Country Profile: Qatar

Slightly smaller than Connecticut and with a population of roughly 800,000, Qatar is one of the least-familiar countries in the Persian Gulf.

The country, a peninsula that juts into the Persian Gulf on the north coast of the Saudi Arabian peninsula, didn't even appear on most foreign maps of the region drawn before the 1800s, and even after it became a British protectorate in 1916, it was a poor area noted mainly for pearling.

But since it discovered significant oil and natural gas revenues in 1939, Qatar's profile has risen, and it enjoys a per capita income not far below the leading industrial countries of Western Europe.

In preparation for a possible U.S. attack on Iraq, Qatar serves as a staging area for American forces. In December 2002, U.S. command staff participated in comprehensive, computerized war simulations to improve performance on the modern-day battlefield.

A Media Power

Qatar is probably best known today as the home of the 24-hour Arab satellite channel al-Jazeera, proven to be a key source of information from the Arab world.

Indicted terrorist Osama bin Laden has often communicated to the world through al-Jazeera, and the channel has often provided hard-to-get perspectives from the Islamic world — like pictures of air raids on Baghdad and war footage of Afghanistan.

As an independent source in a world of state-controlled media outlets, the channel has also won respect from the free world and infuriated srticter regimes in the area.

Al-Jazeera enjoys support from the Qatar's head of state, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who promised greater democracy when he took over for his father in 1995.

Traditional Government

The al-Thani family, in consultation with a council of ministers now governs Qatar as a traditional emirate, with Islamic ideals and beliefs providing the foundation of the country's customs, laws and practices.

The al-Thani family has been in the country for two centuries and has played a major role in Qatar since the Turks left the area at the beginning of World War I. Qatar gained independence in September 1971.

Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad al-Thani took control of the country in 1972, and while he increased the country's prosperity with oil revenues, he also allegedly siphoned off so much money that he sent the economy into a tailspin in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In 1995, his son, the current emir, assumed power. Arab sources say succession took place with the support and approval of the ruling family, the Qatari people and the armed forces. The CIA has called it a bloodless coup.