L.I.S.A.: How does Qatar’s history relate to Gerda Henkel’s program on nationalism in the Middle East?
Dr. Fromherz: Perhaps the most important, and misunderstood, dynamic in Qatar is the relationship between the Emir and the small population of Qatari citizens. Although there are 1.7 million people in Qatar, there are only about 225,000 Qataris. This is about the size of the city of Oberhausen in Germany. The ruling family, the Al-Thani, is also quite large and a sizeable proportion of this population. As such, there are ample opportunities for close contact between the ruler and the ruled. In many instances conflicts and issues are resolved internally and unofficially through the tribal majlis, or traditional council system. As the population and economy grow, however, the Emir has claimed far more power and authority than he could claim in the past. At one point, just a few decades ago, there were many Emirs in Qatar - other major tribes, such as the Naim, had their own Emir or “ruler” and they considered themselves largely independent of the Al-Thani Emir. The Emir’s effective power was concentrated only around Doha. He was seen sometimes as “first among equals.” Even within Doha, city districts are divided largely according to tribe.
Recently, however, the current Emir has amassed most of the resources and most of the power not only within the Al-Thani tribe but also within the small segment of the Al-Thani most closely related to the Emir. At the same time, he has manufactured and promoted a national myth of origins that places the Emir and the Emir’s ancestors at the center of Qatari history. This myth of the “nation” is, for Qatar, extremely new. Nation day only started in 2007 and it is used to commemorate Emir’s ancestor and his leadership of a battle against the Ottomans at Wajbah. In many respects, loyalty to the nation is equated with loyalty to the Emir and loyalty to nation is now expected to trump loyalty to tribe. It is for this reason that Qatar’s leadership is very keen to create a sense of national culture and heritage linked directly to the status quo and to emiri power. Even “democratization”, when it is not accompanied by meaningful representation and sharing of power, seems to be an institutionalization of state and emiri power as it merely registers citizens as part of a national project.
Qatar, A Modern History, demonstrates that the power of the Emir was due not simply to historical preeminence but to the interference of outside Empires, especially the British and the Ottomans, who selected the first Emirs as to represent other tribes on the Peninsula. This power was only solidified with the signing of Oil Concessions that were given personally to the Emir, not to the country as a whole.