LANGUAGE: Arabic; English
RELIGION: Islam (Sunni Muslim)
Qataris live on a small peninsula that juts due north into the Persian Gulf, in the area generally known as the Middle East. Qatar is one of the "oil states," a country that moved quickly from poverty to riches with the discovery of oil reserves.
There is archaeological evidence that the land now known as Qatar was inhabited by humans as long ago as 5000 BC . Pearling in the oyster beds just offshore began back in 300 BC . The Islamic revolution arrived in Qatar in AD 630, and all Qataris converted to Islam.
The Qatari people lived fairly traditional lives until oil was discovered. World War II (1939–45) delayed production of the oil until 1947. Since that time, Qataris have become some of the wealthiest people in the world. Qatar became fully independent on September 3, 1971.
A peninsula in the Persian Gulf, Qatar is about the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. The north, east, and west sides of the peninsula are bordered by the Gulf waters. To the south lie Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Qatar and Bahrain have long disputed ownership of the Hawar Islands, which lie between the two states.
The climate in Qatar is generally hot and dry. In the winter months it gets somewhat cooler, but much more humid. Temperatures can go as high as 110° F (43° C ) in the summer (between May and October). In the winter, the humidity can reach 100 percent. A hot desert wind blows almost constantly all year long, bringing with it frequent sand-and duststorms.
Little plant or animal life exists in Qatar. The Gulf waters support a greater amount and variety of life. Sea turtles, sea cows, dolphins, and an occasional whale can be found there. Shrimp are harvested in large numbers.
The population of Qatar is somewhere between 400,000 and 500,000 people. Of those, 75 to 80 percent are foreign workers. There are only about 100,000 native-born Qataris. Most people in Qatar live in the cities. Eighty percent of the total population lives in the capital city of Doha. Doha is on the east coast of the Qatar peninsula.
The official language of Qatar is Arabic. Many Qataris are also fluent in English, which is used as the common language for business.
"Hello" in Arabic is Marhaba or Ahlan, to which one replies, Marhabtayn or Ahlayn . Other common greetings are As-salam alaykum, "Peace be with you," with the reply of Walaykum as-salam, "And to you peace." Ma'assalama means "Goodbye." "Thank you" is Shukran, and "You're welcome" is Afivan. "Yes" is na'am and "no" is la'a . The numbers one to ten in Arabic are wahad, itnin, talata, arba'a, khamsa, sitta, saba'a, tamania, tisa'a, and ashara .
Arabs have very long names. They consist of their given name, their father's first name, their paternal grandfather's first name, and finally their family name. Women do not take their husband's name when they marry, but rather keep their mother's family name as a show of respect for their family of origin.
Many Muslims believe in jinns, spirits who can change shape and be either visible or invisible. Muslims sometimes wear amulets around their necks to protect them from jinns. Stories of jinns are often told at night, like ghost stories around a campfire.
At least 95 percent of the total population of Qatar is Muslim (followers of Islam). Native-born Qataris are all Sunni Muslims of the Wahhabi sect. Wahhabis are a puritanical branch of Islam which is prevalent in Saudi Arabia. A somewhat more moderate form is found in Qatar.
As an Islamic state, Qatar's official holidays are Islamic ones. Muslim holidays follow the lunar calendar, moving back by eleven days each year, so their dates are not fixed on the standard Gregorian calendar. The main Muslim holidays are Ramadan, the month of fasting from dawn until dusk each day. Eid al-Fitr is a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan. Eid al-Adha is a three-day feast of sacrifice at the end of the month of pilgrimage to the prophet Muhammad's birthplace at Mecca (the pilgrimage is known as the hajj). The First of Muharram is the Muslim New Year. Mawoulid An-Nabawi is Muhammad's birthday. Eid alism wa al-Miraj is a feast celebrating the overnight visit of Muhammad to heaven.
Friday is the Islamic day of rest. Most businesses and services are closed on Fridays. All government offices, private businesses, and schools are also closed during Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
Qataris mark major life transitions such as birth, puberty, marriage, and death with Islamic ceremonies and feasting.
Arab hospitality reigns in Qatar. An Arab will never ask personal questions. To do so is considered rude.
Food and drink are always taken with the right hand. When talking, Arabs touch each other much more often, and stand much closer together, than Westerners do. People of the same sex will often hold hands while talking, even if they are virtual strangers.
Members of the opposite sex, even married couples, never touch in public. Arabs talk a lot, talk loudly, repeat themselves often, and interrupt each other constantly. Conversations are highly emotional and full of gestures.
Qatar has engaged in a rapid modernization program since the 1970s, when income from the oil industry rose dramatically. All villages and towns can now be reached by paved roads, which are well maintained.
There is little public transportation available in Qatar. Nearly everyone drives a car. Housing, utilities, and communication services are all modern (many Qataris have cellular phones). Health care is up-to-date and free to all Qataris. Health clinics, both public and private, are located throughout the country.
The two largest cities, the capital city of Doha and the west-coast city of Umm Said, have water-main systems that provide running water to all residents. In other places, water is delivered by tankers and stored in tanks in gardens or on roofs, or is pumped into homes from deep-water wells. All foreign workers are provided with free housing. Even the formerly nomadic Bedu (or Bedouin) now live in air-conditioned houses built by the government. The government also provides social welfare programs for the sick, elderly, and disabled.
The family is the central unit of Qatari society. Qataris are only recently removed from a tribal way of life, so tribal values and customs still prevail.
Qataris wear traditional Arab clothing. For men, this is an ankle-length robe called a thobe or dishdasha, with a ghutrah (a large piece of cloth) on the head which is held in place by an uqal (a woven piece of rope). Women tend to wear very colorful long-sleeved, ankle-length dresses, with a black silk cloak called an abaya covering them completely in public. Some older Qatari women still wear a face mask, called a batula, but this custom is dying out.
Rice is the staple food for Qataris. It is usually fried (or sautéed) first, then boiled. Saffron is often added during the frying stage to make the rice yellow. Bread is served at almost every meal, especially pita bread.
Hummus, a spread made from ground chickpeas, is also eaten at most meals. Hamour, a type of fish caught in the Gulf, is frequently served baked, or cooked with rice. Mutton (sheep) is the favorite meat. Pork is forbidden by Islam, as is alcohol.
Shellfish, particularly shrimp which are caught in great numbers off Qatar's shores, is a popular dish. Tea and coffee are the beverages of choice. Tea is never drunk with milk added. Coffee is always made from Turkish beans and is often flavored with saffron, rosewater, or cardamom. Coffee and tea are usually sweetened with sugar.
Education is highly valued by Qataris. Attendance at primary and secondary schools is 98 percent, and the literacy rate is more than 65 percent and rising. In the public school system, education is compulsory from age six to age sixteen. It is free all the way through the university level. The government even provides full scholarships (including travel costs) for university students who wish to study abroad.
Adapted from Salloum, Mary. A Taste of Lebanon. New York: Interlink Books, 1992, p. 21.
Over 40,000 students, both boys and girls, are enrolled in primary and secondary schools. Another 400 or so study in vocational training institutes and religious schools. Adult education was introduced in 1957. Forty adult education centers now provide literacy courses to about 5,000 adult students. Qatar University was founded in 1973 and offers state-of-the-art degree programs in many subjects. Computer courses are required for all university students.
Arab music is much like the Arab language. Both are rich, repetitive, and exaggerated. The oud is a popular instrument; it is an ancient stringed instrument that is the ancestor of the European lute. Another traditional instrument is the rebaba, a one-stringed instrument. A traditional Arab dance is the ardha, or men's sword dance. Men carrying swords stand shoulder to shoulder and dance, and from among them a poet sings verses while drummers beat out a rhythm.
Islam forbids the depiction of the human form, so Qatari art focuses on geometric and abstract shapes. Calligraphy is a sacred art. The writings of the Koran (or Quran) are the primary subject matter. Muslim art finds its greatest expression in mosques. The Islamic reverence for poetry and the poetic richness of the Arabic language are the basis of much of Qatar's cultural heritage.
The most profitable industries in Qatar are oil and natural gas production. The government runs both. Other industries include cement, power plants, desalinization plants (making drinking water out of sea water by removing the salt), petrochemicals, steel, and fertilizer.
The government is trying to encourage private industry by offering grants, low-interest loans, and tax breaks to private entrepreneurs. There is almost no agriculture in Qatar, although irrigation systems are being developed to increase the amount of arable land. Fishing continues to be a way of life for many Qataris, one that they have followed for thousands of years.
Qataris love outdoor sports, both on land and on water. Football (what Americans call soccer) has become the most popular sport, although auto racing is also a favorite. Basketball, handball, and volleyball are modern sports that are beginning to catch on. Tenpin bowling and golf are also enjoyed by some Qataris. The traditional sports of horse-and camel-racing and falconry are still pursued passionately in Qatar.
Qataris enjoy playing chess, bridge, and darts. There are no public cinemas or theaters, except for the National Theater, in Qatar.
Goldsmithing is an ancient art among Qataris that continues to be practiced today.
Rapid modernization in the last few decades has created a huge generation gap between the pre-oil boom elders and the post-oil boom young people. Older people who grew up in Qatar before oil wealth do not understand or like many of the changes that modernization has brought. They often lament the loss of the "good old days."
Young people, on the other hand, have grown up in the more industrialized era of high technology and are comfortable with it, seeing only the benefits and none of the losses. The two generations often find it very difficult to communicate with each other.
Abu Saud, Abeer. Qatari Women, Past and Present. New York: Longman, 1984.
Background Notes: Qatar . Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs, Office of Public Communication, April 1992.
Post Report: Qatar . Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of State, 1991.
Rickman, Maureen. Qatar . New York: Chelsea House, 1987.
Salloum, Mary. A Taste of Lebanon. New York: Interlink Books, 1992.
Vine, Peter, and Paula Casey. The Heritage of Qatar . London: IMMEL Publishing, 1992.
Zahlan, Rosemarie Said. The Creation of Qatar . London: Croom Helm, 1979.