Inscriptions, rock carvings, flint spearheads and pottery indicate that people lived in Qatar as early as the 4th century B.C. However, the lack of archaeological remains from later periods suggests that the peninsula was uninhabited or very sparsely inhabited until the 18th century A.D.

In the 18th century, a tribe of Bedouins from the interior of the Arabian peninsula settled in Al-Zubara in the northwest, which grew into a small pearl-diving and trade centre. In 1783, the Al-Khalifa family, who controlled Al-Zubara, led the conquest of nearby Bahrain, where they remain the ruling family today. Following their departure from Qatar, the country was ruled by a series of sheikhs. Sheikh Mohammed bin Thani established the capital at Doha in the 19th century and signed a treaty with Great Britain to protect his people from the Al-Khalifa family.

In the early 20th century, the bin Thani sheikhs signed further agreements with Great Britain to continue British protection of the country. At the time, Qatar was an extremely poor area, dependent on the earnings from pearl fishing. When cultured pearls from Japan became available in the 1930s, the international pearl market collapsed. Life in Qatar became extremely difficult, with widespread poverty, hunger and disease. Oil was discovered in 1939, and large-scale production and processing began after the Second World War. Since then, Qatar has become a wealthy country.During the 1950s, schools, hospitals and industrial facilities were built with the revenues from oil. In the late 1960s, the British announced their intention to withdraw from the Gulf in 1971. Qatar entered into discussions with Bahrain and the Trucial States (now called the United Arab Emirates) about forming a confederation, but the discussions failed. Qatar declared its independence in 1971.

In 1972, Sheikh Khalifa bin Hamad became the ruler of Qatar. He continued the process of modernization made possible by the petroleum industry boom, but at the same time he encouraged Qatar's commitment to traditional customs and Islamic values. His son, now called Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, became ruler in 1995.

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Qatari troops participated in the Persian Gulf War in 1990-91. Doha served as a base for offensive strikes by American and Canadian aircraft against Iraq and the Iraqi forces.