The Narrow Path to Qatari Citizenship

The Narrow Path to Qatari Citizenship

A recent article written by Zahra Babar, the Associate Director for Research at the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) takes on the issue of citizenship in Qatar by identifying current legal and policy practices and how these have been impacted by the ongoing flow of migration to the country.

The article, titled “The Cost of Belonging: Citizenship Construction in the State of Qatar” was published in the July issue of The Middle East Journal  and argues that the existing financial privileges of Qatari citizenship as well as the presence of a dominant non-national population have led to an ever more restrictive legal environment around access to citizenship.

The interaction and interrelationship between citizenship and migration have been studied in many other contexts, but so far have been absent in scholarship on Qatar.

“I became interested in the subject of citizenship in the Gulf as it is closely related to discussions of migrants and migrants’ rights.”

Academic scholarship on the relationship between citizenship and migration in autocratic governments generally concludes that “for small-population states, migration flows are often unpredictable and may as a result have a limited impact on the legislative or regulatory environments governing citizenship access.” However, Babar’s research on Qatari citizenship suggests otherwise. “Recent efforts to reform citizenship laws in Qatar, in particular the addition of clauses on naturalization, demonstrate that the legislative environment around citizenship is in fact sensitive to the demands of hosting migrant populations.”

She attributes Qatar’s reluctance to expand citizenship access to a variety of factors, citing high per capita earnings, deep rentier bargain arrangements, non-participatory political systems, and increasingly high levels of temporary migration. In order to better understand migration processes as they relate to citizenship, Babar also explores the social fabric of Qatar’s non-national population, saying that “to simply divide people’s statuses in Qatar into citizen or noncitizen, or national or temporary migrant, eludes the fact that that there are many ways in which people take up long-term residence within the state.” This complexity of the non-national population is marked by a variance in the access to rights and privileges reflecting their migrant status.  “There are the categories of skilled and highly skilled migrants who populate a range of critical employment sectors in the country, many of whom remain within the state well beyond the two-year limit, and whom the state has an active interest in retaining.”

The country’s understanding of the continued need for a sizable skilled foreign labor pool as it transitions into a knowledge economy is reflected in the current constitutional framework.

“The addition of naturalization clauses reflects the state’s awareness not only of the presence of these communities, but also provides a pressure-valve to ease potential censure for not allowing some pathways towards eventual citizenship.”

The core argument of the paper, explains Babar, is that “citizenship in Qatar has become more restrictive over time for two reasons: first the influx of large number of migrants is accompanied by the state’s desire to create clear boundaries between foreigners and citizens and second, citizenship in Qatar comes with a host of economic benefits which the state can only afford to extend to a limited population.”

The article concludes that for decades, both government authorities and the people of Qatar have maintained that their state is not a destination of immigration or a permanent settlement, despite the fact that the bulk of the population has been and for the foreseeable future will continue to be foreign. The migrant presence is a factual and composite manifestation of the socioeconomic landscape, and no matter how many restrictions or boundaries exist to limit their impact on the state, the impact is undeniable.

“In its current shape,” she concludes, “expanding Qatari citizenship would be a drain on public resources and threaten the existing social contract. Unless the economic benefits of citizenship are vastly reduced, it is likely that further efforts to broaden citizenship in Qatar will continue to produce tiered and differentiated classes of citizens.”

Zahra Babar has previously written on migration and citizenship in the Persian Gulf states, GCC regional integration, and food security in the Middle East. She has edited, with CIRS director Dr. Mehran Kamrava, Migrant Labor in the Persian Gulf (Columbia University Press, 2012) and with Suzi Mirgani, Food Security in the Middle East, (Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2014).