Qatar and national identity


Up until 2008 Qatar had always marked its National Day celebration by commemorating the day the British upped sticks and left the country in the hands of the Al Thani to rule fully independently. The change to December 18 therefore was an interesting move.

Michael Stephens
27 December 2012

December is always a colourful month in the Gulf, the national days of three nation states mean that wherever one travels, colourful displays of patriotism and nationalist fervour are on show for all to see. In Qatar especially it is striking to see the lengths to which the country goes to cement its national day in the public consciousness of the nation.

Qataris buy into the occasion with many choosing to affix elaborate displays to their cars, fly flags or even dye their white thobes maroon so as to mimic the flag itself. It is certainly an ostentatious and light-hearted way to show one’s loyalties.

Although National Day may for many mean simply driving your car along the corniche, there is a deeper side to it which to the outsider at least reflects the image of a nation creating roots and history as it goes along. Up until 2008 Qatar had always marked its National Day celebration by commemorating the day the British upped sticks and left the country in the hands of the Al Thani to rule fully independently. The change to December 18 therefore was an interesting move, marking as it does the battle fought between Jassim Al Thani and the Ottomans in 1871, in which the tribes of Qatar united to defeat the last Ottoman presence on the Peninsula.

It was not the making of Qatar as a country per se, but more the construction of a Qatari identity, marked by the core tribes that supported Jassim and together formed a cohesive band of Arabs who would come to be rooted to the land that would eventually become the state Qatar.

So why the change? Well it is clear that Qatar, like many young nation states has to work a little harder at constructing a national narrative that says ‘we are all Qatari’, because even fifty years ago that simply wasn’t the case. The need to construct and assert a national narrative, with the added bonus of a national myth encompassing heroism and the great deeds of one member at least of the ruling family is thus paramount.

For all the enormous leaps and bounds the country has taken in recent years, the country is still a nation ruled by one family. As such the nation state itself and the family are inseparable. The need to construct national narrative is tied intimately into the legitimacy of the Al Thani’s right to rule the nation. National day is one tool in a larger social experiment to create an identity which is unitary and rooted in a sense of tradition and identity, both of which were previously lacking.

In some ways what is experienced in Qatar is a transposition of the heady days of nationalism in European states in latter part of the nineteenth century to today’s times, constructing an all-encompassing sense of identity, imbued with more ethereal concepts such as pride, duty and a sense of belonging; all of which are necessary build the blocks of a national ethos and sense of unity.

Europeans tend to view such processes with an air of snobbish superiority, the European experience of nationalism having led to two world wars and a continent hopelessly bereft of a generation of young men. To see such processes in play in other parts of the world does not often instill a sense of comfort, and this is further underlined by the chronic instability present in the Gulf region where fiercely nationalistic nation states arming themselves to the teeth is hardly a cause for celebration.

However, critics need to ask themselves what Gulf nations are to do instead, if they are to remain viable polities. Without undertaking some kind of national project, the nation states of the Gulf are too young - their identities, like the sand from which they are constructed would blow away with the wind if were not for something more concrete to hold these nations together.

Therefore rather than view national day as an anachronism, view it instead as a necessity for nations which have not had the luxury of centuries of institution building: creating a shared sense of identity is a precondition, before the more complex nation building processes can begin.

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