The country of Qatar lies on a a small body of land jutting out from the Arabian Peninsula into the Persian Gulf. Boasting a rich cultural heritage, Qatar continues to highlight its cultural roots to travelers visiting on Middle East cruises, while at the same time introducing their modernization in today's century. A crossroads of civilization since ancient times, Qatar is leaping into the future with visionary innovations in the global energy market.
Neolithic Stone Age cultures have inhabited parts of coastal Qatar since 10,000 BC. Excavations at Shagra and Al-Khor have revealed 5th millennium BC Dilmun villages. Bahrain itself was the best natural port between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and Oman, a major source of copper, which made the east coast of Qatar a natural stopping place for trade along the way. By 1400 BC, the Al-Khor region became the primary source for a highly valued scarlet dye, which was used by the royal Babylonian family to dye their robes.
Nestorian Christians came to Qatar early in the history of Christianity. In 628 AD, the ruler of Bahrain converted to Islam, ushering in the beginning of the Islamic era in Qatar. Trade continued unabated throughout the Middle Ages by people from places as far distant as the Horn of Africa and the Malay archipelago, making Qatar one of the great cultural meeting places of the world.
Bedouin poetry, song, and dance dominate Qatari culture. The Ardah, a stylized martial dance which is traditionally performed on Fridays, is accompanied by tamborines, cymbals, and Bedouin drums known as al-ras. Fann at-Tanbura dancing is closely associated with Zar possession and healing rituals.
While Qatar is more tolerant than some countries in the region, it is still an Islamic country. Eating, drinking, and smoking are forbidden during Ramadan daylight hours. However, alcohol is legal here, with a permit and within moderation, but drinking alcohol or being drunk in public is not permitted. Travelers on a Middle East cruise can show respect for Qatari culture by wearing modest clothing in public.
In Qatar, hospitality is more than simple etiquette, it is a matter of personal honor. Food should always be accepted when offered, lest you offend the host.
Rice, flatbreads, and dates are staples in Qatari cuisine. Zatar pie is a form of Arabic bread baked with thyme. Shwarma consists of meat which has been marinated for 24 hours with spices and tomato paste. After being cooked slowly on a skewer, it is then sliced and wrapped in bread.
Many Qatari dishes are exceptionally sweet to the taste. In addition to the sugar used in the recipes, many Qataris also consume a spoonful of honey every morning and evening. Dates are very common in Qatari cuisine, and can be served fresh or dried at any time during the day or night.
There are no real mountains in Qatar. Most of the region consists of flat limestone surfaces covered with sand, with a few rocky outcroppings which the wind carves into interesting shapes. The highest elevations, including Qurayn Abu al Bawl, Qatar's highest point of land, are found along the Jebel Dukhan, a range of low limestone outcroppings which runs south to the Saudi Arabia border from Jalhiya and Umm Bab on the west coast. Most of Qatar's main onshore oil deposits are in this region.
The region south of the Jebel Dukhan blends into Saudi Arabia's great Rub' al-Khali Desert. Desert sand and sand dunes also dominate in many areas north of the Jebel Kuhan, with many popular locations for dune bashing just a short drive away from Doha. However, a few pockets of sweet soil support tiny farms, fenced with protective eucalyptus trees along their north and west edges. Even apparently desolate desert often springs into bloom after the winter rains.
Rivers in most of Qatar are dry ditches most of the year, filling with water only after the winter rains. Agriculture in Qatar is concentrated in the north and central regions, roughly north of the rail line which links Doha and Dukhan. These regions feature rainwater-draining basins found only on the western side of the Persian Gulf. Additional water for irrigation is supplied by desalinated seawater.
After a short period of Portuguese colonization from 1517 to 1538, Qatar became an independent sheikhdom. It remained so until 1876, when it became a dependency of the Ottoman Empire. However, when the Ottoman Empire attempted to annex it outright, Qatar rebelled. In 1893, Sheikh Jassim decisively defeated the Ottomans at the Battle of Wajbah, marking the emergence of Qatar as a modern nation.
Simultaneously, negotiations had been going on with Great Britain, which was looking for reliable intermediary ports between the Mediterranean Sea and its holdings in India. Qatar became a dependency under Great Britain on December 18, 1878, a date which is still celebrated each year as Qatar's National Day. The negotiator chosen by the Qataris, Muhammed bin Thani, would later become the father of the Al Thani dynasty which still rules to this day. Under his guidance, Qatar became an official British protectorate in 1916. Although its pearl-based economy nearly collapsed in the 1920s, the discovery of oil followed just 2 decades later. On September 3, 1971, Qatar became a fully independent sovereign state.
Qatar is an emirate-type government with a governing emir, who is chosen on the basis of heredity. Its legal system combines civil law and Sharia law, and can be amended solely by the emir at his discretion.
Qatar has a hot, mostly humid climate. Its proximity to the warm waters of the Persian Gulf keeps its humidity surprisingly high, especially in coastal regions. At the same time, the massive nearby desert keeps nearly all of that humidity from turning into rainfall.
Between December and February, temperatures usually stay below 80, with nighttime lows in the mid 50s. Summers are warm and muggy even at night and scorching during the day, with temperatures that commonly reach well over 110 in the shade.
Nearly all of Qatar's scant rain falls between November and April. Most of that rain falls in short, heavy cloudbursts which flood dry streambeds and ravines and sometimes close roads. The driest parts of Qatar are in the southwest, an extension of Saudi Arabia's great Rub' al-Khali Desert.
Qatar's other great weather-maker is the dry shamal wind, which can occur at any time of year but is strongest in spring and early summer. Particularly strong spring shamals are hot and dust-laden and often cause sandstorms. During the winter, the shamal cold front sweeping down from the northwest can combine with Qatar's coastal humidity to bring drizzle and squally conditions. Shamal winds are also associated with the very severe October and November thunderstorms known as uhaimir.
The best time to visit Qatar on a Middle East cruise is between November and March in the winter and early spring, before the blistering heat of summer hits. March and April are particularly pleasant for those with a moderate tolerance for hot weather, with high temperatures usually ranging between 80 and 90 and low temperatures dipping down to the mid 60s and 70s.
The desert regions of Qatar are home to a wide variety of wildlife ranging from shy sand cats to the the endangered Arabian oryx. Over 300 species of birds are native to Qatar, such as the spectacularly colored bee-eater. Other common bird species include the Western Reef egret, the Socotra cormorant, little bulbuls, and the colorful crested hoopoe.
Qatar's mangrove forests in Al Thakira and Al Khor are a popular tourist destination. Just offshore, the warm waters of the Persian Gulf are home to whale sharks, swordfish, dolphins, and the critically endangered hawksbill turtle.
The Al Wabra Wildlife Preserve is home to over 1,000 mammals and 700 birds. In partnership with the European Endangered Species Programme, the preserve is dedicated to the conservation of some of the rarest creatures in the world.