the mid-1700s. Had the al-Thanis not come under British protection in 1868, and signed an agreement with Britain in 1916 that allowed for Qatar's eventual independence in 1971, the sheikhdom could easily have become a province of Saudi Arabia.

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VIDEO For photographer Robb Kendrick, Qatar is a contradiction of modest conservatism and capitalist excess.

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VIDEO It's not as easy as it looks. Our multimedia producer goes office to office in search of the right pronunciation for "Qatar."

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Among the world's wealthiest nations, Qatar is also one of the most conservative and traditional societies in the Persian Gulf. What does its recent revolutionary move toward democracy mean for the Middle East?



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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
For more than a century Qatar has been exporting highly desired natural resources. At present the mainstays of the country's revenues are oil and natural gas exports, but in the late 1800s and early 1900s pearls were Qatar's main source of income.

At that time the Persian Gulf, particularly around Bahrain and Qatar, was the world's largest source of natural pearls. Small ships called dhows would sail among the oyster beds, each day sending men into the shallow waters to collect the mollusks. The work was hard and dangerous. The divers, attached to ropes, descended to the seafloor while holding their breath. After gathering as many oysters as possible, they tugged on the rope, a signal to the men aboard ship to pull them up out of the water before they drowned. The process continued, with few breaks, from sunrise to sunset, day after day.

Because of their rarity, natural pearls commanded a high price. Nevertheless, the Qatari people had little income. In the 1930s, after the Japanese developed a way to culture pearls relatively inexpensively, the natural pearl industry collapsed. Fortunately for Qatar, oil, a far more lucrative resource, would be discovered in 1939.

—Jennifer L. Fox

Did You Know?


Related Links
Qatar's Ministry of Foreign Affairs
www.mofa.gov.qa/
Listen to Qatar's national anthem, learn about the country's history, and read more about its growing natural gas industry.

Amiri Diwan
www.diwan.gov.qa/english/main_page_english.htm
This government site provides short biographies of Sheikh Hamad, his heir apparent, and Qatar's prime minister, along with numerous photos of their official visits abroad.

Organization of the Islamic Conference
www.oic-oci.org/
Learn more about why and when the Organization of the Islamic Conference was formed. This site also includes reports and resolutions from recent meetings.

CIA World Factbook 2002
www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/qa.html
This website is full of quick facts about Qatar's economy and people.

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Bibliography
Anscombe, Frederick F. The Ottoman Gulf: The Creation of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Columbia University Press, 1997.

Augustin, Byron, and Rebecca A. Augustin. Enchantment of the World: Qatar. Children's Press, 1997.

El-Naway, Mohammed, and Adel Iskandar. Al-Jazeera: How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East. Westview Press, 2002.

Zahlan, Rosemarie Said. The Making of the Modern Gulf States: Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman, revised and updated edition. Ithaca Press, 1998.

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NGS Resources
"Middle East—Crossroads of Faith and Conflict," Map supplement. National Geographic (October 2002).

Abercrombie, Thomas J. "The Persian Gulf—Living in Harm's Way," National Geographic (May 1998), 648-71.


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