For most expats in Qatar, renewing residency permits regularly is a fact of life – regardless of whether one has lived in the country for several years or decades.
Qatar has no legal provisions that allow foreigners to become permanent residents, and no obvious process to apply for citizenship.
However, a locally-based researcher has uncovered clauses in the country’s laws that allow foreigners to apply to become Qatari nationals.
Zahra Babar of Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar recently published one of the first academic papers on citizenship in Qatar, titled The Cost of Belonging.
In the paper, Babar, associate director for research at Georgetown’s Center for International and Regional Studies, documented the stringent prerequisites for naturalized Qataris, which include:
- Residing in Qatar for 25 successive years, and not resided outside the country for more than two consecutive months during any one of those 25 years;
- Living in Qatar legally during the duration of that period;
- Having a sufficient means of income generation;
- Maintaining a good reputation, demonstrating good behavior and not committing any criminal act or act of “moral turpitude;” and
- Having a fair command of the Arabic language.
Speaking to Doha News, Babar said:
“It’s a really sensitive issue. Granting citizenship to foreigners is not something which is popular, particularly given there is such a concern about the minoritization of the local population.”
While the legal requirements have been published publicly, how one actually goes about applying for citizenship remains unclear. Babar said she was unable to find any forms or application process in her research.
The number of naturalized Qatari citizens is also unknown. However, the group is likely to be small, as the law stipulates that a maximum of 50 foreigners may be granted citizenship through naturalization each year.
Prior to 2005, when these provisions were approved, foreigners were granted citizenship solely at the Emir’s discretion, with no documented guidelines.
Babar said international organizations typically pressure countries to have some formal path for naturalization – even if it is highly restrictive – in writing, which is one likely reason for the law.
A second reason, she suggested, is to offer a path toward citizenship for the spouses and children of Qataris.
Currently, a child born to a Qatari mother and a non-Qatari father does not receive citizenship.
Local critics and international human rights organizations have urged the country to change the law to become more inclusive, most recently during Qatar’s periodic review at the United Nations Human Rights Council.
In a written response, Qatar’s delegation rejected the recommendation.
“It’s just one of the genderized elements of the law here … citizenship is just something that you acquire through your father,” Babar said.
While both may be legally Qatari, naturalized and native-born citizens are not treated equally under the law.
Babar said it is her understanding that naturalized citizens are not automatically entitled to many economic benefits provided by the state. In Qatar, nationals usually receive preferential access to public-sector employment, food and energy subsidies, housing allotments and free education.
Beyond what’s written in the law, there are likely further subcategories of foreign-born citizens, Babar said. For example, she said it is unlikely that the foreign-born athletes who join Qatar’s national teams have rights comparable to native-born citizens.
The generosity of Qatar’s welfare state for nationals means that extending citizenship to large numbers of foreigners would be a significant financial drain on the country’s coffers, Babar noted.
In her paper, she argued that this is one of the primary reasons for Qatar’s highly restrictive citizenship laws.
Another factor is the makeup of the country’s population, which is roughly 88 percent expats, according to the UN. Limiting citizenship, Babar writes, is one way the country attempts to preserve its cultural identity:
“There is a great fear expressed by nationals that the presence of so many (foreign residents) threatens the cultural authenticity and social fabric of Qatar.
These fears have led to an across-the-board agreement that migrants may only be allowed to spend limited periods of time within the country, and the existing employee-sponsorship system is structured to bind foreign workers to their employers for a predetermined contractual period.”
While there is no indication that Qatar will relax its citizenship laws in the near future, there have been discussions about creating a new immigration category that would allow foreigners to remain in the country on a more permanent basis.
Babar cites a recommendation of the country’s Permanent Population Committee in 2011 to give highly skilled workers more residency rights as a ways of enticing key professionals to stay in the country for longer periods.
More recently, others have argued that creating a class of permanent residents would provide Qatar with a solid base of skilled residents who have a vested interest in the further development of their current home.
However, there have been few public signs that the government has been considering such a proposal in the last couple of years.
Here’s a copy of Babar’s full report:[scribd id=241732171 key=key-tfBwiutXBokZ8i2Nlt2H mode=scroll]