How Dukhan made Doha. Urban history and the political economy of post-Protectorate Qatar
Javier Guirado Alonso
On February 22nd, 1972, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani appeared on TV promising a new era of prosperity for Qatar, linking “the glorious present with an ancient past”. Sheikh Khalifa’s accession speech embodied Qatar’s independence, which had been declared on September 1st 1971 after two decades of monumental social, cultural, and economic changes. Qatar today is a country with one of the highest GDP per capita indexes in the world, thanks mostly to its vast reserves of natural gas and small population (around 300,000 citizens). Yet, like most of the Gulf countries, until 1971 it was a British protectorate surrounded by the uncertainty of the Global Sixties.
My research project is a social history of the events that led to the independence of Qatar and its aftermath, as well as a spatial history of the country during the Long Sixties. It also argues that the present state of affairs in Qatar is mainly the product of the 1950s and 1960s, during the twilight of the British protectorate, and further cemented in the 1970s, asking about the succession of events and circumstances that took place during these decades and how they transformed the social structure and political economy of Qatar. The country witnessed a colossal transformation of its social fabric and political economy reflected on its built environment. While most studies of the Gulf focus on the role of the ruler and the government in directing these transformations, this study examines the activism and political-social engagement of Qataris themselves. The rapid transformations in the built environment and the documents produced by Qatari society, media and government in the 1960s here serves both as a source and as an object of study.
The 1950s saw the electrification of Kahraba Street in Doha, the first area of the city to offer such service, and the first steps of urbanization in Doha and other urban areas like Dukhan. While Qataris and other Arabs were striking for better salaries and working conditions and in solidarity with the Suez Canal seizure by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1956, the city was experiencing the rapid growth of infrastructure and the replacement of previous housing with newly designed apartments, often under the direction of western consultants and urban designers. In the 1960s, this urban development continued, as did the strikes and popular actions, this time with a clearer political goal and in parallel with the movements that shook the rest of the world during the Global Sixties. In 1968, the British announced their withdrawal from all their possessions east of Suez, and after the unsuccessful negotiations to form an Arab Federation in the Gulf, Qatar obtained its independence in 1971. Only a year after, the emir was deposed in a bloodless coup and Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad Al Thani became the new leader, developing a diplomatic and cultural program that put Qatar in the map regionally and internationally. While Qataris were taking low skilled and low paid jobs in the 1950s, by the 1970s the share of wealth from the ruling family had made them an elite in their own country and across the world.
The intersection between the built environment and society make the core of this project. One of the main theses is that infrastructure projects during these years reveal the efforts by the British and the ruling family to co-opt opposition leaders or hinder protests. In fact, urban development and urban services were a first form of rent sharing, back then mostly allocated in forms of concessions to one of the main merchant families in the Qatari peninsula, the Darwish. The development of the built environment served as a form of infrastructural empowerment as it was happening in the nascent independent nations that emerged from the fading of the British empire.
Infrastructure development, as much as the protests that emerged as a result of the new livelihoods associated with urban life, reveal that there were also power games within the Al Thani family itself. Sheikh Khalifa, who became emir of Qatar in 1972 after ousting sheikh Ahmad, is an example of that. Influenced by Cold War politics and regional tensions spurred by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, some Qataris went to protest to claim a different regime in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1970s, however, sheikh Khalifa managed to depict himself almost as an anti-colonial champion, even if he took sides with the British, while sheikh Ahmad came to be seen as a lavish leader with poor governance skills. Khalifa, in fact, made Qataris in the opposition jump into the system. A side question of this narrative is whether those opposition movements were engaging with Cold War politics and Nasserism or if they were a localist version of independence movements.
This local and global context relocates the main axes of contemporary Gulf history in colonialism, dynastic conflicts, Cold War dynamics, Middle East power struggles, and local contentious politics – all of them defining the behavior of rational actors. Hence, it is not oil per se that explains the transformation of the political economy of Qatar in the mid-twentieth century, but a series of historical contingencies, local and global, in dialogue with newfound resources.
All in all, this work is a social history that focuses on the connections between Qatar, the Middle East, and the rest of the world, explaining the context that enabled the political and social outcome of the country. While most works on this topic focus on either the role of the British and the ruling family, this project incorporates the Qatari population as a key agent in the global combination of factors that led to the stable creation of the Qatari monarchy as it functions today. It is also an urban history that studies the built environment in Qatar and its relation to the social fabric, as well as an environmental history that emphasizes the tension between humans and resources. In terms of disciplines, the dissertation opens up discussions building up on the literature about Gulf and Middle East studies, also establishing a dialogue with other disciplines and regions.
 Crystal, Jill. Oil and Politics in the Gulf. Rulers and Merchants in Kuwait and Qatar. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990)