The Origin of Qatar’s Motifs

By Yousif Al Hamadi

Old Amiri Palace complex, Doha


Traditional tools and products in the Arabian Gulf states can be viewed in two ways: one way executed locally by Gulf skilled workers; another way is manufactured outside the Gulf, bearing the characteristics of Islamic art, yet imported from neighboring countries. The tools and products made in Gulf countries carry the simple folk sense, with details of simple motifs and patterns inspired by the Gulf environment, such as sea waves, fish, stars, plants, flowers, palms, and shells used to decorate dresses, traditional jewelry, vessels, surfaces of pottery and architectural forms. These shapes resemble plants, animal ornaments, Arabic calligraphy, geometric patterns, and modern abstract designs with an unorganized composition.

Many researchers and artists agree that the Arabian Gulf states’ traditional folk motifs and patterns are originally Islamic motifs and patterns. The Bahraini Samira Al-Shenno points out in an article in althaqafa alshaebia/ Popular Culture that motifs are symbolic art that carries a people’s philosophy stemming from ideological elements, anthropological beliefs, and inheritances of rituals, customs, and ceremonies (Alshenno, 2012, p. 140). This means that the traditional folk style emanates from the ancient Islamic style, inferring what Islamic writers mentioned in the Islamic heritage, such as Al-Jahiz in the Book of Alaghani, Al-Masoudi in Muruj Aldhahab, Alasakhari in the Book of Paths and Kingdoms, and Yaqoot Alhamawi in the Book of Mujam Albuldan. Alshenno also indicates the extent of this influence in the similarity between the Islamic monuments from illustrated manuscripts and polished artifacts on metals, clothes, ceramics, stucco, ivory, coins, textiles, and compared it to the motifs and patterns on crafts such as tailoring, embroidering, goldsmithing and carpenting (2012, p. 143). Tariq Murad (2002) also noted the use of plant elements such as herbs, flowers, fruits, leaves, and tree branches, indicating that all plant motifs are originally Islamic art. He describes how Muslims transformed them into abstract elements as curved and wrapped lines, forms of arches or twists, and branches of grapes (Murad, 2002, p. 50).

The Qatari artist Muhammad Ali (1985) asks whether the traditional motifs were brought from other regions or were purely local innovations (Ali, 1985, p. 14). It seems to him that the motifs and inscriptions in the Gulf countries are older than Islam, but they developed under Islamic beliefs. For example, the avoidance of human forms can be seen in compliance with the prophet’s Sunnah, which clarifies technical limits and barriers. Before Islam, they had spiritual meanings and connotations, such as expelling evil spirits or repelling envy. Their significance ended when Islam entered the region. Hence there was no need to use them or believe in them. Ali claims that the need for engraving and decoration is part of the human need to highlight aesthetic feelings. This happens in two phases: the first one is to provide basic life necessities, such as making a ship for transportation, building a house, making weapons, or for pottery use. The second phase is the artistic or aesthetic formation, which occurs after achieving the first phase. In the past, when people in the Gulf needed stable and strong homes, they used trunks of palm trees as columns to fulfill a purely functional purpose. Then, they developed columns by building them from stone and clay, coating them with gypsum, giving them a shape of a square, a hexagon, or a circle, and making a crown on its top with a beautiful ornate form. Even the names given to the motifs were taken from the organic surroundings of the craftsperson and his sight sense, Such as aleshjari (tree), albidhana (walnut seed), senqali (chain), warda (rose), etc. (1985, pp. 93-95).

Research Question

What is the historical reference of the Qatari motifs and patterns?


This research aims to understand how cultural identity is represented in Qatar’s motifs, patterns, and ornaments. It focuses on the historical references, tools, and mechanisms used to craft and design them. Thus, this research uses both quantitative and qualitative methods of data collection. While qualitative research is a method that stresses phenomenological meanings and investigates objects of people’s perceptions and experiences to understand the essence or structure of the experience. On the other hand, quantitative research collects and analyzes numerical data (Munday & Chandler, 2011, p. 347). In fact, both methods are needed in this research. Qualitatively, it includes historical information, definitions, theories, and debates. Quantitatively, it includes surveys and numerical data about the usage in decorations, buildings, etc. However, there is a necessity to have some considerations regarding both methodologies. Although qualitative research involves a collection of rich narrative materials using a flexible research design to adjust and conduct unexpected findings and local conditions, it is subjective, making the conducted material unreliable or invalid. Therefore, it is necessary to be aware that there is a threat to the credibility of the research study (Dixon-Woods, Shaw, Agarwal, & Smith, 2004). Quantitative research offers analyses of mathematical explanations of a social and cultural phenomenon. This method is difficult to engage in the causes of value, personal and emotional problems, which cannot be converted into numbers and need detailed explanations to understand them. (Goundar, 2012, pp. 81-82).

Additionally, to survey the public, a standardized questionnaire is designed. It includes questions about the Qatari identity and wondering how it is represented in motifs and patterns. It also offers questions regarding the factors that affect the identity, who contributes, and who is not. The questionnaire is also looking to clarify the usage of the cultural identity, whether in the past or at the current time. The action or the series of actions of taking samples for analysis and the design of the questions and the data collection are methodologies that should be brought together to have a good survey design (Fowler, 2009, p. 4). The research observes the decorations and motifs available on public and government buildings, private buildings, Jewelry, clothes, plaster works, etc. Then compare them with what is mentioned in the literature. However, this may require some clarifications from specialists. Therefore, it is necessary to conduct interviews with a group of artists, understand the most important symbols and elements that represent the Qatari cultural identity, and clear any misinterpretations (Kumar, 2008, p. 84).

Methodology Diagram

The Cultural Identity

Motifs and ornaments are seen everywhere in Qatar, on clothes, tools, walls, doors, and new and old buildings. These Motifs distinguish the country’s cultural identity and define who they are, their environment, origin, and ideas. Daniel Bar-Tal (2011) said the representation of a nation’s history emphasizes a collective memory, which is a shared knowledge of past events. They are constructed, developed, and inherited through communicative social functions in a community interpersonally and institutionally. These representations or shared knowledge are essential for several reasons. First, they provide an image of what is necessary for a group to live or exist. Also, they explain the cultural identity, beliefs, and values through the group’s behaviors and contributions. Moreover, they are a resource of cultural symbols (Bar-Tal, 2011, pp. 105-106).

The individualistic definition of any social identity in sociology and psychology, such as cultural, national, or ethnic identity, focuses on feelings and thoughts about group membership. However, it has two dimensions. First, it derives from a belief that the individual has a sense of belonging to a group, such as saying I am from this specific area, with its emotional significance and values connected to that membership. Second, it derives from the individual knowledge and self-acceptance of the group membership’s importance and symbols, such as saying I am proud to be a citizen of a great country. Others argue that the meaning and nature of group-based identities often emerge within contexts of socio-cultural discourses and intergroup relations. Therefore, they are not totally individualistic and should reside at least partially within a community (Ashmore, Jussim, & Wilder, 2001, pp. 5-6).

Kang Ouyang (2017) presented some philosophers’ opinions in this regard, such as the French philosopher Montesquieu who said humankind is influenced by many causes such as climate, religion, laws, principles, precedents, morals, and customs. All together form a general spirit. The German philosopher Johann Gottfried added that this spirit is inherited from generation to generation due to common manners, systems, culture, language, and art. All members of a specific community share similar features, geographical conditions, and historical traditions. This spirit and culture together create a spiritual home and life, which in the long course, form an identity, beliefs, and values (Ouyang, 2017, pp. 11-12).

Old Amiri Palace complex, Doha

The Culture of the Arabian Gulf

In an interview with the artist Muhammad Ali, he claimed that the identifiable cultural practices of the Gulf region date back to 7,500 years and perhaps more than that. He referred to the profession of pearl diving as an example, which has continued for thousands of years, but the uses of pearls have changed throughout history. There are who used pearls in burial rituals, others used them for decoration, and others used them for commercial and economic reasons (personal communication, December 6, 2020). This may be true, as archaeologists have found graves dating back to 5,500 BC in Umm Al Quwain. When they examined their skulls, they found in each one there is a pearl fixed above their upper teeth (Charpentier, Phillips, & Mery, 2012, p. 3). Later at the beginning of the ninth century, the Abbasids used to bring pearls from the Arabian Gulf and use them for decoration. For example, in the wedding ceremony of the seventh Abbasid caliph, al-Ma’mun, “pearls were used as confetti as the happy couple sat on a gold carpet inlaid with jewels” (Farrington, 2003, p. 69). Lately, pearl diving has been their primary source of income. Hence, the Gulf region’s culture and practices are ancient.

If someone looks at the State of Qatar, it appears that it shares its culture with the countries around the Gulf Coast in terms of food, drink, clothes, language, customs, and traditions. They all share cultural expressions, practices, symbols, and how they are employed. Ali explained that this similarity is not limited to the countries that overlook the Arab coast from the Gulf but also to the villages and cities that overlook the Persian coast from the Gulf. He added that those living on the Persian coast were Arab tribes, such as Al Hamadi, Al Obaidli, Al Mansoori, or Al Marzouqi. They were constantly moving between the cities on the coast (personal communication, December 6, 2020). What made the people of the Gulf Coast close to each other was their geographical nature. Najd on the western side, which is a harsh desert, and on the eastern side, Iran’s mountains also represent difficulty in dealing with the interior side of Iran.

When Qatar was under the British Mandate, the Westerners introduced Roman decorations and arches, such as those added to the new Amiri Diwan in the al-Bada area in the 1980s. They claimed that the inhabitants of the Gulf cities and states took most of their practices and culture from other regions as if they were primitive and did not have what distinguishes their culture (Bose, 2020, p. 77). In fact, this opinion is unfair. Their mastery of shipbuilding and engraving has distinguished the people of the Gulf. The people of the Gulf used to bring wood from Zanzibar and the Calicut forests to make ships and roofs. They were knowledgeable about navigation, and they were sophisticated. After a while, they preferred to teach the inhabitants of these villages how to build ships and prepare what they needed to reduce the journey’s efforts. These villages learned from the people of the Gulf, not the other way around (Kumar T. M., 2016, p. 335).

Old Amiri Palace complex, Doha

The Motifs, Patterns, and ornaments in the Gulf

Owen Jones (1856) presented a book where he displayed a wide range of motifs and ornaments from multiple cultures and explained how to illustrate and implement them. He introduced the Arabic motifs derived from Islamic culture and can be seen in Islamic architecture (Jones, 1856, pp. 106-107). With the spread of the Islamic religion, the need naturally emerged for a new art style. In the beginning, Muslims used ancient Roman or Byzantine styles, but eventually, a unique characteristic of their motifs and ornaments appeared. The twisted rope, the intersection of two squares, and the equilateral triangle arranged inside a hexagon are examples of decorations that you may notice in the Gulf region and clearly influenced by Islamic art is clear on them. Most of these decorations reached the Gulf region from Syria and Egypt (1856, p. 110). These motifs and designs are usually observed on old steel doors. Additionally, a design is often noticed on governmental buildings, the one based on ten points. It depends on the basic geometry of the flower in the center and between each angle of 18 degrees. Moreover, all the motifs have a very strong connection to the mathematics of Pythagoras and philosophical aspects as well. For example, if there is an expression of justice, the motif is based on four points, and if it is an expression of the universe, it is based on ten points (Lockerbie, 2020).

Ten-point geometry construction (Lockerbie, 2020)

Apart from the motifs and designs that reached the Gulf from other Islamic regions, there are ones specific to the region and developed locally. Ali said that three areas had been a source to the entire Gulf: Bahrain, Qatif, and Al-Hofuf, according to an exploratory observational trip he made (personal communication, December 6, 2020). In Doha, the capital of Qatar, many residential buildings containing local motifs were demolished and removed, such as in Najma, Fereej Abdulaziz, and Bin Mahmoud. However, it is good that the government paid attention to adding these motifs to some tourist attractions and landmarks, such as Souq Waqif, the cultural village – Katara, the Muhammad Abdul Wahhab mosque, and the Sheikh Qasim’s house, the founder’s house in the souq, which was renovated lately. 

Some motifs were noticed in some areas that remained and were not destroyed yet in some residential houses in the Salata in Doha and others in Al Wakrah, Al Khor, and Sumaysimah. The motifs are noticed on the facade of the majlis, around the entrance, inside it, and more simply in the house’s interior. They are seen on panels in the middle of the wall. While around the panels, there are a group of ornate circles and squares. Some houses have strips around the panel and circles such as frames or ornamental cornices. There is no uniformity in the distribution of motifs, as many different motifs use different geometric units, some of which contain blue or pink colors.

Motifs used inside the majlis
Motifs used around the entrance of the majlis

There are many motifs used in the Gulf region, which Ali collected in his book The Gypsum Motifs in the Gulf (1985), and they are as follows:

Questionnaire Findings

A survey was conducted among the public of 100 people, which was digitally processed on the Survey Monkey website, and it was sent via WhatsApp groups. The ages of the participants ranged between 30 to 60 years of both sexes, 45 males and 55 females. The results were as follows:

As shown in Chart 1, 12% think that the motifs used in Qatar are originally local, 18% think that the motifs used in Qatar are originally coming from the Gulf region, 12% think that the motifs used in Qatar are originally Arabic, 52% think that the motifs used in Qatar are originally Islamic, 6% did not comment.

Chart 1: The Original Source of the Motifs in Qatar

As shown in Chart 2, 7% think that the environment is the most important factor inspiring the local motifs in Qatar, 22% think that the most important factor is the culture of the society, 22% think that the most important factor is the codes and regulation, 30% think that most important factor is the property owners, and 19% think that that most important factor is the government.

Chart 2: The Most important factor inspiring the local motifs

As shown in Chart 3, 20% think that the most important factor that leads to the use of non-Qatari motifs is the Lack of raw materials, 6% think that this is because the expats are increasing in Qatar, 31% think that this is happening because of the modernity, and 43% thin that this happening because of lack of Knowledge.

Chart 3: The most important factor that leads to use non-Qatar motifs

Regarding the first question about the source of the motifs in Qatar, More than half of those who participated in the survey thought that local motifs are originally Islamic. This is not surprising, as some professional artists, craftsmen, and intellectuals repeat the same information. The ages of the participants in the survey ranged from 30 to 60 years old. The older ones are aware of the source of the motifs because they lived in those days when they used to decorate their homes.

Regarding the second question, all the factors are correct, as the environment has its influence and the general culture, the development of rules, laws, and codes, and the government’s role in guidance and use. It is important to remember that globalization plays an essential role in changing people’s way of thinking and taste. As it is noticed, 30% think that owners have different choices.

Finally, the third question is surprising to see that 20% do not know that Qatar is filled with raw material that allows motifs to spread, especially gypsum. Additionally, it was expected that foreign labor intervention affected the use of the local motifs. If the consultant is an expat and the contractor is an expat, even if the technical specification forces them to execute local motifs, they will not know what type of motif must be used.


It is scientifically wrong to say the motifs represent the Qatari identity because the motifs and ornaments in the Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and the eastern side of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the motifs and ornaments in Bushehr, Naga, Bastak, and Qeshm, are all share the same units and shape. Therefore, it is better to call it Gulf motifs. Additionally, collecting information on this topic from the general public is a mistake. Only professionals are interested in such topics, and few are aware of the differences. The topic is not discussed in educational institutions. Children in schools or even university students are not aware of it. Islamic, Roman, and Byzantine motifs and ornaments are presented in the educational curriculum, but the Gulf ones are not. Society needs to be educated about its cultural identity, and educational institutions should begin introducing the local and regional identities and motifs to spread awareness in the community.

The West’s entry into the Gulf region and the misunderstanding of modernity have negatively impacted this rich heritage that all Gulf residents must preserve. The topic needs to be presented more broadly, and all the motifs used in the Gulf need a detailed analysis study in terms of shape, geometric units, uses, and how to develop and treat them. Training courses and workshops for artists are necessary, the media should play a better role, and exhibitions need to be organized to discuss and address the Gulf motifs.


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