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A brief geographical and geological background

A satellite image of Qatar

The State of Qatar occupies a small, flat, limestone peninsula. Resembling an open hand, it stretches north from the Saudi Arabian peninsula into the Persian/Arabian Gulf. It contains 11,427 within its coastline and borders, and its highest point is a little over 100 metres above mean sea level. The only natural resources are the oil and gas found on and off-shore, though pearling was once important to its economy. As can be seen in this photograph, the peninsula is protected by relatively shallow reefs.

Incidentally, the official name of the Gulf is the ‘Persian Gulf’, however, on the Arabian peninsula it is virtually always known as the ‘Arabian Gulf’. Here I will attempt to call it either the ‘Gulf’, or the ‘Persian/Arabian Gulf’. It will probably make nobody happy.

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Land and soil characteristics of the country

Sand dunes west of al Wakrah Sand dunes west of al Wakrah

There is a common perception that the surfaces of the countries of the Gulf are comprised of materials in which plants will not grow. In more general terms, it is perceived that the Gulf is a desert and many believe the area similar to the ruba’a al khali of Saudi Arabia into which the sand dunes of Qatar move slowly. The first photograph here is of typical dunes west of al-Wukair. To many this is what is thought of when they think of the desert.

The second photograph, taken under slightly different lighting conditions, illustrates how the dunes sit on the limestone surface of the peninsula, slowly moving under the force of the prevailing winds until they coalesce into the continuous forms seen in the first photograph.

Typical landscape near Dukhan

Here is an illustration of the landscape around Dukhan on the west of the peninsula showing how erosion has shaped the limestone rock formations, undercutting the softer stones, leaving the harder top stones projecting. This concept of a barren peninsula is obviously not so, though it is true that the top soil is unable to support much planting due to its character, depth and the lack of water.

Winter rains in the north of the peninsula Wheat being cultivated in a farm in the north of the peninsula

So it may come as a surprise that there is, for instance, a considerable amount of growth from the hardy plants that lie dormant through the hot months but come to life under the winter rains. It is a significant factor in the life of the country that, when the rains come to the country, the desert blooms; this is the time when the local population particularly enjoy their country and one which, traditionally, was a significant factor in determining the movement of the badu into and out of the peninsula. But there is also considerable cultivation in the peninsula and has been for centuries in the areas where rawdha has allowed for the establishing of farms. That this includes small fields of plants such as wheat, as illustrated in the lower photograph, can also be surprising to visitors.

The land available for cultivation is estimated at about 28,000 hectares, or 2.5% of the total area. The FAO have estimated that, in 1994, 8,312 hectares were cultivated compared with 2,256 hectares in 1980. Of those 8,312 hectares, two-thirds were annual crops, mainly green fodder, vegetables and cereals, and one-third permanent crops, mainly dates. It should be noted that the agricultural land is owned by the government, the farms being worked with immigrant labour.

An aerial view of a typical farm A typical farm A roadway within a desert farm Water channels under heavy shade in a farm in Qatar

Within the desert, there are pockets of rawdha or sweet soil as they are commonly known. They are relatively small and widely distributed or scattered, in the main, across the northern and central area of the peninsula. They are a small but valuable resource and, probably because of this, the farms established on them tend to be intensively cultivated in terms of the density of planting if not in the selection and treatment of their crops. The intense planting creates a dramatic contrast with the conditions obtaining in the desert immediately outside their boundaries. This has both a profound environmental or physiological, as well as a psychological effect which really has to be experienced to be properly understood. They are usually protected on at least their north and west edges with protective planting, often eucalyptus.

This group of photographs gives something of an idea of what a typical farm looks like and, in the lower two photographs, an indication of the density of planting to be found in some areas of these farms. The photographs are not all of the same farm.

The photograph to the right shows a tractor using one of the roads within a farm, and that below it shows part of the water distribution system. In both of these photographs the irrigation system can be seen to be a significant element of the farm. During the day the farmworkers distribute the water by breaking and mending the walls of the irrigation channels thus directing the flow. While some of the water will burn off in the heat, the plant canopies give a degree of protection to the narrow water channels.

Plants and beehives under shade

Where it is neither possible nor practical to create shade naturally, and where it is necessary, it is common to provide artificial shade systems. In this photograph shading has been provided for a planting area that incorporates a group of beehives, bees being understood to be a necessity for the fertilisation and maintenance of healthy plant systems.

Those Qataris who have farms or access to them certainly enjoy their time in them. While some of them are developed along Western lines with accommodation and non-productive planting, many appreciate them as they are, creating places to sit and eat, in effect transplanting the majlis there.

Crops being irrigated on a farm Expatriate workers on a farm

Generally farms need to be surrounded by a wire fence to keep out predators and, on their north and west sides at least, a line of trees, usually eucalyptus, close planted, provide some protection from the shamal. In fact these trees are often used as a screen round the whole site. A line of such trees can be glimpsed in the first of these two photographs. The photograph also illustrates the manner in which crops are watered using a channel system into which water is led from ground water wells, and its direction managed by opening and closing temporary dams between the channel walls. The lower photograph illustrates a typical expatriate labour force working on a crop, both photographs taken on a government farm in the late nineteen seventies.

In addition to their functional use they are havens from the desert as well as being refuges from the increasingly hectic life of the cities. Families and friends visit them, particularly at weekends, and enjoy sitting under the date palms, effectively using the space as a majlis.

There are considered to be five types of soil in the country:

  • those soils associated with cultivated areas and which are a mixture of types and treatments,
  • rawdha soils,
  • sabkha soils,
  • lithosol – rocky – soils, and
  • sandy soils.

to which might be added the significant amount of

  • marine fill

that has gone into creating much of the New District of Doha.

The soils most commonly found over Qatar are the lithosol. They are relatively shallow, 10-30 cms being a typical depth and are a calcareous sand loam, covered with rock debris, overlying a layer of rock fragments over limestone bedrock.

In addition to this, within the country there are a little less than two thousand depressions which contain colluvial soils made up of calcareous loam, sandy loam and sandy clay loams to depths of between 30-150 cms. Generally these soils are known as rawdha and are the main source for the agriculture of the country.

Having said that I should add that the badu refer to the main northern limestone plateau as barr qatar. Within this area, which undulates gently, lie the areas of rawdha together with areas known to the badu as jiryan to which water moves in the rainy season, led there by widyan. The jiryan contain the manqa’ where the water settles, surrounded by an area of hard pan mistah, known as suna’, on which no vegetation grows.

Grazing and farm distribution in Qatar

This diagram illustrates the pattern of rawdha soils within the country. It is notable that there are only two areas of rough grazing but that there are many small areas that have been developed for farming. The rest of the country is mainly undevelopable for farming or even grazing or, of course, urbanised.

The nature of the rawdha soils is unfortunate in that they have only a small amount of organic matter, low water retention properties and poor structural properties. This gives rise to surface crusting which interferes with the plant-air-water relationship and inhibits the emergence of seedlings. Water generally available for irrigation contains between 1,000 and 2,000 ppm of total dissolved solids and this discourages filtration and leaching causing the soil to become saline rapidly. This, together with the inundation of saline water into the underlying aquifers and the unauthorised extraction of increasing amounts of water from these aquifers, is increasing the problems of landscaping the peninsula. Generally, fertility is low with respect to nitrogen and phosphorous, and the soils are also deficient of iron, manganese and zinc.

A goatherd on his donkey moving his flock

I mentioned earlier the rough grazing that is a feature of the desert, notably in the northern part of the country. The poor quality of the soil will not support much but it is not uncommon to see small flocks of goats and sheep being moved around the country to take advantage of what little there is. Here a goatherd on a donkey moves his flock along close to the sea in the north of the country. Lying dormant, it springs to life with the winter rains.

A shepherd walking his sheep over the northern desert

This lower photograph shows a shepherd walking with his flock across the flat, northern desert in winter. If you look carefully, you can see in the foreground some of the sparse grass that comes to life in winter and provides adequate feeding for his grazing animals – along with some of the country’s wild life. It comes as a bit of a surprise to find the number of animals living in what appears to be such a bleak landscape.

An area of the peninsula particularly lush in winter

Having said that, it comes as a great surprise to many expatriates at the extent to which plants can spring to life with the watering received from the winter rains. Expatriates from the West are relatively familiar with meadows and thick grass, but in a country which is generally desert, these areas stand out dramatically – though I have to admit this is an extreme example of winter growth. These areas are sought both for the feed they can prvide for animals as well as being destinations for urban dwellers picnicking or camping for a short time. What is significant – and this is similar to the experience of farms – is the drama of moving out of or into the surrounding desert.

The remains of a camel in the desert

As I have written elsewhere, Qatar was used as a resource for camels belonging to the badu tribes that lived in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and camels are still brought into and out of the peninsula in the right season, but usually at some distance from the road system, so they are not always noticed. Despite the value of camels and the skills of the badu in caring for them them, the desert is a harsh climate and the occasional dessicated remains of camels can sometimes be seen to remind the traveller, this photograph being taken in the sand dunes in the centre of the peninsula, further south than the more fertile plain shown in the photograph above.

Typical view of sabkha

Along parts of the coast there are a number of areas of sabkha. They appear to be ideal for driving over being, in the main, wide and flat, but their appearance is deceptive. They are composed of areas of saline sand or silt, lying just above the water table and generally deposited over a long period of time by the action of wind-blown sand falling into areas of low sea. Their flatness is controlled by the humidity associated with the presence of the relatively high water table which, commonly, is about half a metre below the surface.

A car trapped in sabkha Remains of a car caught in sabkha

Usually this material has a variably thick crust of halite and gypsum through which it is possible for a vehicle to drop if it moves away from any established path, as did the car in the photograph to the side. What is surprising to drivers unfamiliar with the problem, is how difficult it is to find a new route. It is imperative to follow existing tracks, though even this might not always save you. Generally speaking, Qataris know exactly where they can drive in order to avoid the same fate and do so by reading the ground as they travel. But it is not uncommon to find the remains of a vehicle that was impossible to extract. The saline content of the material quickly destroys the exposed metal parts of cars caught in it as can be seen here to the right.

A typical track in the desert Tracks across sabkha near the south of the peninsula

Here are two photographs showing typical tracks across desert sabkha. When travelling it is not uncommon to see a variety of tracks as these photographs illustrates though, as mentioned above, it is not wise to deviate unless you really know what you’re doing. In the first photograph the main track appears to wind unnecessarily and two tracks have varied from it, but this main track is obviously a detour. On the right of the photograph, a track leading into an area of soft ground can just be seen where the original track has been abandoned. On the edges of the new track here you can see where salt has been thrown out of solution and crystalised. The second photograph illustrates particularly how a vehicle has let its tyres down to spread the load of the vehicle. I recommend that anybody interested in sabkha should read this article on the sabkha of Qatar from which most of the above notes on sabkha were taken.

Tracks across sabkha near the south of the peninsula, 1979

Compare the two photographs above with this which illustrates a more normal track in the desert immediately south of the sand dunes near al-Wukair. The tracks are straight and can be seen to be moving across desert which has a high element of sand in it compared with the desert further north which has a high proportion of modelling and scattered stones.

Tracks in the centre of the peninsula, 1979

This photograph shows the surface more common to the centre of the peninsula. The tracks usually wind around in order to take account of larger stones, holes created by animals, ground irregularities, shrubs and the like. The limestone surface can be difficult to drive over despite it appearing to be a relatively smooth surface. The limestone can produce stones with sharp edges which are able to shred tyres readily.

Gypsum crystals

One of the features associated with sabkha is the presence of gypsum crystals formed within the sabkha. These appear as two crystalline forms. The first takes the shape of fans of needle-like gypsum sand and appear where the stronger structures are exposed as the lighter sands are moved away from them. These tend to be found in the area south of Umm Said towards what is known as the Inland Sea.

A group of desert roses A small desert rose

The second form have the appearance of agglomerated shells and are familiarly known to English speakers in the peninsula as ‘desert roses’. They tend to be found in the low areas of the north and east of the country and can be spotted either loose on the surface following disturbance by the weather, or uncovered by scraping away the top surface carefully. They are delicate and can be easily broken or affected by water. The first photograph shows a couple sitting on the surface, one of which is common example though there are much larger aggregated examples. The lower photograph shows a similar individual example and is about 40mm in width. The photograph clearly illustrates the roughness of its granular sand construction.

Agglomeration of desert roses

This photo illustrates a more typical arrangement of similar crystal structures. There is no standard shape of these agglomerates, and they tend to be found in any numbers of crystals usually with just a part of them exposed. Those who dig to find them may go to a metre or so in order to uncover them. Obviously they are extremely sensitive to weathering and mechanical damage.

A geode A detail of the geode

In addition to desert roses, geodes can be found in Qatar, particularly on the west side of the country around Dukhan, and not in sabkha but in areas where the winter rains have washed them loose. This small example, to the side, is about 75mm in diameter but I have seen far larger geodes with both white and blue internal crystals. When found it is obviously not possible to see their interiors which are only visible when the geodes are broken or cut open.

Externally they have the appearance of a rough stone quite different from that of broken limstone. When broken open or, preferably sawn through, they typically exhibit a hollow interior surrounded by gypsum crystals. Geodes are familiar to many all over the world, usually sawn through and polished to exhibit the cross section as a decorative artefact, a favourite element of the vocabulary of interior designers…

Related to this, I should mention the larger scale geological features, the duhul or sinkholes of which there are a small number in Qatar. They can be categorised as one of the three karstic features of the country:

  • sinkholes,
  • simple depressions, and
  • complex depressions.

I have suggested elsewhere, with regard to the materials available for construction, that the limestone rock which forms the country is relatively soft and not always suitable for building works, particularly any works exposed to heavy wear associated with water, such as roads and marine construction.

Over a period of time a combination of groundwater and rainwater have reacted with these relatively soft surface and sub-surface rocks, dissolving gypsum and limestone. Generally, it is believed that this has come about at the interfaces between different characters of rock.

A view of the dahl al hammam to the north of Doha A view into the dahl al hammam to the north of Doha A view out of the dahl al hammam to the north of Doha

This seepage and consequent chemical reaction has dissolved the rock and created underground cavities, some of which have had their ceilings collapse, exposing the interior of the dahl, or sinkhole such as shown in these three photographs taken in and around the dahl al hammama little way to the north of the New District of Doha. This dahl has now been incorporated within a small tourist park.

While a number of duhul have been open some time, some have only been exposed when loaded from above. One such, smaller, dahl i saw exposed when a bulldozer, working on the New District of Doha, broke through the surface and fell into it. It is obvious that it is difficult, if not impossible, to know where the duhul are located without making specific tests. For this reason it is imperative that foundation work for new developments should be properly investigated.

The depressions associated with duhul are caused by the sinking of the surface following sub-surface collapse and, as the name implies, can be of a simple shape or, by the amalgamation of a number of simple depressions, complex. Depressions may also be created by sinkholes being filled with sand over a period of time. As you may be able to see in the photographs above, the plug of ground which drops typically leaves an annular hole which goes into the ground at a steep angle.

Looking up from the bottom of a dahl in the 1970s

The photographs above were taken relatively recently and show how the State has created a fenced protection set some distance away from the rim of the dahl as well as providing a steel staircase with protective handrail to allow those with an interest to descend into it. But this wasn’t always the case as can be seen in the next two photographs taken around 1975.

The top of a dahl north of Doha in the 1970s Water at the bottom of a dahl

In the early 1970s a concrete staircase was constructed permitting access into the dahl, but it was still a slightly dangerous descent due to a combination of the irregularity of the steps and the lack of handrail. Something of the difficulty of ascent is suggested in the second photograph by the attitude of the family seen climbing out of it.

The first two of these three photographs show how it appeared in the mid-1970s with a concrete block wall constructed around it to give a degree of protection both to people driving in the desert as well as to animals. The very uneven concrete stairs were still in place and, at the bottom of the dahl, was a pool of clear water. It was said that the water was potable but I certainly never tested this assertion.

The entrance to a large dahl in the desert Planting at the entrance to a dahl in the desert

There were, and I imagine still are, many other duhul of varying sizes scattered around the desert. These two photographs were taken of two large duhul in the middle of the peninsula. Entrance to the first was not easy, but it was one of a number that few expatriates seemed to know in the nineteen-seventies, though it would have been known to all the nationals, certainly to the badu and those nationals who regularly spent time travelling and camping around the desert. Owing to the manner by which they are formed, they are often situated within declivities in the desert, collecting rains and having natural planting growing in the peripheral drainage areas associated with the movement of water into them. This creates a natural habitat for wild life though, for that very reason, these are areas attracting hunters.

Prehistoric sharks’ teeth Collection of prehistoric sharks’ teeth Prehistoric sharks’ teeth

This may be considered to have very little to do with soils, but I think it worth mentioning that in the same area – on the west side of the peninsula, and also in the south – prehistoric sharks’ teeth can be uncovered relatively easily by those with an interest in palaeontology, or just wanting to spend a more useful time in the desert.

The teeth shown in these three photographs come from a variety of species of shark, including the tiger and sand tiger, and have been dated to fifty million years ago, though apparently sharks have been in existence over four hundred million years.

It is easier to spot teeth after the rains have had a chance to clear the surface dusts and bring some of the underlying material closer to the surface. Once you have found a tooth it is relatively easy to see more as the eye adjusts to their shapes and textures. What is surprising to the lay person is how modern they appear with their enamelled finish surviving that length of time, and the serrated cutting edge remaining sharp. In some cases, for instance in the tooth top right of the middle photograph, the inner dentine has rotted away leaving only the enamel outer shell.

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Although there is little to be seen in the desert it is surprising what can be seen in the winter months, particularly when there have been sufficient rains to bring out the dormant plants. Six types of plant community have been identified in the peninsula. These community types are:

  • coastal sabkha,
  • coastal sand,
  • rawdha depression,
  • sand dune,
  • acacia tortillis, and
  • ziziphus nummularia.

The plant communities of the coastal sabkha s and sand are mainly halophytes –

  • halopeplis perfoliata, and
  • zygophyllum coccineum.

The rawdha communities contain mixed and pure stands of:

  • Acacia tortillis, samr,
  • Zizyphus nummularia, sidr, and
  • Lycium shawii, awasij.

Interestingly, the aeolian sands, which are greater in the south of the peninsula than the north, have affected the storm water run-off and permitted a denser incidence of these plants with Fagonia indica as ground cover.

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Wild life

A group of oryx at Shahaniyah The face of an oryx

At first sight the casual visitor to Qatar will see little wild life due to the harsh environmental character of the peninsula, the extent and speed of urbanisation and the amount of use the desert receives from the large number of vehicles available and used for recreational purposes. Natural camouflage and the need to hide will also play a part in this. Certainly, when travelling in the desert there seems to be little in plain sight but, on closer examination, there is a range of fauna that has adapted itself to the harsh conditions. Older Qataris will tell you that there used to be a significant amount of wild life, though as this has been hunted, and as the peninsula became more urbanised, their range of types and numbers will naturally have declined.

The head of an oryx A group of oryx

One of the animals common to, and living naturally in the peninsula, is or was the Arabian oryx – Oryx leucoryx – a beautiful animal with lovely eyes from which its badu name, al-wadhihi, is said to have been taken. Its proper name is al-maha and it now can be seen only in enclosed private zoos and the public zoo at al-Shahaniya where these four photographs were taken in 1979 early on when the zoo was being established.

There is still a small number of oryx to be seen in the wild in the Arabian peninsula – some of which are now being reintroduced into the wild in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – though only in enclosed areas of Qatar due to the relatively small area of land available to them. This means that, as far as Qatar is concerned, these animals are now unable to live with the natural freedom they once enjoyed.

more to be written…

A wolf spider taking cover in the desert

Apparently there is not a great deal known about the spiders of the peninsula. Generally Qataris avoid them because some are dangerous, and Europeans avoid them as there is a general mistrust or fear of large spiders who are all considered to be dangerous. Here a wolf spider, of the family Lycosidae, is shown hiding under shrubs in the desert and facing the source of the perceived threat to it. The wolf spider is bulky, but can move quickly in its hunt for food, usually at night, and this movement tends to scare people unused to them. It has developed a relatively thick skin in order to help reduce moisture loss and is rarely found inside buildings or tents.

The distinctive female signature spider

This photograph is of a signature spider, Argiope lobata, of the family Araneidae, taken as it was making its web on a gateway in Doha. The male of the species is relatively small, its body length being little more than 6mm in length whereas this female had a body length of at least 25mm. Apart from the hairless and indented character of its body, its legs are usually held in four pairs, as shown here, and it tends to sit on its web with its head down. Note that the web is situated in an open space in order to catch flying insects and, particularly, the zig-zag strand of webbing which is a characteristic of this type of spider, though its function is not understood.

more to be written…

A pair of butterflies A blue tiger butterfly

Butterflies are a relatively common sight in Qatar, probably due to the significant areas and character of planting both in the urban areas and in the farms. Having said that, I have also come across them in the middle of the desert. Always a pleasure to see, they are not all as welcome as they might be to the casual viewer. Here is of a pair of butterflies mating. I believe they may be a pair of blue tiger or common brown playboy butterflies, and of the Lycaenidaefamily, but I have to admit to being unsure. Although, with their wings closed they appear to be relatively colourless, when opened they display a pale blue. At the bottom of their hind wings there are a distinctive eye pattern along with projections from the edge of the wing which mimics their antennae. This is thought to be a protective device to confuse predators as to which is the head of the butterfly.

A lemon butterfly

This second photograph is of a swallowtail butterfly, Papilio demoleusof the Papilionidaefamily, resting on the leaves of an acacia tree at Umm Salal Muhammad in the 1970s. Ironically it does not have a swallow tail and is more usually known as a common lime or lemon butterfly because of its attraction to citrus plants. While it is a decorative creature to look at, it is regarded by many as a pest due to the damage caused by its larvae to citrus plantation.

An Eastern Death’s Head Hawkmoth

Not only are there butterflies to be found in the peninsula but a number of species of moths can also be seen. The Death’s Head Hawkmoth is one of the better known ones to the extent it is featured on one of the official 1998 stamps illustrating insects of the peninsula. There is a degree of notoriety attached to it due to the figuring on its thorax, here shown in a detail, as well as its ability to make a light squeaking noise.

more to be written…

A locust on an acacia tree

The locust is also an unpopular visitor to the peninsula. While individual locusts, such as that seen here, seem to be relatively common in the Qatar peninsula, swarms of them are relatively unusual. This photograph is probably of the migratory locust, Locusta migratoria, which can be brown or green, as in this case. Mentioned in the Holy Quran, the Bible and the Torah, locusts are seen to be dangerous because of their ability to swarm in considerable numbers, to travel long distances readily and to eat their own weight in food a day. With a life of three to five months, dependent upon weather, ecological conditions and the success of human attempts to control them, the most dangerous variety – desert locusts – are capable of depriving human communities of crops within a very short period of time. The last major outbreak in the region was in the 1996-97 winter on the west coast of the Arabian peninsula.

more to be written…

A groundhopper

This small specimen was discovered in the middle of the desert near some bushes, but I am not too sure what it is. I believe it may be a groundhopper, an orthopterain the family Tetrigidae. The photograph was taken in 1973 and, from the short depth of field, it suggests I got down on the ground to photograph it from a close distance. It is apparently relatively primitive, and both deaf and makes no sound.

more to be written…

A swarm of bees on an acacia tree A swarm of bees on an acacia tree

While this is not a common sight in Qatar, I have seen it twice and assume it happens more often than my random sightings suggest. Here are bees swarming on an acacia tree, photographed in 1983. At the centre of this swarm of worker bees will be the old queen bee, the swarm illustrating the natural process by which honey bees develop into a new colony.

Honey has been obtained for millennia in the Arabian peninsula, originally from feral, but later from domesticated colonies. This tradition continues in Qatar and many of the farms have bee hives set aside for the production of honey which is a favourite if not one of the staple foods typically eaten at breakfast along with bread, dates, cheese and the like. The lower photograph here is a detail of the first, illustrating the pattern created by the tight packing together of the bees.

more to be written…

A sand skink A sand skink Close-up of a sand skink

There are many types and sizes of fauna to be seen in the desert, even in what may appear at first sight to be the most desolate of environments. Here a sand skink, Scincus mitranus, makes a break from the humans invading his territory, his tail and feet leaving a characteristic pattern in the sand of the dunes south-west of al-Wukair. While the lizard in the first photograph was first spotted running on the surface, they tend to dive into loose sand with a vibrating motion to escape predators, and have the ability to move through the loose material with a swimming motion and without the use of their legs as was seen with the second lizard. They are sometimes referred to as sandfish because of this.

Moving below the surface also allows them to regulate their body temperature – they are cold-blooded animals – by the protection from the sun afforded them by the sand. Their diet consists of small beetles, insect larvae and plant food varied due to the scarcity of available desert food preys, and varying in those proportions through the seasons. The third photograph shows another of these animals in a little more detail, illustrating its relatively heavy body in proportion to its legs.

A toad-headed agamid A toad-headed agamid

More dramatic in its looks, these two photographs are of an Arabian toad-headed agama, or the Phrynocephalus arabicus, seen here in the centre of the peninsula, regrettably with colour bias in the old film stock, as is the problem with many of these photographs. These lizards have a heavy flattened body covered with a rough scaly skin which tends to relate to the colours of the ground upon which it lives. Its long legs are adapted to the loose sand on which it is usually found and, unlike its posture in the first photograph, it tends to stand well away the hot surface of sand, sometimes standing on rocks, as in the second photograph giving it the additional benefit of improved vigilance. Distinguishing it from many other lizards whose teeth are loosely attached to the jaw, the teeth of this lizard’s upper jaw are fused into its skull.

A dhub or dhub-dhub The head of a captured dhub The burrow of a dhub

This heavy-bodied lizard is known as a dhubor dhabor, more commonly in Qatar, a dhub-dhub. The spiny-tailed Agama, Uromastyx aegyptia microolepisgrows to an impressive size, has the ability to move quickly and appear aggressive if cornered. While this may make some nervous, they really are harmless vegetarians with a very low metabolic rate. They have developed a suitability to life in the desert by not needing to drink much if any water, this requirement being obtained from the meagre desert plants on which they live. Regrettably for its welfare, it is considered a delicacy by the badu, most of the meat being in its spiny tail. This particular dhubhad been caught and, I assume, was to be eaten.

The second photograph of the same lizard illustrates the loose skin around its neck and its heavy head with its small nostrils, evolved to keep out the sand.

The dhublives in distinctive burrows it excavates into the desert where it is relatively safe, though they can be attacked in their burrows by snakes and, of course, by humans looking for a meal.

A gecko A gecko sitting on a vest

While lizards can be seen in many parts of the desert, geckos are far more common in and around urban developments where they may find more sources of suitable food. This Turkish or Mediterranean gecko, Hemidactylus turcicus, was photographed on a wooden garage structure in the daytime, perhaps sunning itself, as although geckos are nocturnal they can be active at dawn and dusk. Perhaps more commonly, they can be seen on the walls and ceilings inside houses, their feet adapted to holding them onto vertical and horizontal surfaces. They seem to show no concern for humans to the extent they can be handled – though this is not good practice – and will climb over them as can be seen in the lower photograph. They are insectivores and harmless.

more to be written…

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Not so wild life

A young pet cheetah

Camels have been looked at in a number of places, so will be omitted here. But it might be worth mentioning some of the other animals to be seen on the peninsula in addition to those to be found in the wild even though they are common to many parts of the world. This first example is not meant to be representative but it is not uncommon to find wild animals in some Qatari households. Cheetahs have been domesticated for millennia and, though we may think of them as wild animals, they have been traditionally used for hunting and, more recently, as decorative household pets, as was this one. There are also a number of other wild animals held in private zoos with little or no regulation of their welfare.

A pair of shepherds moving their flock

Far more common are those domestic animals which provide part of the national diet and can be seen, as was this herd, ranging over the desert for their feed. Sheep and goats are probably the most important constituents of the meals traditionally eaten in the desert as well as on high days and holidays when they are the focus of generous traditional meals. Here the flock is being moved by two shepherds mounted on donkeys.

Three donkeys grazing on urban rubbish A donkey being ridden through the suq

Donkeys have been used both in the desert, but particularly in urban areas, as beasts of burden helping with the transporting of goods and people. This trio were photographed in 1973 grazing for food in an area where rubbish was being deposited prior to the Municipality clearing up most of these areas. Donkeys were used not just to carry people and move items around farms, as in the photograph of the shepherds above, but they drew light carts such as those in the transporting through the suburbs of water and kerosene, carried heavy goods in the suq, as this photograph from 1975 illustrates with the harness clearly visible, and also had a semi-recreational value in some of the farms where families regularly visited. My memory of them is that they were generally well treated and often allowed to roam in order to feed on available material.

Cows at feriq al-Salata, 1972

Also to be found roaming around, apparently unattended, were cows as in this photograph and one located lower down the page. This particular group were spotted on the filled land within the take for the new Corniche on feriq al-Salata. I’m unsure what variety of cow they are, but they were very much a feature of the area in 1972 feeding on rubbish left around. I don’t recall seeing feed put out for them, nor anybody tending them. Here they lounge with the port in the background before construction of the Corniche roadworks.

A cock and hen outside a house

In the past, many Qatari families kept domestic animals. Some were regarded as pets for the children but most would have been kept for their meat and milk or, as in this case, their eggs. Hens were a common addition to household gardens or roofs, sometimes being penned by woven wire fencing or, often as not, allowed to roam inside and outside the property. They could be heard in the mornings and were as much a feature of the dawn as was the early morning call to prayer.

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The physical character of the country

A view from the tallest natural feature in Qatar

As I wrote above, the Qatar peninsula is relatively flat. Its highest point is at Qurayn Abu al-Bawl, south-west of al-Kharaara in the south-west of the country, and stands approximately 103 metres high. This photograph was taken from its top in 1980. Difficult to read at this scale but, in the centre of the photograph there are a number of small sand dunes sitting on the limestone plain. The scene is likely to be different now, the dunes having moved considerably.

Small trees and grass

In the north and centre of the country the land is relatively flat and featureless. The covering of loose limestone is easily driven over, though can damage tyres. But in a number of areas the character changes.

These three photographs were taken in the winter months. This part of the peninsula contains a number of slight depressions into which rainwater drains naturally and some rawdha, sweet soil, has collected over time, making them ideal places for plants to establish themselves.

There are also areas of rough grazing to the east of Al Shahaniya. In the winter months these areas can look quite rich in flora and are areas in which families commonly picnic.

A number of fuqu

One of the activities which is common in the winter months, and is often associated with and carried out by families picnicing, is that of looking for fuqa, truffles. You can often see whole families slowly wandering over areas such as these with their heads down, keenly looking at the ground for what I was told are the tell-tale eruptions in the soil which indicate the growth of truffles.

A large fuqu

The first photograph above shows the results of a good day’s hunting, and this to the side shows an unusually large one. It is a tradition in Qatar to make a present of the first large one of the season to the Ruler. I believe these illustrated here are zubaidi, a lighter coloured and more highly prized variety than the khalasi.

A khalasi truffle breaking through the ground

Here is a khalasi to compare the zubaidi with. You can see that it is a darker colour and here can be seen as it is found, typically, just breaking through the surface of the ground, which is how it can be spotted. Having said that, I have spent time looking for them without success but, like much relating to the desert, Qataris seem to find them relatively easily. It must be similar to looking for fossil sharks’ teeth; once you have found one, the rest are relatively easy to see.

Typical rock structures in the west of the country Typical rock structures in the west of the country

To the west of the country there are a number of relatively low hills around and over Qatar’s main oil field. These are often mushroom-shaped due to the erosion of the underlying, softer rock and form an interesting contrast to the visual character of the rest of the country. They tend to be no more than about twenty or thirty metres in height and are located from Dukhan, south through Umm Bab and then on towards the border with Saudi Arabia.

These formations have a striking beauty to them due in part to their colours and sharp geometries which contrast with the more gentle contours of the sand dunes and the general flatness of the whole of the peninsula. They can also form dramatic shapes against the sky, as in the first photograph. It is around this part of the country that the sharks’ teeth, mentioned above, are to be found by those with sharp eyes to spot them.

A lone tree in the middle of the peninsula

The centre of the peninsula is relatively flat and covered in loose stones. There are small declivities in which there is a marginally different microclimate supporting some plant life, more evident in the winter months than summer. Scattered throughout are plants which have managed to sustain their growth despite the harsh environmental pressures as well as the needs of passing and local animal life. This tree is a good example of a plant which has managed to grow despite these problems, and the desert seen behind it is very typical of this part of Qatar.

Typical desert with sand dunes

Towards the south of the country there are the beginnings of the sand dunes which initially are created separately, but coalesce and increase in size as they march down the peninsula across the border into Saudi Arabia and into the ruba’a al khali, or Empty Quarter. This photograph was taken towards their northern limit in the centre of the country, south-west of al-Wakra and al-Wukair.

Two sand dunes

This photograph, together with that above it, shows a little of the character of this part of the peninsula where the sand dunes are still separate on the gravel plain and have not yet coalesced. They were both taken in the late afternoon in winter, on different days, the lower photo showing a small group of badu sitting and enjoying the ‘taste of the air’, as they termed it when I went over to talk with them.

Classic barkan sand dunes Detail of a classic barkan sand dune

The dunes begin in the classic barkanform, and are driven down the peninsula by the shamal from the north north-west. You can compare the angle they sit on the ground with the line of the shamal-driven sandstorm in the photo above it. The dunes take on a crescent shape, their windward face being rippled by the action of the wind, their leeward face being relatively steep as it collapses under the driving wind, and with the two arms moving faster than the face to give these dunes their classic shape.

In Qatar the dunes begin about half way down the peninsula, occuring first as relatively small scattered dunes, as in the upper of these two photographs. The lower photograph enables you to understand a little of the feeling of the steepness of the face of a dune.

The top twenty centimetres of a sand dune from its leeward side and with no wind blowing Sand in the face of a dune shearing

This first photograph is a detail of about twenty centimetres of the very top of the leeward side of a dune, without the wind blowing. You can see the way the sand is trickling down the vertical face of the top of the dune in a fairly constant process even with negligible wind blowing. There is a noticable difference in colour between the running and static sand, the former being slightly more red. The second photograph shows a more dramatic failing in the binding of the sand with it shearing vertically as the movement generated by the wind pushes the face outside its natural angle of repose. This loose compaction enables the dunes to ‘sing’, as it is termed, though it is more accurately a humming noise which is created. Sliding down the dune and using the friction created by the weight of your body to agitate the sand, creates vibration which gives off this low humming sound, the vibration being felt in the body.

Sand slipping down the face of a dune

Here, while not vertical as in the preceding photographs, sand is falling off the top of this dune, in this case creating an attractive pattern. Not only are the dunes attractive in themselves, but their singing is one of the characteristics of the sand dunes that attracts visitors. The humming, or singing, is caused when a person sits or lies on the face of the dune and moves in such a way as to create movement in the underlying sand. Reasons for this differ; some believe that it is the friction of the grains of sand on each other that create the sound, while more recent research suggests that it is the agglomeration of the sound of large numbers of similarly sized grains of sand rolling around and colliding with each other that does so – the larger the grain the lower the sound. Whichever it is, the vibration can be felt as well as heard and help to make a day on the dunes an even more pleasurable experience.

The top twenty centimetres of a sand dune from its leeward side and with no wind blowing

By contrast, this photograph shows a little of the character at the top of a dune when the wind is driving the sand over. Because of the driven sand it can be a very uncomfortable place to be when the wind has any strength in it, both stinging the exposed skin while making it uncomfortable to breathe. Note, too, the rippled surface of the windward side of the dune contrasting with the leeward side.

A sand storm moving down the Gulf – with the permission of ESA – European Space Agency

Sandstorms can be a serious hazard to those unused to them, although those who experience them regularly, particularly the badu, have a relaxed attitude to their occurance, and are used to taking the necessary actions to protect their herds and encampments. The winds driving the sandstorms in this region sweep the Qatar peninsula regularly, bringing with them sands and dust from far away. In this first photograph, something of their scale can be understood with two waves of sand or dust travelling south-east down the length of the Gulf from Iraq and Iran, and reaching well into the Saudi Arabian hinterland.

A sand storm sweeping down the peninsula near the Inland Sea courtesy of Nasa

This second aerial photograph shows in more detail the front of a sandstorm which has swept down the peninsula and has almost reached the Inland Sea in the south-east corner of the peninsula near the Qatari border with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. This, and the photograph below, illustrate how clearly defined the front of many of these sandstorms may be, and how dramatic their appearance.

It can be surprising how quickly the storms move, bringing with them conditions which make vehicular travel dangerous if not impossible, and life uncomfortable wherever the storms are experienced. The particles within the storm are of a wide range of sizes ensuring that the dust infiltrates the smallest spaces, and that the aggressive character of the larger sand particles damages exposed surfaces, sometimes stripping paintwork on buildings and cars.

A view of an oncoming sand storm

As you can see from this lower photograph, the front of the storm can look extremely dramatic and, even when seen from the front as is shown here, will appear to be moving quickly. The badu will immediately do what they can to bring their animals together, wrap themselves as well as they can, and sit it out. If you are caught in a car you have little option but to stop and hope nobody drives into you, and sit out the storm. It is surprising how quickly, and how much sand, gets into the car during even a brief sand storm. The same is true for houses, particularly the less well built ones in which many Qataris live who were housed in byoot sha’bi, or Public Houses.

A sandstorm moving across the New District of Doha – with the permission of rahsoft on Flickr

The photograph above illustrates well the character of a sandstorm with the relatively heavy particles that constitute a sandstorm creating this characteristic meteorological condition. This photograph shows the reality of such a storm in an urban area. Here the tall structures of the New District of Doha rise above a sandstorm that will have come down from the north of the country, swept by the shamal. Conditions within the buildings will depend to a large extent upon the quality of the sealing between materials but, at the higher levels of the building where the sand is at its finest, there is likely to be considerable penetration regardless of the quality of sealants and sealing. They, of course, will deteriorate and move with time making penetration by fine dust increasingly likely.

Sand dusting across a road

It is evident that, if a sand storm strikes when driving it is impossible to see properly and, by extension, to drive safely. Sensible drivers pull off the road and wait for the storm to pass. However, it is a common feature of driving outside the urban areas to see sand drifting across roads as illustrated in this photograph. Generally it is not too much of a hazard though it is easy to be lulled into a false sense of security with visibility decreasing slowly. In addition to that, sand on the road dramatically decreases the capability of a car to stop safely. It is instructive to compare the sky in this photograph with that in the photo below. The sky in the peninsula is often obscured at its lower levels by sand and dust in the atmosphere.

A sand dune inundating a road in Qatar – with the permission of Sergio Romiti on Flickr

The movement of sand driven down the peninsula by the shamal accounts for the gradual shifting of sand dunes by around eleven metres a year, roughly in a south south-east direction, eventually linking up to become the Empty Quarter in Saudi Arabia. As they move, they inundate everything in their path. Little can stop them. The sand dunes to the south-west of al Wukair slowly moved across the local roads in the nineteen sixties and seventies as they travelled south. At first earth moving equipment was able to keep the roads clear, but eventually it became necessary to move the roads. Here a relatively new road has been inundated and a barrier placed to warn and slow traffic. Nevertheless, the tracks in the sand show that four-wheel driven vehicles have been using the dune. Not only did the dunes agglomerate as they moved towards Saudi, but they also met the sea above Khor al-Udeid, creating a popular destination for those wanting to picnic on Fridays and holidays, while enjoying the excitement of driving four-wheeled vehicles over the dunes with their boats to reach the area.

Grass in the sand dunes Plants living in the sand dunes Grasses in the sand dunes

Here grasses grow on the leeward side of a dune. To the visitor first experiencing the desert, it can appear to be bare and without flora if not fauna, as that is the meaning of ‘desert’. But there are a considerable number of plants which cling tenaciously to life, often causing significant disruption of the dune patterns because of the effect they have of slowing the movement of sand around them. However, as can be seen in these photographs, there is little that can be done to stop the inexorable movement of the dunes as they drive south into Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia.

In the first of these three photographs a pair of grasses stand in the lee of a dune. In the second photograph a number of plants create characteristic clumping with the wind developing typical patterns in their surrounding sand. The wind, driving down the peninsula, will soon cover them, a common problem in many parts of the world where farms can be covered despite considerable attempts to shield them from the advancing sands. In the third photograph, a cluster of grasses can be seen struggling to maintain a firm grip in the sand dunes south-west of Wakra. In some countries experimental planting has been able to slow the progress of sand, though not stop it. I understand that there were plans to experiment in Qatar, but don’t know what became of them.

Sand dunes at Khor al Udeid A detail of the sea at Khor al Udeid

This part of Qatar, shown in the accompanying photograph, is known as Khor al-Udeid, or by expatriates as the Inland Sea, and is being developed for tourism due to a combination of the large dunes and their proximity to the sea. It is very popular as a weekend destination with hundreds of four-wheel drive vehicles racing over the dunes, a permanent hotel for visitors and a beautiful natural marine inlet, the khor element of Khor al-Udeid. It used to be a peaceful destination, enjoyed by Qataris and expatriates for the sense of isolation and the enjoyment to be gained from its proximity to the sea as well to the dunes. But this is changing. The dunes change relatively quickly and those driving in them need to be aware that such changes can make it a dangerous place to drive as it is very difficult to see other drivers and there have been a number of accidents thereof.

Sand dunes in the Khor Al Udaid area

As the dunes meet and coalesce they can also take on the classic seif form where an arm of the barkan moves away under the influence of winds from different directions and develops a characteristic pattern of waves running parallel to the main wind direction. In the south-east of the country, the dunes of the peninsula eventually run into the sea.

Four-wheel drives at the Inland Sea

As mentioned above, this area used to be a holiday destination for both Qataris and ex-patriates living in Qatar. By holiday this is meant by expatriates as a long weekend – in the 1970s and 80s, Thursday afternoon until Friday night. To Qataris, this might mean a week at a time. Recently the Inland Sea has been turned into a recreational destination in order that tourists are able to experience sand dunes, a characteristic that is only found in the lower part of the country. A hotel has been established to cater for tourism and many more vehicles now travel down to it.

Tracks on the sand

Wherever you go in the country you will find there is nowhere that vehicles have not been driven before you and, as you can see from this photograph, some areas are completely covered with the tyre tracks of recreational vehicles. This is not a characteristic solely of Qatar as other Gulf states have similar treatment, but Qatar is relatively small for this type of use and it is certainly over-used in places.

Fun on the dunes

Some will regard this as damaging to the fragile environment of this part of the country but, as I mentioned earlier, these dunes are continuously travelling south driven by the shamal and little vegetation is able to survive in it. Where there is only slight movement at the edge of the dunes, some plants are able to maintain a foothold as illustrated above, but not in the parts which move quickly and the dune is deep. There are, though, a number of small animals that live in the dunes and it is likely that the density of use will affect them.

A car stuck in the sand A car being pushed off a sand dune

Expatriates usually have problems with driving in sand and sabkha. By comparison Qataris are usually very good at being able to drive through the looser sands, and I have even seen two wheel cars driven by them up and over the dunes without getting stuck. Some sand is extremely loose and there’s obviously a skill to driving in it that expatriates lack. Actually it’s better to avoid it. Having been driven in the desert by Qataris it is evident that there is far more to reading the surface than expatriates are used to. In this first photograph a two wheel drive is firmly stuck up to its axles and looks as if the tyres haven’t been deflated. It requires the wheels being dug out and either a tow, a lot of people to push, sand ladders under the wheels, a Qatari to drive it out, or any combination. But, in the second photograph, even a group of Qataris managed to get themselves stuck on a dune…

Fun on the dunes Fun on the dunes

The sand dunes are a lovely environment in which to travel and it is good to have the opportunity to access them so close to the capital. Their profiles change relatively rapidly with the wind making it an exciting area to drive through, requiring considerable skills that, in my experience, appear to be learned by Qataris at a very early age. They are, however, a victim of their own beauty.

They constitute a fragile environment, as can be argued is much of the peninsula; but the concentration of public and private interests on tourism and the need for Qataris and expatriates to get away from their urban life at least once a week and experience a different way of life, makes them a very popular destination.

At what stage it becomes over-used I can’t say, but I do know that there is a problem policing it from a safety point of view. It is a remarkably popular area nowadays as the two photographs above attest. The lower photograph, particularly, indicates the more organised character of driving in the desert, whereas the more traditional enjoyment was just obtained by travelling through the dunes.

Qataris have excellent skills on sand. It’s always a bit of a surprise to take a four-wheeled car onto the dunes and then come across an ordinary saloon car parked on a crest with the driver enjoying the view. And I once had to have a seriously under-aged Qatari get my car out of trouble for me when stuck on a beach on the east side of the peninsula…

More fun on the dunes

Here, however, you can see what many drivers enjoy most, the exhilaration of driving fast in the dunes, an exercise that can be so much more exciting when it’s not possible to see where you’re going as you approach the top of a dune and then hurtle over it at speed. In many areas it used to be necessary to travel at speed in order not to roll the car or slip off the selected route, and it was not always possible to see what is ahead of you. This, however, is not route-finding but fun motor sport.

More fun on the dunes A four wheel drive in the sea

I apologise for the quality of this photograph which I took from a video of two cars driving into each other on the face of a dune in Qatar. I have no idea how the drivers came out of the crash but suspect they would not have been seriously injured as the crash was at an oblique angle and not head on. I wonder how the police and insurance companies deal with this sort of accident.

And it’s not just the dunes where things can go wrong. Where the sand dunes meet the sea or where there’s the opportunity to drive in the sea it is not uncommon for Qataris to take their cars along the shore. The difficulty is that it’s slightly more difficult to judge the underlying conditions than it is on land so, from time to time, this kind of accident happens, and somebody loses their precious car.

Mangroves near Wakra

It may be that only some of people living in or visiting Qatar are aware of all the varieties of landscape there are. Even those who visit the coast tend to do so at locations where they can go swimming and have picnics at the weekend. Having said that, the mangrove regions are visited by a number of people, particularly those with an interest in environmental issues. And they have always been visited by Qatari fishermen who, with special nets, have been able to catch the fish that live around the mangrove roots. But, here on the coast near Wakra, are mangroves which, regrettably, are being cleared in order to permit development. Mangrove can also be found near Al Khor in the north-east of the country. They maintain their own small eco-systems and are an attractive feature of the geography of Qatar. They are an important feature of the peninsula and one that should be safeguarded.

Aerial view near al Khor

This aerial photograph is of an area next to the sea north of al Khor. The coast is an attractive part of the country to visit, though difficult to navigate in places and, of course, dangerous in places. Areas such as this have an eco-system which encourages wild life and is particularly important when they are used by migrating birds. It is regrettable when the country is deprived of this resource as it depletes the numbers of birds visiting.

Sadly, and despite warnings, there is considerable and irreversible damage being carried out not only at Wakra, but also at al-Dhakhira in the north of the country. The pressures of development have seen the clearing of the mangroves which have been a long-established eco-system. The loss of this habitat has caused the seawater to heat up which has had the effect of driving fish, turtles and other marine species away – as well as the bird mentioned above – and damaging the sensitive coral reefs directly off the coast. The loss of fish has a direct effect on the local economy in that the fishermen are being deprived not only of their living, but also of the casual fishing that feeds their families. The loss of mangrove takes away from those with an interest in the landscape of the peninsula one of the fascinating areas to visit with its associated wildlife.

Shell sand

I have written a little about the character of the soils in Qatar. But it might be useful to make a note of a material found on the littoral which, while not a soil, has been used as a construction material for generations and is a characteristic of the geography of the peninsula. Shell sand is found on the coast, a particularly large volume of it being located north of Wakra. These small shells have been used as aggregate for concretes and screeds, the belief being that the air trapped in them will give a degree of thermal insulation. However, what appears not to have been understood is that there is a heavy salt presence which makes it unsuitable as a construction material. More safely, shell sand was also used on pedestrian sikkaat, creating a pleasant surface to walk on.

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Rainwater on the Rayyan Road, April 1988

In the winter months, heavy rainfalls are not uncommon. Urban developments traditionally had problems with rain as many of the main roads used widyan which quickly flooded, making travel impassable or, at least, difficult. The provision of dams on the outskirts of Doha and the incorporation of storm drains into the new developments helped to deal with flash flooding, but there are always difficulties created by these drains being blocked by wind driven sands over the dry parts of the year. Flooded roads and, particularly, roundabouts, are not uncommon sights in winter following rains. Here, the Rayyan Road is flooded in the Spring of 1988.

Rain in the suq

This photograph was taken in the main road of suq waqf which is on the wadi along which water used to flow to the sea, despite the use of the dams mentioned above. It used to be heavily flooded from time to time with the covered suq, particularly on its west side, inundated with water making the lives of the merchants miserable both from discomfort as well as the reduced business the water brought about. At its southern end the pavements were built higher in order to provide better protection to the shops, but even there it was not always enough to protect the shops. As can be seen, the new development has reduced or eliminated this problem. It was notable that while the urban areas brought misery to those living and moving around them, the desert was enjoyed both for the novel effects of the rain as well as for the burgeoning of plants which brought comfort and sustenance to animals and, for those who enjoy them, fuqa, mentioned above.

Rainwater on the New District of Doha, April 1988

Here, the spring rains of 1988 have flooded parts of the New District of Doha, creating difficulties with the construction initiatives being carried out there. The apartments of the now-demolished Intermediate Staff housing project are seen on the left. Perversely the rains are welcomed for the benefits they bring to the environment of the desert, farms and gardens, istiqsaa’ prayers being offered a week previously for their annual appearance. But the damage they cause can be significant, particularly when they fall in unusually high quantities. In November 2015, 66mm of rain fell in one day causing havoc and initiating a ministerial enquiry into the possibility of construction works creating problems.

Annual rainfall varies as it does in many parts of the world, the official average figure given by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations between 1972 and 2005 being 80mm per annum. The north of the peninsula receives more rain than does the area around Doha where readings are taken at the airport. From May to October there is little or no rain, but the winter months always see some precipitation, sometimes extremely heavy creating difficulties with drainage in urban areas.

Hail damage to a car

The rainfall can often be extremely heavy and destructive, the amount falling in a few days sometimes being equivalent to the annual rainfall and also falling in a relatively small area of the peninsula. Sleet, hail and snow – thalj – are all recorded within the peninsula from time to time. This photograph shows the damage that can be caused in an, admittedly unusually heavy, hail storm.

Flood water south of Umm Said

Roads in the desert traditionally often followed widyan, though they would also move from high point to high point as markers in the landscape. But, in some parts of the Arabian peninsula these widyan are very wide and have sheer walls making escape in the event of flash flooding, extremely difficult. Qatar doesn’t have that problem but water can still accumulate rapidly making traffic through it difficult.

As I mentioned above, when it rains the desert blooms and dormant plants springing to life particularly in areas of rawdtha soils. The water literally brings life, articulating the flat geometry of the landscape and creating increased visual interest through a combination of both the look of the land and the plants growing on it.

Heavy planting brought to life in the desert by winter rains Camels grazing on grass brought on by heavy rains An unusual winter cloud formation

The first of this group of three photographs shows a particularly lush area of plants which is, perhaps, a little unusual though is one of the benefits from heavy winter rains even though they don’t last all that long. There will also be a significant amount of wild life to be found in the area; and there is even a form of fish that can remain dormant until water until the rains re-vivifies it.

But even in areas where there appears to be little growth as you look down, there can be a green effect created as you look across the desert as in this second photograph where camels are enjoying a relatively lush winter’s treat. This is a time of year which is very much appreciated by Qataris and is a favourite time for picnics and, particularly, for longer term camping where a family will camp for weeks and, if necessary, be joined by their husbands every evening if they have to be away working by day.

These photographs are intended to show a little of the beauty of the northern desert in winter. This particular photo shows a small amount of rainwater which has soaked into a wadi or a small depression in the desert while a dramatic long cloud formation moves across the landscape.

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Water resources

The old reservoir at Umm Salal Muhammad, May 1979

There is little or no standing water in the country. In fact, I can only recall one apart from the reservoirs or pools which many farms have where water, drilled under permit from the declining underground reservoirs, is held prior to it being run out to water the planting. In Umm Salal Muhammad, there used to be a small reservoir formed by the damming of a wadi, but it has long since gone. I was told by a local inhabitant that there had always been water there – until they drilled through it in the hope of finding more water… This photograph was taken of it from the dam on its north side at a time when it was full in May 1979.

The effects of drought

Sadly, there are signs of drought every year following the drying up of the waters produced by the winter seasonal rains. There are plants and, even, some animal life which are capable of hibernating buried through the hot months and regenerating when touched by the life-giving winter waters. The interest that those living in Qatar have for the rural areas of the peninsula is growing as they wish to see what’s happening outside the urban areas where they live and work during the week. This seems to relate to both those of badu stock as well as those from the littoral groups. In addition, many of the expatriates wish to get out of the urban areas when they are able to take a break from work.

This will affect the way in which the desert is enjoyed as well as the ability of those who still make a living in it to function. A part of this may well be the need to police areas where water is naturally found, particularly the wadi which, while visually attractive to the visitor are essential to the badu, but also the water resources found below ground level and which, it has been claimed, are being plundered.

Water has always been a problem with unregulated extraction exacerbating the quality of underground water sources despite government attempts to regulate the problem. Underlying water reservoirs tend to be of two characters:

  • those in the north of the country being a body of what is known as ‘sweet’ or fresh water floating on a bed of brackish and saline water, and
  • in the south, a reservoir of brackish water.
The effects of desalination and consequent lack of watering

One of the great sadnesses to be seen around the country are farms dying off for lack of watering. Date palms, particularly, seem to be potent visual reminders of the damage which is being done either by salination of water supplies or, as is the case more often adjacent to urban areas, of commercial pressures to convert agricultural land for building development. Many great cities have gardens and parks built into them, and it is sad that, in the latter case, an effort is not made to save this land for the spiritual uplift it brings to those living adjacent to them. In countries such as Qatar where there is such a strong tradition of growing date palms, there is a strong case to maintain date palm gardens. In the above photograph, the pattern of the palm tree layout can be clearly seen, each tree sitting in a square of ground surrounded by the water channels used to supply water to each tree.

Cows grazing at Imsaimeer View of treatment pond at Imsaimeer

Although it may seem a little odd in the context of this page, there used to be water found in other parts of the peninsula which was not part of the natural systems of the peninsula, but was in a sense man-made. Nevertheless, this created a feature that was very different from the general character of the country. These two photographs, taken in 1975, show something of the government’s sewerage system which was led south of Doha to Imsaimeer where much of it was allowed to leach out onto the land surrounding it. In this area a considerable amount of vegetation prospered, in the first photograph being gratefully cropped by a herd of cows. The area was not as popular asa might be thought, bearing in mind that it was a large body of water, but that probably had much to do with the product being deposited. It certainly attracted a considerable amount of wildlife with regrettably, and as might be anticipated, the accompanying hunters.

More to be written…

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Geographical locations in Qatar

A basic map of Qatar

I’ve given a listing of the locations set out here as accurately as I can, given the scale of the drawing, for the convenience of anybody interested in going to some of the more difficult to find places in the peninsula. The list originated with difficulties I had in finding some of the smaller settlements when writing about them. The map to the side shows only a few of those locations, though I do intend to draw a larger map in order to show better the pattern of these important sites. This may take me some time but, in the meantime, the beginnings of it can be found on the page looking at the history of the peninsula…

The place names have been assembled mainly from three sources: this site which contains additional information, this atlas of Qatar, and a variety of other documents for detail. It’s not a complete list and some of the locations are obvious, such as ‘al Khor’, for instance…

Note that the spelling of the place names may differ from those I have used elsewhere in these notes. The reason for this is that I have now had access to the original Arabic namings and have used them to form the basis of most of the names. Regrettably there are inconsistencies. For instance I have spelled ‘Dukhan’ as ‘Dukhaan’ as that spelling is more accurate, though the short ‘a’ is more common.




Abu Dhuluwf 26° 07' 25" N 51° 10' 09" E
Abu Hamour 25° 14' 08" N 51° 30' 01" E
Abu Samrah 24° 44' 54" N 50° 50' 24" E
al Adhbah 26° 03' 18" N 51° 18' 58" E
al Arish 26° 03' 03" N 51° 03' 25" E
al Dhakhirah 25° 44' 05" N 51° 32' 51" E
al Dukhaan 25° 18' 00" N 50° 47' 60" E
al Fuwairat 26° 01' 18" N 51° 22' 01" E
al Gharaafah 25° 20' 15" N 51° 25' 30" E
al Ghariyah 26° 04' 41" N 51° 21' 42" E
al Ghashamiyah 25° 59' 01" N 51° 19' 41" E
al Hamlah 25° 11' 60" N 50° 46' 60" E
al Huwaylah 25° 55' 60" N 51° 27' 00" E
al Jassassiyah 25° 57' 07" N 51° 23' 00" E
al Jumayl 26° 05' 59" N 51° 09' 40" E
al Jumayliah 25° 36' 34" N 51° 05' 32" E
al Ka’baan 25° 58' 00" N 51° 16' 60" E
al Kharaarah 24° 53' 60" N 51° 08' 60" E
al Khisah 25° 25' 01" N 51° 27' 28" E
al Khor 25° 45'0 0" N 51° 25' 00" E
al Khurayb 25° 25' 60" N 51° 13' 12" E
al Khurays 25° 51' 27" N 51° 26' 29" E
al Khuraytiyaat 25° 23' 49" N 51° 25' 21" E
al Khuwayr 26° 04' 29" N 51° 05' 01" E
al Khuwaytim 25° 01' 32" N 51° 29' 22" E
al Mafjar 26° 07' 60" N 51° 17' 60" E
al Markhiyah 25° 19' 14" N 51° 29' 44" E
al Mukaynis 25° 07' 00" N 51° 13' 60" E
al Nasraniyah 25° 23' 60" N 51° 04' 00" E
al Qaa’ayah 25° 40' 01" N 51° 10' 28" E
al Rakiyaat 26° 03' 05" N 51° 07' 50" E
al Rufayq 25° 31' 60" N 50° 58' 38" E
al Ruwais 26° 07' 60" N 51° 13' 00" E
al Sayliyah 25° 12' 52" N 51° 22' 44" E
al Shahaniyah 25° 22' 07" N 51° 13' 35" E
al Shaqraa’ 24° 49' 38" N 51° 23' 41" E
al Shamaal 26° 04' 00" N 51° 15' 00" E
al Subayhah 25° 01' 00" N 50° 58' 60" E
al Suwayhiliyah 25° 45' 55" N 51° 01' 11" E
al Thaqab 26° 01' 59" N 51° 07' 02" E
al Uqdah 25° 41' 11" N 51° 28' 08" E
al Urayq 24° 47' 33" N 50° 55' 22" E
al Uwaynah 25° 26' 40" N 50° 57' 30" E
al Wakrah 25° 10' 04" N 51° 36' 25" E
al Wukir 25° 09' 03" N 51° 32' 16" E
al Zubarah 25° 58' 60" N 51° 01' 60" E
Ayn Khalid 25° 13' 24" N 51° 27' 06" E
Ayn Sinaan 26° 01' 00" N 51° 19' 60" E
B’ir Zikrit 25° 29' 42" N 50° 50' 48" E
Fuhayhil 25° 53' 60" N 51° 00' 00" E
Fuwayrit 25° 01' 60" N 51° 22' 00" E
Khor al Udaid 24° 37' 00" N 51° 19' 00" E
Madinat al Ka’baan 25° 52' 18" N 51° 21' 16" E
Qalat Murair 25° 58' 00" N 51° 02' 60" E
Ras Abruwq 25° 39' 07" N 50° 50' 51" E
Ras Abu Aboud 25° 17' 23" N 51° 34' 44" E
Ras Alalaaq 25° 01' 07" N 51° 37' 35" E
Ras Ashayrq 25° 58' 43" N 50° 59' 14" E
Ras Qirtaas 25° 34' 12" N 51° 17' 60" E
Ras Rakan 26° 10' 00" N 51° 13' 00" E
Ras Ushayriq 25° 58' 43" N 50° 59' 14" E
Rawdhat al Faras 24° 37' 60" N 51° 01' 60" E
Salwa 25° 20' 48" N 50° 38' 40" E
Sumaismah 25° 34' 29" N 51° 29' 11" E
Umm al Kharq 25° 49' 00" N 51° 07' 00" E
Umm al Maa’ 25° 50' 14" N 51° 04' 10" E
Umm Bab 25° 11' 60" N 50° 46' 60" E
Umm Qarn 25° 32' 59" N 51° 25' 55" E
Umm Said 24° 59' 46" N 51° 32' 56" E
Umm Salal Ali 25° 28' 11" N 51° 23' 51" E
Umm Salal Muhammad 25° 25' 01" N 51° 24' 14" E
Umm Suwayjah 25° 38' 45" N 51° 27' 00" E
Zaghaab 26° 06' 29" N 51° 14' 41" E

I note that there are slight differences in the figures given above with those given in the letter from the Minister of State for Bahrein to the Registrar of the International Court of Justice relating to the boundary dispute that included comment on Zubarah.


The municipalities of Qatar, as of 2004

For many years in Qatar the term ‘municipality’ was understood to refer to the Municipality of Doha, this being established by Law 15 in 1963, which had revised an earlier Law 11 of the same year instituting the Municipality of Qatar. In July 1972, Resolution N°. 11 created the municipalities of al-Dhakhira, al-Khor, al-Rayyan, al-Shamal, Umm Salal and al-Wakra, giving a total of seven. By 1997 these municipalities had been joined by Jariyan al-Batna, al-Jumaliya, al-Ghuwairiya and Umm Said, while al-Dhakhira was subsumed by al-Khor, revising the number to a total of ten and amending relevant borders. In 2004, Resolution N°. 13 further revised the municipalities, again amending borders and reducing them to the seven shown on the accompanying sketch – al-Daayen, Doha, al-Khor, Medinat al-Shamal, al-Rayyan, al-Wakra and Umm Salal.

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Oil and gas resources

The location of Halul

Although the early wealth of Qatar was founded on pearls and its position as an entrepôt within the Gulf, development since the nineteen thirties has been funded by the extraordinary deposits of oil and gas discovered in and around the peninsula. These resources are unequally distributed within the Gulf, and Qatar has found itself luckily sitting on substantial reserves, particularly of gas.

Territorial boundaries relating to ownership of islands in the Gulf has been problematic, the more so with the wealth of natural resources found around them. Las Hat and Shara’w were not decided to belong to Qatar until agreement was reached and signed between Abu Dhabi and Qatar on the 26th March 1969. Incidentally, I can’t guarantee the accuracy of the adjacent map, particularly the location of Shara’w. At the time of writing I don’t have access to the information I need.

A marine oil rig and flare

The early development of the oil resources took place on the west side of the peninsula around Dukhan, but facilities were developed on the island of Halul which is located a considerable distance from Qatar, about one-and-a-half square kilometres in area and almost ninety kilometres due east of al-Khor. Like other islands such as Las Hat, Halul was used as an emergency base for pearl divers and fishermen sheltering from storms in the years leading up to the Second World War. It is still a destination for weekend trips.

A government photograph of Halul taken in the 1970s

Developed for storage in 1965, oil from Qatar’s undersea wells is piped to the island both for storage and some processing. Qatar Petroleum operates two main fields, Bul Hanine and Maydan Mahzan which produce oil, some gas and associated condensates which need to have water abstracted before processing for shipping. Other companies partnered with Qatar Petroleum such as Total, Occidental Petroleum and Qatar Petroleum Development Japan, operate fields at Idd El Shargi, al-Karkara, al-Khalij and al-Shaheen.

A view from Las Hat with fishing boat standing off, August 1972

Dwarfing the resources feeding into Halul are those of the North Field Alpha, discovered in 1971, which is the largest non-associated gas field in the world, covering over six thousand square kilometres – half the size of the Qatar peninsula – and with reserves of approximately 900 trillion standard cubic feet. Gas from this field is led to Mesaieed Industrial City for processing at the NGL plant before transporting to the customers Qatar has developed around the world.

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Oil resources

An oil related scene near Umm Bab, February 1972

Elsewhere there is a note on the origins of the oil industry with the investigations of the 1930s being stopped for the duration of the Second World War and the rapid development of the industry in the late 1940s. It is notable that oil reserves have grown over the last twenty years with advances in the identification of resources as well as techniques for winning them. In the case of Qatar it can be seen that a significant increase in these reserves have been identified compared with some of the other countries of the Middle East.

A badu camp with women and camels, March 1972

Forty years ago the system seemed relatively primitive, the view above of the landscape near Umm Bab, taken in February 1972, shows a part of the winning of oil process; while this photograph, taken a month later, shows a badu camp seen below the fire and smoke of a flare in the distance, with the women of the camp going about their business as yet undisturbed by the changes that will soon be altering their way of life.

A map of the centre of the peninsula illustrating pipelines, 1970

On the west side of the peninsula the first wells were sunk, oil brought to the surface and led across the peninsula to Umm Said where it was treated and fed onto ocean going tankers. On this partial map of the peninsula, made in 1970, both the road network as well as the routed of the pipelines can be seen leading across the country. Dukhan is located top left with Umm Bab south of it, Doha can be seen clearly with Umm Said – now named Mesaieed – below it, bottom right.

Natural gases being flared off, March 1972

It is not possible for me to say if the flaring was due either to the incorporation of valves protecting against over-pressuring of the system or if the gases were being flared due to there being no way of economically collecting and using it at the time. Roughly between Umm Bab and Dukhan there were a number of flares burning off the natural gases associated with the winning of the crude oil. It seemed a pity to many nationals and expatriates that so much energy was being wasted, though in comparative terms it was probably an insignificant amount.

more to be written…

This table sets out the distribution of oil reserves within the Middle East as a percentage of the whole of the world’s reserves. It has been abstracted from information published annually, and where there is significantly more detailed information. It is important to note that all countries in the Middle East are included, and that I have not excluded, for instance, Syria, nor have I broken down the reserves within the United Arab Emirates. Also, note that within the Gulf, Bahrein has no oil and that only the Oman and Yemen have less oil than Qatar.


at the end of 1994

at the end of 2004

at the end of 2014

% of world reserves

theoretical reserves left

thousand million barrels thousand million barrels thousand million barrels
Iran 94.3 132.7 157.8 9.3 % > 100 years
Iraq 100.0 115.0 150 8.8 % > 100 years
Kuwait 96.5 101.5 101.5 6.0 % 89 years
Oman 5.1 5.6 5.0 0.3 % 15 years
Qatar 3.5 26.9 25.1 1.5 % 35.5 years
Saudi Arabia 261.4 264.3 265.9 15.7 % 63.6 years
Syria 2.7 3.2 2.5 0.1 % > 100 years
United Arab Emirates 98.1 97.8 97.8 5.8 % 72.2 years
Yemen 2.0 3.0 3.0 0.2 % 56.7 years
Total for the Middle East 653.0 684.3 754.1 59.9 % 78.8 years

The theoretical years of reserves left – known as the Reserves-to-Production ratio – is calculated on the basis of the amount of reserves left at the end of the year divided by the amount abstracted that year. This gives a notional figure suggesting the number of years remaining if more reserves are not found and if production continues at the rate for that year.

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Gas resources

Qatar’s natural gas resources are a very different matter when compared with their oil reserves. Within the region, only Iran has more proven gas resources, while Saudi Arabia has less than a third of Qatar’s and a quarter of Iran’s reserves.


at the end of 1988

at the end of 1998

at the end of 2008

% of world reserves

theoretical reserves left

Trillion cubic metres Trillion cubic metres Trillion cubic metres
Bahrein 0.2 0.1 0.2 0.1 % 10.7 years
Iran 20.8 27.5 34.0 18.2 % > 100 years
Iraq 2.69 3.19 3.17 1.7 % > 100 years
Israel 0.2 0.1 % 25.3 years
Kuwait 1.5 1.6 1.8 1.0 % > 100 years
Oman 0.3 1.0 0.7 0.4 % 24.3 years
Qatar 7.1 25.4 24.7 13.1 % > 100 years
Saudi Arabia 5.3 6.8 8.2 4.4 % 75.4 years
Syria 0.2 0.3 0.3 0.2 % 65.5 years
United Arab Emirates 6.8 6.1 6.1 3.3 % > 100 years
Total for the Middle East 45.5 72.2 80.0 42.7 % > 100 years

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Other resources

There is little coal in the Middle East whether anthracite, bituminous, sub-bituminous or lignite, no nuclear energy, hydro-electricity only in Iran and no renewable energy produced. However, there are plans in many parts of the region to use wind and, particularly, solar energy to power projects, the most notable being that at Masdar in Abu Dhabi, a small city which is being designed to be entirely reliant on solar energy and other renewable energy sources, while producing no waste.

There is increasing concern not only about the future of finite amounts of natural resources but of geo-political issues relating to alternative resources being investigated and developed in other parts of the world, significantly, fracking.

Not only this, but some countries are increasingly concerned about the amounts of their natural resources being consumed in-country. For instance, Saudi, alarmed at domestic consumption of their oil increasing at 7% per annum, perhaps due to their still producing electricity with oil. It has been suggested that Saudi might have to import oil by 2038, if this trend continues at the same rate. To some extent this might be thought to be a consequence of pricing utilities to their nationals, but it reflects something of the pressures created by massive development initiatives.

more to be written…

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