Masters of the Pearl

From the many historical books of Qatar, one of the newest is "Masters of the Pearl: A History of Qatar" (2020) by Michael Quentin Morton. The author has written a history of the UAE, oil in the Middle East, Buraimi, his father's life as an oil geologist, and this book on Qatar (where he spent time as a child). Overall, this is a detailed history that is well structured and well written. The author is not an academic and this book is not published by an academic press (publisher: Reaktion Books), most of my issues with this book are because I am reading this book as an academic with an interest in the sources. However, even as a book for the general audience, as a historical work, it seems consistently referencing sources is good practice.

References: The book does list references and has footnotes, but inconsistently. Many historical details are unreferenced, leaving readers guessing the source of information (trying to look back to the last reference or another nearby footnote). This is missing when evidence is directly referred to, for example: "archeological evidence" (p. 61) and "there is evidence..." (p. 61), which don't have references. Or, there are mysterious sources, such as "one Khalifa historian" (p. 22), "one source" (p. 23), and "from the oral tradition" (p. 24), also without references. This makes an interesting book less useful (for those of us wanting to read the original sources).

Colonial terminology: The author unquestionably uses terminology such as "tribal" and "tribes" as well as "pirates" to describe the people of Qatar (apparently the author disagrees with or has not come across alternative, non-colonial perspectives, such as Sultan Muhammad Al-Qasimi's 1986 book "The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf"). In part, this may be because the author is not a historian by training (a lawyer by profession), where the contextualization and problematization of historical sources would have been a topic of consideration. This relates to the broader framing of the entire book, discussed next.

Colonial lens: The book does not use Arabic sources (or alternatives, such as Turkish or Farsi), and relies heavily on the British colonial record, and thereby privileges the colonial gaze in the telling of history. Western sources are the main reference points (be that maps, names, sources, etc), creating a Eurocentric frame around which history is told. The colonial record is replete with bias (what is included and what is excluded, whose voice is heard and whose is silenced, et cetera). The author does not grapple with this, and largely adopts the colonial gaze as the true and accurate representation of history. This approach is taken even when alternative perspectives do exist, in English, such as Al-Qasimi's book noted above. Amongst the missing books and references is one of the strongest academic books of recent, written by Kamrava in 2013. 

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Critical Development Studies: An Introduction

I try to keep an eye out for useful teaching materials, particularly ones that provide unique perspectives on issues that students may not have encountered in their studies (unfortunately many courses are similar ideas/voice on repeat, in various forms). "Critical Development Studies: In Introduction" (2018) by Veltmeyer and Wise is brief (170 pages), easy to read (lots of lists), and accessible (first year undergrad level). While not a "sharp edge" of critical studies per se, it provides a counter narrative to the dominant discourses. The unique offering is (largely) a vantage point from Latin America.

A couple of quotes for insight into the book:

"There are three fundamentally different ways of understanding 'society': as a collection of individuals, each motivated to better themselves or to seek self-advantage; as a system of institutionalised practices that sets rules and limits to the action of individuals; and as a system of overlapping and interconnected social groups with shared experiences and identify which enable them to act collectively in the struggle for social change. The first way of understanding society is widely shared by economists and political scientists in the liberal tradition. For the sake of analysis they see the individuals as rational calculators of self-interest, or as citizens who are equal in their opportunities for self-advancement, and as the fundamental agents of social change. The second and third ways of understanding society and the development process relate to what could be described as the 'sociological perspective'—the view that the problems, experiences and actions both of individuals and nations can and must be related to the potion that they occupy in the broader system, and understood in terms of the way society or the economy is organised and structured." (p. 54)

"From a critical development perspective (that is to say, one that questions neoliberal institutionality and the structural dynamics of capitalism in order to promote development alternatives that benefit the majority of the population), sustainable human development is understood as a social construction process that starts by creating awareness: the need for change, organization and social participation in order to generate a popular power that can then strive for social emancipation. This involves the eschewal of socially alienating relations that deprive people of their merits, destroy the environment, and damage social coexistence." (p. 118) 

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Qatar's Modern and Contemporary Development

One of the benefits of being in Qatar, when reading books written on the country, is the ability to walk the shelves of the Qatar National Library and stumble upon gems that almost certainly would not be available outside of Qatar. One example of this is "Qatar's Modern and Contemporary Development: Chapters of Political, Social and Economic Development", published in 2015, in Doha, Qatar. This book was written by Prof Ahmed Zakariya Al-Shelek, Prof Mustafa Oqail Mahmoud, and Dr. Yusuf Ibrahim Al- Abdulla (I believe it was originally written in Arabic but I do not have the date of that publication).

While other histories offer details of events in relation to external and colonial actions, the strength of this book is the extensive reference to local developments (e.g. related to the changes in the governance system, the consideration of a regional union when approaching independence, relations with other intergovernmental organizations like the Arab League and the UN, etc). In many ways this is much more of a history of Qatar, as opposed to other histories which situate Qatar as subject to the actions of others and their history. Entire chapters take this local focus. For example, Chapter 5 covers the Beginnings of the Modern State and is a valuable reference as it lists the emergence of various government offices, laws (e.g. nationality laws), Islamic courts, and so forth. Chapter 7 covers the political history of oil, putting it in local and international context, and Chapter 8 analyzes some of the socio-cultural impacts of oil. These histories are not included in most texts, and makes this a particularly valuable contribution.

Although not a strong focus, relatively more attention is paid in this book to the history before the colonial period as well as the role of Islam (the latter is made invisible in many works on the country). When the colonial era is covered, readers learn more of the Ottoman role in the 1800s, in comparison to other histories that emphasize that of the British. Also unlike almost all books on the country (including those published by academic presses) this book uniquely has a chapter on methods and sources, which is appreciated. This methods chapter outlines the inclusion of Arabic sources, Turkish sources, colonial sources, amongst others (including Russian sources). For this interested in the history of Qatar, this is worthwhile read.

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Founder of Qatar

In searching for alternative voices telling the history of Qatar, I found a copy of "Sheikh Jassim al-Thani: Founder of Qatar - A Historical Study of a Nineteenth Century Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula" (2015). The book was written in Arabic by Dr Omar al-Ejli, then translated into English by Abdul Salam Idrisi. The book uniquely draws on Arabic and Turkish sources (the author made three trips to seek data from the Ottoman archives, and attests to the vast amounts of material there, which most historians do not consider). Unfortunately most of these sources are not listed in the text, making it unclear where the author obtain what information (references are listed at the end, as are footnotes, the latter are largely additional explanation not source notes as might be typical for an academic historical work). Also useful is the provision of multiple perspectives on issues from Arabic sources, which are also lacking in most histories of Qatar. Unfortunately the English translation does not include the poetry of Jassim al-Thani and some of the photos (referred to in the text) are not included.

This book begins with a focus on Jassim al-Thani, his personal character, but spends the bulk of its content on the events surrounding his time. Different from the books penned by western authors on the history of Qatar, al-Ejli highlights the role of Islam - on a personal level of Jassim al-Thani, as well as a unifier of people. Religion is also employed to explain events, providing an alternative viewpoint / worldview of history in comparison to secular accounts. The author also refers to Arabic historians and social scientists, such as ibn Khaldun, to explain historical events - this too providing a unique theoretical foundation for approaching history. In many regards, this provides an alternative reading of history (compared to the dominant narratives that draw, almost exclusively, on the British colonial archive and therefore convey the colonial gaze to what is important, how issues are analyzed, and what gets erased or untold).

Despite some limitations, this is an interesting read to include for those interested in the history of Qatar. If nothing else, this book is a great starting point for new sources and an answer for anyone who suggests the British colonial archive is all that there is to work with when studying the history of Qatar. 

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