Once an extremely poor and deserted territory, it is now a modern, developing state that is considered one of the more liberal Arab countries.
Qatar is also home for the famous Arab news network Aljazeera and also to the US army's central command for the Middle East.
Qatar is on the Arab peninsula, bordering the Gulf and Saudi Arabia with Bahrain lying at its western shores. It has a land size of 11,437 sq km.
Traces of Stone Age habitation dating back 50,000 years have been found in Qatar, as have those of the Babylonians and the Seleucids who passed through later in the first millennium BCE.
By the mid seventh century the new religion of Islam had expanded throughout the Arabian Peninsula. Subsequently, Qatar has come under the dominion of Islamic dynasties such as the Umayyads, Abbasids, but also many centuries later, the Portuguese and the Iranians.
From the late 19th century onwards a native Qatari tribe, the Al Thani family, established rule and Qatar became an emirate - a monarchy with an amir as head of state. Like several of its neighbours, Qatar became a British protectorate state in the early 20th century.
Modern political history
Qatar became fully independent from the British in 1971. Just prior to this, it had refused an offer to become part of the United Arab Emirates.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Qatari economy was crippled by a lack of significant revenues from petroleum production which were first discovered in the 1940s.
The first amir, who had ruled since 1972, was overthrown by his son, the current amir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in a peaceful coup in 1995.
Since then, several significant political and economic reforms have taken place. Voter enfranchisement and press freedoms were extended and liberalisation has taken place in important oil and gas market sectors.
Qatar's population is relatively small with foreigners outnumbering native Qataris by 8-1. Oil revenues and a burgeoning natural gas industry have allowed the creation of an all-embracing welfare state with many services offered free or heavily subsidised.
The country also plays an active role in the collective defence affairs of the Gulf Cooperation Council (the regional organisation of the Arab states in the Gulf: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, the UAE and Oman).
In the 1991 Gulf war Qatar was used as a departure point for US military forces to Kuwait and this laid the foundations of an important partnership for the two countries.
Last year Qatar hosted the US military CENTCOM command which co-ordinated the US-led invasion of Iraq.
Official name: State of Qatar
Form of government: Traditional monarchy
Gained independence: 3 September 1971
Oil and gas account for in excess of 55% of GDP and 70% of government revenues. Since 2000, Qatar has been rapidly developing its liquid natural gas industries, which will add significant revenues in exports for many decades to come.
Currency: Riyal (QAR) - 1 USD = (app.) 3.65 QAR
Natural resources: Oil, natural gas, fish
Major industries: Oil production and refining, fertilisers, petrochemicals, construction materials
GDP: $17.5bn (2002 est)
GDP annual growth rate: 8.5% (2002 est)
Per capita GDP: $21,500 (2002 est)
Imports: $5.71bn (2002 est)
Exports: $12.36bn (2002 est)
Qatar's defence expenditures accounted for approximately 10% of the country's total GNP in 2001. Qatar maintains a modest military force including an army, navy and air force. The small Arab country has also signed important defence pacts with the US, UK and France.
Military budget: $1.6bn (2001 est)
Army size: 12,400 active troops
Qatar has become a multi-cultural and multi-Arab society in the span of two to three decades: foreign workers and their dependants now greatly outnumber Qatari citizens, who account for only about 20% of the country’s population.
Other Arab groups - mostly Palestinians, Lebanese, Omanis, Syrians and Egyptians - account for another 20%, with Pakistanis and Indians each representing 18%, Iranians 10%, and Europeans and others the rest.
The country contains a small community of East Africans, who were brought as slaves during the last century (slavery was abolished in Qatar in 1952). Also, a small number of beduin nomads inhabit Qatar, typically making seasonal visits from across the Saudi Arabian border.
Population: 840,290 (July 2004 est)
Languages: Arabic (official), English
Religions: Islam 95% (official)
Ethnic diversity: Arab 40%, Pakistani 18%, Indian 18%, Iranian 10%, other 14%
Literacy rate: 82.5%
Important media: Al-Sharq, Al-Rayyah, Al-Watan Arabic language daily newspapers, Gulf Times and The peninsula English language daily newspapers, Aljazeera (private satellite television), Qatar TV (state-run; operates main Arabic service, Quran channel, English channel and satellite channel), and Qatar Broadcasting Service (state-run radio)
Sources: World Bank, countryreports.org, MSN Encarta, politinfo.com, The World Almanac