Qatar: A Modern History

Other than a short publication from 1979, there are few academic books on the history of Qatar. After spending a year in Qatar, at Qatar University, Allen Fromherz wrote 'Qatar: A Modern History'. The book was originally published in 2012, (Kamrava's book is 2013) however, the updated version (published in 2017) provides updates throughout the text (as additions, this also makes for some jumpy reading at parts). As a history, this book has the potential to remain relevant longer, however only about half of the book is history while the other half is better described as current affairs (a focus on the decade before publication). The book provides a lot of historical information, however at many points it is unclear where the historical information is coming from (not being referenced). Although at times repetitive, this is a useful text and worth reading for anyone interested in contemporary history. A serious limitation, however, is the reliance upon the colonial record and the absence of Arabic (or any other, such as Turkish) sources. This replicates the colonial gaze of history, which the author recognizes but does little to address.

A few notes:

"Qatar is not a place 'without a past' or 'without a culture' as it has been described in popular literature. Ironically, anxiety about a lack of historical roots appears to be felt more by visitors to Qatar than by Qataris themselves. Perhaps expecting exotica, adventure and orientalized Arabness, the expatriate is disappointed by the modernity, by places that look 'Western' or 'just like home'. Many Qataris, in contrast, rarely express the same level of postmodern angst." (p. 4)

"Qatar is one of the world's most unlikely political entities. Surrounded by powerful and expansionist neighbours and projecting into Gulf waters, waters rocked by centuries of conflict, Qatar has one of the more extraordinary stories of state formation in the Gulf." (p. 41)

"No longer did the most respected man in Doha need to base his power ultimately on the Islamic baya, the oath of allegiance and obligation between ruler and ruled, or the shura and majlis, the council of respected sheikhs in Arabic tribal and Islamic religious tradition, that power was now based on the full weight of the British navy. As Lisa Anderson aptly observed, before imperial interests created European-style monarchy in the Middle East, 'Political authority has been exercised and justified not as an aspect of family or property but on religious grounds.'" (p. 57)

"Both external powers were kept at bay by the resourcefulness of the Qataris under Muhammad bin Thani and his successors, especially Shiekh Jassim Al-Thani. Qatar, led by a successful line of tenacious and usually astute Al-Thani Emirs successfully resisted full external domination. They accomplished this not through technological superiority but through the deft use of diplomacy and negotiation. Only at the last resort, as at Wajbah against the Ottomans in 1892, would the Qataris use force to protect their position. The Qataris continually searched for rivals who would be partners." (p. 65)

"The fourth Article virtually hands over all of Qatar's foreign policy to the British government, even forbidding correspondence with 'any other power' without the consent of the 'High British Government'. Nor was Abdullah permitted to 'cede to any other Power or its subjects, land either on lease, sale, transfer, gift, or in any other way whatsoever'. A prohibition on selling land to non-Qataris, originally part of a British strategy to control Qatar's foreign commitments, continues to this day, with the exception of..." (p. 71) 

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Reading Qatar

Qatar National Library

The Creation of Qatar (1979) Zahlan

Histoire et Changements Sociaux au Qatar (1982) Montigny-Kozlowska

Oil and Politics in the Gulf (1990) Crystal

Qatar, A Modern History (2012, 2017) Fromherz

Small State, Big Politics (2013, 2015) Kamrava

Policy-Making in a Transformative State (2016) Tok, Alkhater, Pal

The Global Majlis (2016) Al Kawari

Doha Experiment (2017) Wasserman

The Gulf Crisis (2018) Miller

Teach for Arabia (2019) Vora

Warriors in a Time of Sacrifice (2019) Sandoval 

Changing Qatar (2020) Harkness

Beyond Exception (2020) Kanna, Le Renard, Vora

Contemporary Qatar (2021) Zweiri and Al Qawasmi

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The Doha Experiment

There is a reason why some books are published by academic publishers, and others not. Academic books are peer reviewed and are held to a standard of quality (usually). Retired professor Gary Wasserman's book, "Doha Experiment: Arab Kingdom, Catholic College, Jewish Teacher" (2017), was not published by an academic press, he opted for Skyhorse (known for its travel guides, science fiction and fantasy). Wasserman has published with academic presses before, he wrote a book (his thesis) published by Cambridge about decolonization politics in Kenya (which turns out to not be so ironic, as he focuses on Europeans in Kenya and their supposed outsmarting of the 'native population'). The Doha Experiment would not pass as academic, but doesn't claim to be.

Wasserman starts the book explaining that he had no contextual knowledge upon arrival (saying he had never even heard of the country before going) and ends the book saying "I never fully engaged the community in which I lived" (p. 244). Despite making little to no effort to learn about the country during his 8 years in Qatar, Wasserman nonetheless felt comfortable knowing his 'missionary' task: "implant liberal ideas... [and] do a lot of things that are certainly different from the traditions of the region." If this sounds like a colonial attitude (essentially: I don't know the place or the people, but they need to be more like me), it is not much different from Wasserman's work on Europeans in Kenya in the 1970s. Throughout the book the author speaks about bringing a 'liberal presence' to 'the Arabs' in a 'fundamentalist', 'Wahhabi' country, a part of the world he suggests is living under 'thuggish elites' who 'killed opponents'. This is exactly the kind of uncritical, generalizing stereotypes that Edward Said critiqued, whose work Wasserman should re-read (he quotes Said in the Introduction about such labels).

If you are looking for a Euro-Western view of narrow experience in Qatar, conveyed via orientalist tropes and with a colonialist attitude, Wasserman has your book. This could also be your book if you are looking for a coming-of-age read of a professor who was insecure about his own ethnic / faith identity (with fears rooted in bias and stereotype, and suspicion that everyone is Google'ing his faith), and coming to terms with himself in a Muslim country. Or, this could be your read if you are looking for examples of how openly unethical some professors are in their sexualization of students or in publishing student work / words without ethics review or informed consent. On a positive note, Wasserman was transparent in explaining that he knew nothing of the country and people, made little to no attempt to learn, and did not adjust his teaching to make it accessible and relevant to a new audience (other that course classifications (p. 226), there was a "resistance to revisions" (p. 242); imposing 'home', as the benchmark of all that was good). Wasserman concludes his book in suggesting: "I couldn't teach any other way because I didn't know anything else. And only now, on reflection, did I see this as an unacknowledged gap." (p. 244). Apparently there was no interest to learn. 

If you are looking to learn something about Qatar, read Kamrava; if you are looking to learn about Education City, read Vora.

In case that sounds too critical, a few quotes for context:

Even in re-writing personal history in 2017 the racism is bold: "When we left for Silver Spring, it was not just because of the expected influx of blacks, the worsening integrated schools, and the perceived growing danger in the streets..." (p. 8). The author says (distancing himself from labor exploitation in Doha): "my family had a "colored lady", whose name was Mary, come to the house to clean", which is presented as not as bad as Doha because while there was "separation between Them and Us but it wasn't much" (p. 196).

Comments made about students (additional context: the book was written while author was in his 70s): "riveting face... tall and attractive" (p. 73); "chubby Pakistani" (p. 5); "She would not be called conventionally pretty - too many angles on her long Semetic face" (p. 82); "long, athletic legs of this six-footer" (p. 90); "attractive, lively Syrian girl" (p. 102); "a tall, good-looking Qatari" (p. 105).

Thoughts of the region? Certainly not one of respect and dignity, rather of broad generalization rooted in stereotype: "Communicating this to students in a region where they were surrounded by true believers, extremists, and group thinkers did not seem an unreasonable goal for a liberal outsider." (p. 130) Courageously, quoting his spouse, viewing "women who covered themselves as locked into medieval customs that forced them into marriages as teenagers" (p. 242).

Embracing the colonial narrative: "Much like colonists of an earlier century, the expats needed to see the locals as flawed or at least not quite good enough to operate on their own. As the economy got more complicated and the citizenry got wealthier and ever more indolent, the case became easier to make." (p. 159)

Embracing the 'mission': "He and others saw liberal education uncomfortably undermining many of the traditional values and assumptions with which students from the region began college..." (p. 238) "Their education became another step in the process of detaching from societies and peoples, beliefs and values, among whom they were no longer comfortable or even welcomed. They no longer followed the same faith, spoke the shared language, or felt comfortable in the same clothing they did before" (p. 240-241).

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Changing Qatar

Geoff Harkness attempts to offer a sort of primer on Qatar in "Changing Qatar: Culture, Citizenship, and Rapid Modernization" (2020), published by NYU Press. The book reads like a mixture between Wikipedia pages and a Lonely Planet travel guide. One review of the book, by Daniel Martin Varisco, felt it more reflective of journalism than academic work. The author spent three years teaching in Education City in Qatar (drawing on experiences that seem to revolve around Education City, combined with student projects and follow-on mini-projects to collect additional qualitative data). Admittedly a work of an orientalist, outsider perspective (see Appendix in the book), the author views the country and people from a Euro-Western sociological lens and relies on perspectives from English speakers or student translations of Arabic conversations to tell us about the country and its people.

A spattering of quotes appear throughout the chapters, with broader narratives built around them or the quotes being used as concluding arguments (versions of: "a Qatari named Dana" or "a Qatari named Salim" says...). In building narratives and arguments, Harkness chooses which quotes he feels are important to include. This is a common challenge / bias in qualitative research. In analyzing and writing up research, if a quote was found to be offensive, but deemed important to include, we would expect scholars to engage with such comments critically. For example, one of these quotes reads: 

I am a little worried about these Qataris," one Westerner tells me. "Qatar without the expats would lead into chaos. They wouldn't know what to do with themselves. They would break out into tribes and try to get rid of each other. I'm a little worried about them. That's all they know: the sword dance and how to sit around in Souq Waqif. (p. 220). 

The author presents this quote - apparently said "half jokingly" - to conclude a subsection. No critical commentary is provided regarding this derogatory and paternalistic addition. In another selection, the author selects the following quote to include:

Most expatriates view education as Qatar's best chance for enlightenment... "We are agents of Chaos," insists Will, an associate professor at Education City. "They may not see it that way, but that's exactly what's happening here. You know that picture of the conquistadors approaching the natives with the flag? Take off the armor and the sallet, and put on a cap and gown. It's the same thing. We are academic conquistadors. (p. 236) 

In this explicit celebration of colonization, there is no critical commentary from the author. Colonization of the mind is framed as the "best chance for enlightenment" in Qatar. Notably, this quote is presented in the concluding remarks of the book. It is shameful that this was printed. How does NYU Press put this through peer review and approve to publish it? 

As Edward Said pointed out, decades ago, the orientalist gaze views and portrays others through a particular lens. What was of interest to the orientalists in days past continue in this book: clothing, sex, an authoritarian and apparently conniving ruling class, the 'tribe' and 'tribalism'. These foreign forbiddens are supposedly uncovered and secrets exposed, only to be derided as lesser than ("hijab micropractices, however, may inadvertently uphold a dynastic power structure that does little to advance women" (p. 18); "surface-level reforms that do little to alter the larger structural forces" (p. 226)). Women's attire is central, about which the author makes broad claims (for example, about how Qatari women dress when traveling outside of Qatar; p. 149-150). These generalizations consistently allude to oppression. Not surprisingly, Lila Abu-Lughod is not cited amidst this veiled saviorism.

Even when "facts" are presented, the eurocentrism is explicit. Harkness explains: "The name Qatar first appeared in print in a book published in 1660 by the Portuguese explorer..." (p. 63). Even if this were accurate, apparently Arabic books do not count, nor does the Arabic language - reminds me yet again of my late colleague Dr Adesanmi, who said: "If the West is hearing about it for the first time from a Western source, it is original...". According to Harkness, Qatar comes into being only when a European makes note of it. Varisco also highlights the highly questionable scholarship in his review of the book, with one of the main challenges he identifies being due in "large part to his lack of engagement with any sources". 

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