Doha 1916 – 1971: From a British Protectorate to Independence

1916: Doha made capital of British Protectorate of Qatar

After extensive negotiations, an Anglo-Qatari treaty was signed on 3 November 1916 between Sheikh Abdullah Al-Thani and Major Percy Cox, Political Resident. Qatar was placed under the British Trucial system of administration, becoming the ninth and last of the Trucial States. Doha was made the capital of the British Protectorate of Qatar.

Rahman, H. (2005) The Emergence of Qatar: The Turbulent Years 1627-1916. London: Thames & Hudson

1916 sir percy cox

Photograph of Major Percy Cox, Political Resident

1923: First negotiations over oil concession

As early as 1923, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company sought an oil concession in Qatar. They negotiated with the British authorities for a concession to cover the entire Arab littoral of the Persian Gulf. In 1926 Sheikh Abdullah granted the Company 18 months in which to negotiate for an oil concession within his territory, although they did not take advantage of this, and negotiations did not proceed.

 Tuson, P. (1991) Records of Qatar 1820-1960. Vol. 5 1916-1935. Archive Editions.

 1925-1930s: The crash of the pearling industry, and worldwide economic depression

The Japanese perfection of the cultured pearl, which first appeared in the region in 1925, proved a disaster for the Gulf’s pearling industry. Pearls lost their cachet, prices for natural pearls plummeted, and the Gulf’s harvests could not be sold. The majority of the people of the Gulf towns, including Doha, were burdened by debt and lost their sole source of income. From 1929 the worldwide economic depression made matters even worse, and poverty forced many people to leave the peninsula or live in dismal conditions. Some left their families in Doha and commuted to the eastern province of Saudi Arabia in search of jobs.

Carter, R.A., 2012. Sea of Pearls: Seven Thousand Years of the Industry that Shaped the Gulf, London: Arabian Publishing.

 1935: Oil concession signed

In 1932, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company obtained renewed permission from Sheikh Abdullah to make a geological exploration of the Qatar peninsula, this time for two years. This time, in January 1933, they began geological explorations in Qatar. Negotiations over the concession were lengthy and continued until 1935, when the Commercial agreement of the Qatar oil concession was signed on 17th May by Sheikh Abdullah and Mr C.C. Myles of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company Ltd. In 1937 the concession was transferred to Petroleum Development (Qatar) Ltd, and they began oil exploration in Qatar, encouraged by the discovery of oil in Bahrain five years earlier.

Tuson, P. (1991) Records of Qatar 1820-1960. Vol. 5 1916-1935. Archive Editions.

 1939: First oil strike

The first oil strike in the Qatar oil fields was made by Petroleum Development (Qatar) Ltd, in October 1939. A telegram from the Political Agent in Bahrain to the Political Resident in the Gulf, dated 11 October 1939, simply read “Development, Qatar, have had slight show of oil in their test well near Zekrit. Drilling continues.” Within months, another telegram described tests of the well as being “highly satisfactory”, and a further two wells were drilled.

 Tuson, P. (1991) Records of Qatar 1820-1960. Vol 6. Archive Editions.; El Mallakh, R. (1979) Qatar: Development of an oil economy. Palgrave Macmillan

 The 1940s: A description of Doha in the 1940s

During the 1940s, the main marketplace in Doha stretched from the two-storey custom house at the harbour almost to Al-Asmakh road, half a mile to the west. The marketplace–known at one point as Souk al-Zalam, the dark market–ran parallel to, and east, of the fort, separated from it only by a large vacant parcel of land. Another segment of this market stretched even further to the south and was chiefly a fish market. Between these two marketplaces there was an open space reserved as a camel market.

The housing stock was composed of a few hundred simple, one floor dwellings huddled closely together along narrow, winding alleys. Other structures that dotted the cityscape included the barasti and the Bedouin tents. The most prominent house during these days was the old palace in Slata built by Sheikh Abdallah bin Jasim in the first decade of the twentieth century, which was used for both living and governance. The house was abandoned during the recession years of the 1930s until renovated as Doha’s National Museum in the early 1970s.

Adham, K. (2011) ‘Rediscovering the Island: Doha’s Urbanity from Pearls to spectacle’ in Elsheshtawy, Y (ed) The Evolving Arab city. London: Routledge

Aerial view in 1947 showing Bidda in the background, Doha in the foreground, and the Amiri Diwan in-between

Aerial view in 1947 showing Bidda in the background, Doha in the foreground, and the Amiri Diwan in-between

 1947: Oil drilling begins again

Drilling was suspended in 1941, as the progress of the Second World War made it difficult to ensure the security of the oil company’s operations in the area. The war years brought renewed hardship to Doha, parts of which are clearly abandoned and in a state of collapse in 1947 aerial imagery. Drilling began again in 1947.

Othman , N. (1984) With Their Bare Hands: The Story of the Oil Industry in Qatar. London: Longman Group

 1949: Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah al-Thani becomes ruler of Qatar

On the 20th of August 1949, Sheikh Abdullah bin Jasim al-Thani abdicated from power in Qatar. He was succeeded by his son Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah al-Thani.

Tuson, P. (1991) Records of Qatar 1820-1960. Vol 6. Archive Editions.

 1949: Othman’s description of Doha in the 1940s

In 1949 Doha was dominated by the Fort, which stood on the exact spot where the Diwan al Emiri now stands. In those days the sea lapped the walls of the Fort. Other houses, built by Sheikhs and wealthy merchants, contributed a splash of elegance and colour to the generally monotonous background of sand and limestone. Merchant’s houses were usually two-storeyed structures of the typical Arab-Islamic architecture seen throughout the Gulf region. Each house displayed its own special features, whether through colour wash applied to the roof, or the pattern in which the bamboo roof covering was laid. A further sign of family wealth was the use of stained glass in small arcs above the window openings. Inside, the walls would be ornately decorated and inscribed with exquisite Islamic inscriptions.

Some of the merchants’ houses incorporated a wind-tower, which provided a natural system of air-conditioning. The less fortunate had to rely on occasional cool breezes from the sea, for not only were there no air-conditioning systems in Doha in 1949, there was no electricity, except for a handful of generators supplying the Fort, the oil company’s headquarters, and the houses of a few leading merchants.

Doha was full of mosques. The most popular and important were the Sheikh’s Mosque alongside the Fort, the al-Ahmad Mosque and the Jassem [al-Qubaib] Mosque. All three mosques have been demolished and rebuilt since that time, including, sadly, the al-Qubaib Mosque, which was unique in its architecture and quite the most beautiful mosque to be found anywhere in Qatar. The main open-air mosque used at major festivals such as the Eid al-Fitr, which follows the holy month of Ramadhan fast, was in al-Jassrah.

The centre of activity in Doha was the market place. The main market place was Souq Waqif which was divided into two parts. One section specialised in fish. This was situated between the present Bismillah Hotel and the cross-roads of Baharna and Najjada streets. The other section, the general market, stretched from Baharat al Jufari to the harbour. These two sections were separated by a large open area which served as the camel market. Here the al-badiyah – people of the desert – would assemble to buy and sell camels, and to trade their typical produce of the Bedouin economy, animal fats, camelhair textile products such as blankets and carpets, and firewood, in exchange for provisions and utensils.

Othman , N. (1984) With Their Bare Hands: The Story of the Oil Industry in Qatar. London: Longman Group

 1949: Sir John Arthur Wilton. First British Political Agent in Qatar

The moss of pearling revenues, prolonged global recession and war years had not been kind to Doha, as seen in Wilton’s description of Doha around 1949:

The appearance of the capital, Doha, suggested the aftermath of an air raid as unoccupied and even occupied houses crumbled into decay. In the countryside, at its best a harsh and barren moonscape of a land, the desert advanced pitilessly against the few patches of cultivation. Walled gardens and date groves bore signs of drought and neglect as the laborious business of irrigation from deep wells by donkey-power was not sustained… There was only one house in Doha with plumbing, electricity and even rudimentary air-conditioning installed by the Oil Company to house its representative when one could be spared to reside there.

Wilton, Sir J.A. (unpub) Doha 1949-50. From Papers of Sir John Wilton, archive held at University of Exeter, reference number GB29 EUL MS 264

 1949: Lord Charles Spencer Denman account of Doha

A more cheerful perspective was given by Lord Denman, then a visiting businessman in Doha:

I don’t remember it as falling down, I remember it as a typical mud building Arab town. There we no fine buildings or anything like that, it was like a rabbit warren with the little narrow streets going through. Our job was to bring in all the building materials for developing the place once they had some oil money. They were building the hospital, and we were largely responsible for that. John Harris won a competition to design the hospital, he was quite a young man. This was his first big contract and he went on working throughout the Middle East and the Far East, Dubai and Hong Kong.

(Interviewed by Frances Gillespie in 2010)

 1949: First oil exports from Qatar

In December 1949, Qatar became an exporter of crude oil, with its first shipment to Europe. The shipment originated from the onshore Dukhan field. In 1949 Qatar produced just 730,000 barrels of oil, but annual quantities extracted quickly rose to 12,268,000 in 1950 and 50,558,000 in 1957.

El Mallakh, R. (1979) Qatar: Development of an oil economy. Palgrave Macmillan

 1950-53: Description of Doha by Aziza Plant, wife of the British Advisor

Doha was a big village in which everyone knew one another. There was no telephone, and very few people even had radios. There was hardly enough water for washing or cooking, and the little there was came from wells in the desert, which we used to boil and filter. There was no electricity, and of course no air-conditioning. Women didn’t go to work, and there was no formal education except for the Koranic schools. All women wore the face mask, called a batula, and the overveil. Even the younger girls aged twelve and over wore the batula in those days…at first, they cried, and the dark blue colour of the batula covered their eyes and faces, but after a few days they got used to it.

Abu Saud, A.(1984) Qatari Women Past and Present. London: Longman Group.

1955: Development in Doha

It was around 1955 that a true sense of development began to be felt in the city. Asphalt roads were extended and lit; a new desalination plant was constructed with pipes connecting it to many houses nearby; an electric plant was built in Kahraba Street near Mushereib; new schools began admitting students; and a new hospital, Al-Remailiah, opened its doors for the first time in the country, followed by maternity and children’s hospitals.

To accommodate the population growth and the changing urban life, the government of Qatar in 1972 contracted the first foreign planning consultant, the British-based Llewelyn-Davies, to supply a master plan for Doha extending through to 1990. Llewelyn-Davies presented several proposals for different parts of the city and advised the Planning Department of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs on planning legislation. One of their recommendations for the central areas of the city was to acquire a number of older neighbourhoods from their residents and clear them for redesign and redevelopment.

The new action plan of land acquisition caused an immediate inflation in real-estate speculation. Among the obvious consequences of the urban renewal policy recommended by Llewelyn-Davies was the change in the demographic mix in the city centre. I recall that on Friday afternoons, thousands of low-income, Asian workers, who mainly lived around the downtown area, or commuted from other parts of the city, filled the streets of Doha’s central area.

Adham, K. (2011) ‘Rediscovering the Island: Doha’s Urbanity from Pearls to spectacle’ in Elsheshtawy, Y (ed) The Evolving Arab city. London: Routledge

1956: Gulf Archaeologist Geoffrey Bibby visits Doha

Doha had changed since I was last there six years before. Then we had had to leave our vehicle outside the town, as the streets were too narrow for anything but donkey-carts. Now broad paved roads met at the new mosque by the half-completed new palace in the centre of the town; the ring-road was half-finished, and was already marked out for its dual carriageway.

1957: Hunting Survey produces first detailed map of Doha

The first detailed map of Doha was produced by Hunting Aerosurveys Ltd, based on aerial photographs taken of the city in 1956.

1960: Sheikh Ahmad bin Ali al-Thani becomes ruler of Qatar

On the 24th of October 1960, Sheikh Ali bin Abdullah al-Thani abdicated from power in Qatar. He was succeeded by his son, Sheikh Ahmad bin Ali al-Thani.

1970: Creation of a deep water port at Doha

Before June 1966, Qatar’s only deep-water port was the oil tanker terminal at Umm Said. Due to a wide coral bar situated between Doha’s waterfront and the deeper waters of the Gulf, Doha was inaccessible. However, in 1970 Penta International of Japan was contracted to dredge a channel 27 feet deep, 350 feet wide and 3.5 miles long. When Doha’s deep water port was completed, the estimated total expenditure was QR 144 million. Since 1971 and the completion of Doha’s port, imports have risen steadily. Between 1975 and 1976 cargo distributed through Doha increased by 770,000 tons to 1.2 million tons.

El Mallakh, R. (1979) Qatar: Development of an oil economy. Palgrave Macmillan

1971: Qatar declares Independence

In 1968, the British Government announced that it would terminate all its defence commitments east of Suez by the end of 1971, which meant the termination of the protection treaties it held with the Gulf States. Negotiations took place between Qatar and the other Gulf States with a view to creating a Federation of Arab Emirates, but Qatar became angered by the continued interference of the British, and began the process of independence in 1970. A provisional constitution was drawn up on the 2nd of April 1970. On the 3rd of September 1971, the Prime Minister and Heir Apparent, Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani, announced a new Anglo-Qatari treaty of friendship and co-operation, formally terminating the old treaties of protection. The new constitution was published, establishing the independent statehood of Qatar.

Zahlan, R. S. (1979) The Creation of Qatar. London: Routledge


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