The Qatar Digital Library (www.qdl.qa) is the world’s largest and most important digital archive devoted to Middle Eastern history. An initiative of Her Highness Sheikha Moza, it was launched in October 2014 by Qatar Foundation and Qatar National Library in partnership with the British Library. It is at the center of Qatar National Library’s strategy to digitize historical records in archives around the world pertaining to the history and heritage of Qatar and the Gulf, and to digitally repatriate them to Qatar via the QDL, enabling Qataris to take ownership of their history. Historical material placed on the QDL is available to everyone, everywhere on an open access basis, free to download and use, to encourage more researchers to write about the fascinating history of Qatar and its region. The QDL also forms part of Qatar Foundation’s efforts to foster the development of a knowledge-based economy and to support innovative and original research on Qatar and the Gulf.
Archival digitization for the QDL began with the British Library because it holds the world’s most important historical collection of records, maps and photographs on Qatar and the Gulf, which are contained in the BL’s famous India Office Records and Private Papers collection. Since 2018, Qatar National Library has expanded its digital repatriation efforts to other institutions around the world—in the UK, France, the Netherlands, Russia, Turkey and India—amplifying the Qatar Foundation’s global impact.
In May 2021, the QDL celebrates the upload of its two millionth image. This particular image is of particular significance for Qatar: a letter from the British Library’s collection, written by ‘Isa bin Ṭārīf, the Sheikh of the Āl Bin ‘Alī tribe, dated 4 Dhū al-Qa‘dah 1259 (corresponding to 27 November 1843). It was addressed to Britain’s senior political representative in the region, Captain Samuel Hennell, the Gulf Resident, stationed at Bushehr (Bushire) on the Iranian coast. In it, ‘Isa bin Ṭārīf states that
"I write to inform you that I was honoured by the receipt of your kind and friendly letter informing me of your arrival in these parts. I was greatly rejoiced, since your friendship is of old date and I hope in God the same will continue. …. We have settled on the Guttur [Qatar] coast to the southward, at Biddah [now a district of Doha], and our affairs are peaceful and amicable. …"
This is a translation of the letter by the Assistant Gulf Resident, Arnold Kemball; the Arabic original does not survive. The letter is significant because ‘Isa bin Ṭārīf became Governor (Wālī) of Biddah after his arrival in Qatar. The letter’s tone was typical of diplomatic correspondence from that era. Gulf rulers and governors employed a degree of flattery that seems a bit excessive by present-day practice. But ‘Isa bin Ṭārīf was also motivated by another concern: Britain was the leading world power in the region at the time and he needed to make a favorable impression on Samuel Hennell. If Hennell viewed his recent move to Biddah as a potential threat to the peace and stability of Qatar, Hennell might take action against him. His plan worked, for Hennell reported to his superior in Bombay that “I consider this arrangement to be in every respect satisfactory.” Seen in this context, ‘Isa bin Ṭārīf’s letter gives us a glimpse into the world of 19th-century Gulf diplomacy, revealing him to be a skilled and persuasive diplomat.
‘Isa bin Ṭārīf’s sudden death in battle in November 1847 left a power vacuum in Qatar that was eventually filled by the then Governor of Fuwairit, Sheikh Muḥammad bin Thānī. Sheikh Muḥammad moved to Biddah to take up the governorship of the town, after which he and the Āl Thānī family rose to prominence, eventually becoming the rulers of Qatar as a whole.
A brief history of ‘Isa bin Ṭārīf’s fascinating life can be read here.