The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Qatari identity comes into focus amid Gulf tensions

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DOHA, Qatar — The last gallery of this peninsular nation’s sprawling national museum is a room charged entirely by contemporary politics. In a hall of blinking digital displays, tourists are confronted with the rupture created by the “Ramadan blockade” — when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt severed ties with Qatar and shut down routes to cross the border in 2017. A label details how the isolated emirate rejected the demands imposed by these foreign powers, who it claims spread misinformation about the Qatari state, no matter the many difficulties and hardships created by the siege.

“Qatar has overcome the crisis thanks to local resources and the determination of its citizens and residents, allowing the nation to move forward on a path of development and prosperity,” the exhibit concludes, amid lush tableaus that tell viewers of the thousands of human rights violations provoked by the blockading states, as well as of the new resilience forged in Qatar, from new food systems not contingent on land-based supply chains to the many diplomatic overtures it made to the wider world while its neighbors sought its isolation.

The legacy of the crisis within the Gulf Cooperation Council — as the regional bloc of six Gulf monarchies is known — has hung somewhat awkwardly over the World Cup, which Qatar is currently hosting. The blockade was, in part, the product of personal enmities between rival royals, as well as Saudi and Emirati disapproval of Qatar’s more independent streak in its foreign policy. It ended in early 2021, as a new U.S. administration took office in Washington and Qatar’s antagonists tired of the standoff.

During the tournament, in a show of revived unity, Qatar’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, hosted Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi and, later on, UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan. The Saudi heir apparent, in particular, seemed an enthusiastic attendee of the World Cup and was pictured at opening ceremonies sporting a maroon-and-white Qatari scarf, a scene unthinkable a few years back.

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But tensions endure. The boycott by its neighbors inflicted significant economic harm on Qatar, though its vast wealth in petroleum reserves enabled it to ride through the storm. Relations between Qatar and nearby Bahrain are still in a deep freeze, with direct flights suspended between the two countries. Though officials in Doha, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have all publicly sought to bury the hatchet, a wide set of disagreements remain, some more ideological than others.

Before the blockade, Qatar was seen by its neighbors as being too accommodating and supportive of political Islamist movements elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa. To this day, Doha and Abu Dhabi back rival proxy factions in Libya’s intractable civil war and take different positions on a host of thorny geopolitical issues, including how to confront Iran.

“The Qatari leadership for its part wants to do everything to project an image of taking the high road and reconciling [with its neighbors],” said Gerd Nonneman, a professor of international relations and Gulf studies at Georgetown University’s campus in Doha. “But there does remain something of a trauma and genuine trust is far from healed — indeed is unlikely ever to fully be.”

As my colleague Kareem Fahim reported among the crowds at the World Cup, the high-level summitry on the sidelines of the games paled in comparison to the Pan-Arab goodwill generated by those attending them. “Diplomatic initiatives during the tournament … added to a sense of regional comity,” Fahim wrote. “In interviews, though, few fans mentioned the diplomacy as a spark for solidarity, suggesting leaders were taking cues from their people, rather than the other way around.”

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Tellingly, the National Museum of Qatar doesn’t trumpet post-blockade reconciliation. The complex, a stunning structure whose design is inspired by the intricate layers of a desert rose crystal, was opened in 2019 in the depths of Qatar’s standoff with its neighbors. Nonneman suggested to me that the suddenness of the 2017 boycott “changed the mosaic of Qatari identity” — which had long been cast in connection to “Khaleeji” counterparts in countries like the UAE — and the experience of the blockade “strengthened” a particular “Qatari sort of identity,” which also is connected to the ruling al-Thani family.

Qatar, which counts just over 300,000 citizens, was mocked for enlisting imported Lebanese fans to back the country’s team at its three losing matches during the World Cup. But the national museum’s ideological project offers a clearer narrative of identity and nationhood. It anchors the journey of the Qatari people in a kind of global primordial past — linking Qatar’s indigenous nomads not simply to Bedouin Arab neighbors in the region, but to Mongolian communities in the steppes of Central Asia and the Tuaregs of the African Sahel.

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While acknowledging the scant material evidence of a discernible, ancient “Qatari” past — for centuries, the peninsula was largely a backwater, washed over by waves of empires, from the Persian Sassanids to the Ottomans, Portuguese and British, and home only to small towns of traders, pearl-divers and fisherfolk — it develops a concrete story of Qatar’s rise tethered to the mid-19th century emergence of the al-Thani dynasty.

We learn of how Qatar’s fledgling rulers, starting in the 17th and 18th centuries, engaged in endless feuds and skirmishes with rival petty potentates in Bahrain and Abu Dhabi, a tacit nod to the deep history of modern grievances. We see its role as a pawn in the broader geopolitical tussles between larger principalities in the region — from the first Saudi state to the maritime power of Muscat in what’s now Oman to the Ottoman and British empires — leading ultimately to its status as a British protectorate until its independence in 1971. And we also hear of Qatar’s fascinating journey from a relatively poor, sparsely populated territory dominated by the pearl-diving industry to its emergence as a hydrocarbon giant in recent decades and one of the richest countries per capita on earth.

Videos of elderly Qatari notables relay the humble lives they once lived in the early part of the past century; some describe days spent shucking oysters for a pittance while subsisting on a handful of dates as food. The Indian rupee was the main currency of the peninsula for years, with prominent pearl merchant families anchoring their businesses on the ability to make the voyage to metropolitan Indian cities like Mumbai and Karachi, now in Pakistan, and sell their raw goods to eager South Asian customers.

Now, the tables have turned. Qatar’s energy wealth has led to Doha turning into a major cosmopolitan hub for the Middle East and the broader region, including South Asia. Hundreds of thousands of Indian and Pakistani workers have come here for the opportunity to earn in Qatari riyals and significantly outnumber Qatar’s small population of citizens. The museum’s propagandistic displays tout testimony from some of these migrants, grateful for their welcome and eager to contribute to Qatar’s exciting future.

Nothing is said, of course, of the documented abuses and difficulties faced by a legion of these migrants. Nor does the museum devote much space to the mammoth project of the World Cup, whose legacy is still being determined. But it does feature in a glass case the winning FIFA ballot that announced the success of Qatar’s controversial bid in 2010 and set into motion the tumultuous transformations of the past decade.

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