Qatar, a former pearl-fishing center and once one of the poorest Gulf states, is now one of the richest countries in the region, thanks to the exploitation of large oil and gas fields since the 1940s. Dominated by the Al-Thani family for almost 150 years, the mainly barren country was a British protectorate until 1971, when it declared its independence after following suit with Bahrain and refusing to join the United Arab Emirates. In 1995, Crown Prince Hamad bin Khalifa deposed his father to become emir and introduced some liberal reforms. He advocated greater political openness and elections in 1999 for a 29-member municipal council were the first in which Qatari women were allowed to vote and stand for office.
Qatar is one of the wealthiest countries in the region because of oil; the government has encouraged diversification. The population is small. Foreigners – including laborers attracted by a construction boom – outnumber natives. Oil money funds an all-embracing welfare state, with many services being free or heavily subsidized. Possessing nearly 15% of the world’s proven gas reserves, Qatar has ambitions to become a global energy giant.