Was Qatar a British Colony?

Qatar has a long and fascinating history that dates from the Paleolithic and the earliest formations of civilizations. However, in this article, we will be focusing on the modern period, defined here as Qatar’s industrial history during the 20th century.

Was Qatar a British Colony? Qatar was never a British Colony. Qatar was formally declared a protectorate vassal of the British Empire in 1916 under the rulership of Abdullah Al Thani to defend it against the incursions of the island nation of Bahrain. Britain defended Qatar in exchange for a monopoly on its oil fields for three-quarters of a century, however, the nation declared its independence on September 3rd 1971.

Oil in Qatar was a prominent cause of conflict between the British and Empire and the Ottoman Empire on the eves of the First World War.

However, after the Second World War in the 50s and 60s, the profits the Qatari Government was able to generate with its continued oil production pipeline, the country saw some social changes brought on by its growing wealth.

Moreover, the Second World War had bankrupted most colonial powers and a wave of decolonization was set in motion.

First Contact Between Britain & Qatar

In the early 19th century, Britain had become a colonial force along the coast of East Africa and the Persian Gulf as part of its endeavour to empower the East India Trading Company. At the time, there was no centralized authority in Qatar; instead, it was ruled by various disparate tribes. 

The British Merchant Fleet was more interested in developing direct colonies in Egypt however, as this would allow them to oversee the final touches of the Suez Canal, allowing them to secure trade routes from the Mediterranean through the Red Sea, all the way to India and East Asia.

While Britain did partake in Doha’s pearl trade in exchange for ivory, firearms and occasionally slaves, it had not yet established direct control over the small coastal nation’s foreign policy in exchange for military protection. 

Oil & War

At the turn of the 20th century when oil became one of the most significant resources, the British seized control of Qatar to fill the hegemonic power vacuum left by the Ottoman empire after they relinquished Qatar in  1913. As soon as 1916, two years into the Great War, Britain capitalized on Qatar’s vast oil fields to fuel its war efforts and increase its production of military biplanes and heavy assault vehicles known as Landships (which today we know as Tanks).

In exchange for privileged access to this new black gold, the British were mandated with establishing a unified Qatar and secure power for the Al Thani Merchant Prince Tribe when dissident families engaged in never-ending power struggles for control over the pearl and now oil trades. This external pressure was particularly strong from the Saud family of present-day Saudi Arabia who sought a monopoly over the Middle Eastern Oil trade.

The oil trade of Qatar sustained Great Britain in Bernard Montgomery’s North African military campaigns during the Second World War against the combined Axis forces of Rodolfo Graziani and the infamous desert fox, Erwin Rommel. However, like most colonies, Qatar felt as if its natural resources were being exploited to fight wars in which Qatar itself had no stake.

Rising Qatari Nationalism

After the end of the Second World War, rising Arab nationalism that wished to expel the parasitic presence of colonial Britain was on the rise. The 50s saw many protests against the British and their imperial puppets. On top of that, oil field workers began to organize labour unions and mount collective pressure tactics to hurt British corporations’ bottom line through strikes and sabotaging oil pipelines.

The British had created a local police authority to maintain their economic interests in the region, though, after a series of sometimes brutal clashes with dissatisfied natives and running debt from having to rebuild the British island in the aftermath of WW2’s German bombing campaigns, it no longer became financially stable to maintain a direct line of control over Qatar.

In 1968, Britain reneged on its 75-year protectorate deal with Qatar and withdrew from the region, choosing instead to focus its limited colonial resources on maintaining a presence in the Suez to maintain its East-West trade routes.

Formation of the Nation

Qatar contemplated joining forces with the United Arab Emirates following the British withdrawal, but instead issued a decree of its state independence in 1971. This ushered in a new era of political rulership and the former leader, Ahmad bin Ali, was replaced by Khalifa bin Hamad with the support of the Al Thani and the new hegemon of the region, Saudi Arabia.

Bin Hamad diverged from the rulership practices of the man he replaced by reinvesting the nation’s wealth in the oil boom into social welfare, affordable dwellings for the rising middle class, healthcare, subsidised schooling and government pensions.

At the turn of the 21st century, Qatar began to shift towards more democratic leanings, allowing for municipal elections, allowing freedom of speech in the media and even appointing a woman as minister of education in 2004. However, Qatar remains an absolute monarchy with Hanbali Sharia Law stipulating most judicial lawmaking. All branches of the government are in effect controlled directly by the Emir of Qatar. All political positions are appointed by the Emir.

Supporting Arab Independence

Today, Qatar plays a prominent role in Middle Eastern power politics, using its vast wealth to bankroll various groups in the region and support them through media coverage in the well-respected and internationally renowned government-owned media network, Al-Jazeera. Qatar has bankrolled the Syrian and Libyan revolutionaries in their civil wars against dictators Bashar al-Assad and Muammar Gaddafi.