As elsewhere in the Gulf, rapid economic expansion since the discovery of oil in the 1930s has been accompanied by the arrival of large migrant labour groups, predominantly from South Asia. Some communities of migrant workers from particular countries have some cultural activities, private schools and associations but each is largely socially isolated from others, and migrant workers as a whole do not form cohesive groups.
While the government has not released official figures on the proportion of nationals and non-nationals in the country since its first census in 1970, shortly before independence, estimates extrapolated from official figures by independent organizations suggest that a large majority (almost 9 out of 10 residents) of the resident population are migrants. Overwhelmingly male – men outnumber women five to one among the migrant population – they are made up primarily of low skilled labourers working in construction, though female migrant workers are concentrated in domestic and service work.
Most migrants originate from South Asia with sizeable communities also belonging to countries in the Middle East and North Africa. An independent assessment using 2015-17 data calculated that just 12.1 per cent of the population were Qatari nationals, with the remainder comprise of foreigners. The largest population are from India, followed by Nepal, Bangladesh, Philippines, Egypt, Sri Lanka and Pakistan .
Arabic is the official and locally spoken language in Qatar. Other languages spoken by immigrant communities are English, French, Hindi, Urdu, Tagalog, Malaysian, Nepali and Baluchi.
Qatar has a strong Wahhabi Sunni tradition and adopts Islam as the main religion in the country. Most Qataris are Muslims, predominantly Sunni, with a smaller number (between 5 and 15 per cent, according to some estimates) Shi’a. The non-Qatari population, besides a sizeable Muslim contingent, also comprise a large share of religious minorities including Buddhists (predominantly from East, South and Southeast Asia, amounting to around 7 per cent of non-citizens), Hindus (India and Nepal, making up some 30 per cent of non-citizens), Roman Catholics (Philippines, Europe and India, numbering around 20 per cent of non-citizens) and smaller numbers of Anglicans, Egyptian Copts, Bahá’í (of Iranian and Lebanese origins), and Greek and other Eastern Orthodox.
Qatar, a conservative monarchy in the Gulf region ruled by the Al Thani dynasty, is one of the richest countries in the world as a result of its large reserves of oil and natural gas. Its abundant natural resources have driven decades of rapid growth and development, reflected in the transformation of its society from a small and dispersed population of around 16,000 in 1949, when large-scale oil extraction began, to an urbanized country of more than 2.5 million people. Much of this growth, economically and demographically, has been driven by the continued influx of migrant labour into the country from Asia, North Africa and the Middle East.
The large share of migrants within Qatar – though exact figures are unavailable, most estimates suggest that they make up almost 90 per cent of the population – has had profound implications for Qatari society at large. While for many Qataris the continued presence of a vast foreign workforce has resulted in increasing tensions around the impacts of immigration on Qatari identity, for the more than 2 million non-Qatari workers the toll has been far heavier, with independent rights groups claiming a death toll running into the hundreds every year. These issues have attracted global attention around the building of stadiums and other infrastructure in Doha ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, where amid a construction boom thousands of workers have been forced to work in dangerous conditions.
The exploitation of Qatar’s migrant population has been facilitated by its notorious kafala system, whereby all migrants entering the country may only do so with the assistance of a Qatari ‘sponsor’, usually their prospective employer, who – as their consent is required if the migrant wishes to leave Qatar or seek employment elsewhere – is then able to exert an enormous degree of control, including the threat of sudden deportation in the event that their sponsorship if withdrawn. This has facilitated the development of a highly inequitable environment dominated by Qatari employers who are able, should they so wish, to abuse their workers with almost total impunity.
Among the most frequent form of exploitation is a deceptive recruitment process that sees foreign workers lured with the promise of a good salary and working conditions, only to find themselves trapped in poorly paid and often dangerous labour. Independent investigations have found that many migrant workers in Qatar, for example, are forced to work in slavery-like conditions, unable to leave the country and subjected to long hours without rest days or payment. Sexual harassment, forced labour and mistreatment by sponsors are widespread: women are especially vulnerable to trafficking as they mostly live in private residences with little outside contact and are not adequately protected by Qatari law: indeed, a number of migrant women who have reported sexual assault have found themselves then accused of illicit sexual relationships. Foreign workers are also discriminated against in terms of housing: in particular, male migrants are not allowed to live in specific ‘family’ residential areas and the large majority are instead segregated in cramped labour camps.
While authorities have taken some steps in the last few years to resolve the situation, in response to intense criticism, so far these amendments have only been partial and frequently lacked clear mechanisms of enforcement in the case of rights violations. Activists hope that a number of recent steps to relax worker restrictions, including the announcement in September 2018 that migrant workers would no longer require the consent of their employers to leave Qatar, could signal progress towards the comprehensive abolition of the system. Qatari authorities have announced their intention to use preparations to the 2022 World Cup to transform migrant rights in the country. Indeed, in August 2020, legislation was passed granting workers the right to change jobs without their employers’ permission, and in March 2021 the new minimum wage came into force. Workers still report problems when seeking to change employment, however, with some describing long delays and harassment.
Islam is constitutionally enshrined as Qatar’s state religion, with shari’a strongly informing its legislation. Despite constitutional guarantees that ‘Freedom to practice religious rites shall be guaranteed to all persons in accordance with the law and the requirements of the maintenance of public order and morality’ (Article 50) and that ‘All persons are equal before the law and there shall be no discrimination whatsoever on grounds of sex, race, language, or religion’ (Article 35), in practice many restrictions are in place on religious freedom. practice, Christianity is the only religion besides Islam to have public places of worship. Believers of other unrecognized religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism and the Bahá’í faith, while in practice able to practise in private, are still not allowed to establish places of worship for their communities.
Qatari law also discriminates against women, with members of minorities particularly affected. For example, according to shari’a law, brothers are entitled to inherit twice as much as their sisters. A non-Muslim wife cannot automatically inherit her Muslim husband unless his will awards her part of his estate: even then, she receives only one-third of the property’s value. Unlike men, Qatari women are not allowed by law to confer nationality to their children. Moreover, they need to obtain approval from authorities before marrying a foreigner. Individuals with Qatari mothers and non-Qatari fathers need to renew their residence permits periodically just like foreigners.
Qatar is a peninsula bordering Saudi Arabia and otherwise surrounded by the Arabian/Persian Gulf. Before the discovery of oil, the country was known for pearl diving. Today it is the richest country in the world per capita, mainly due to the discovery of oil and the third- largest natural gas reserve worldwide, although the distribution of this wealth is concentrated in the hands of Qatari nationals, who make up a small minority of the country’s total population.
Qatar declared itself as an independent sovereign state on 3 September 1971, thus ending its status as a British protectorate since 1916. Qatar’s economy had traditionally rested on fishing and pearling, however the discovery of oil in the 1940s transformed its fortunes to have one of the highest per capita GDPs in the world.
The sudden emergence of an oil boom in a country that in 1949 had just 16,000 inhabitants led to a massive inflow of low-skilled migrant workers in the ensuing decades, resulting in a large foreign population who eventually comprised almost nine-tenths of the resident population. Nevertheless, despite their numerical dominance, they have struggled with little or no rights protections and poor living conditions.
During the series of ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings that spread across North Africa and parts of the Middle East in 2011, Qatar did not experience domestic turmoil like the other Arab states, in part because of the high living standards enjoyed by its native population. However, it provided support to regional uprisings in other countries, including Libya and Syria, while restricting freedom of expression and dissent within its own borders. This has resulted in deteriorating relations with neighbouring countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), who temporarily withdrew their ambassadors from Doha in March 2014 and accused Qatar of undermining the security of the region by supporting terrorist groups. In June 2017, together with Egypt, they issued a 13-point list of demands for Qatar to end the crisis. Qatar, following its rejection of these demands, remained diplomatically isolated for several more years with relations with its neighbours only resuming in 2021.
Qatar has been governed as an absolute monarchy by the Al Thani family since the mid-1800s. The governing structure is similar to that of other Gulf countries, with the country led by a prince, Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who rules through a prime minister (a member of the Al Thani family) and a cabinet (many of whom are also members of Al Thani family). As a monarchy, the governing body is not constrained by restrictions. As a result, many policies that are seen as unfavourable to Qatari nationals citizens or the leadership, such as reforming the kafala system or holding national elections to the Advisory Council, have been postponed on a number of occasions.
In 2013, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani peacefully abdicated, transferring the power to his son, the present Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Tamim’s program focused on enhancing the domestic welfare by reforming the education and healthcare systems, diversifying the economy, and heavily investing in the country’s infrastructure development ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. As the economy relies significantly on the hydrocarbon sector, Qatar faced its first budget deficit in 2016. Since then, measures have been taken to cut spending and diversify sources of income. Qatar National Vision 2030 embraces a long-term strategy to create a knowledge-based diversified economy. At present, however, its economy continues to be characterized by its heavy dependence on hydrocarbons.
Qatari women do not have the right to confer nationality to their non-Qatari spouses or children. In August 2017, the Qatari Cabinet approved a draft law that allows children of a Qatari mother and foreign father to have permanent residency but not citizenship.
Criticisms of Qatar’s labour practices increased since 2010 as Qatar is preparing to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. To meet the deadline set by the International Labour Organization (ILO), in December 2016 Qatar amended its sponsorship law for non-GCC nationals. The new law led to some changes for expatriate workers who now have the right to look at their work contracts before moving to Qatar and can change their employers when their contracts expire. However, they still needed to secure their employers’ approval before they could leave the country.
In a second attempt to reduce labour exploitation, the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, ratified Law No. 15 in August 2017 and protected, for the first time, the employment rights of domestic workers. The law limits working hours to a maximum of 10 hours per day, ensures wages are paid monthly, entitles workers to one day off per week and three weeks paid leave per year, and enforces end-of-service payment of a minimum of three weeks payment for each year of service. The new law does not fully conform to the ILO’s Domestic Workers Convention. Although it enhances the protection of domestic workers’ rights, it fails to safeguard them from abuse and lacks provisions for enforcement.
Under Qatar’s notorious kafala system, migrants were required to have a Qatari ‘sponsor’, usually their employer, to enter the country. Foreigners could not leave the country or change employers without their consent and could be deported if the sponsor withdrew their support. The system attracted widespread condemnation from international rights groups and as a result, some amendments were made in December 2016 to allow migrant workers to check their contract before leaving their country and to change employers on the expiry of their initial contract. Further reforms in August 2017 affirmed the right of migrant workers to rest days, maximum working hours and annual leave. However, without meaningful enforcement the provisions still failed to halt abuses against foreigner workers, particularly as they remained dependent on sponsors if they wished to leave the country. In September 2018, the government announced that migrant workers would no longer require the consent of their employers to leave Qatar. Qatari authorities announced their intention to end the exploitative system ahead of the 2022 World Cup. Further steps were subsequently taken. In August 2020, legislation was passed granting workers the right to change jobs without their employers’ permission, and in March 2021 the new minimum wage came into force. Nevertheless, workers still report problems when seeking to change employment, with some describing long delays, threats and harassment.
Islam is designated as the country’s state religion and its legislation is shaped by shari’a traditions. Converts from Islam who conceal their new faith risk physical violence, even murder, and ostracism by family members. According to Qatar’s Law No. 11 of 2004, apostatizing from Islam is subject to being punishable by death. However, Qatar has not applied this punishment since the country’s independence in 1971. The same law criminalises proselytising and blasphemy against the Abrahamic religions and punishes such activities by imprisonment of up to seven years. In practice, condemned proselytizers are often deported from the country instead of being taken to court.
As for gender discrimination, Qatari women face physical and institutional discrimination especially in issues related to their personal status. Unlike men, Qatari women are not allowed by law to confer nationality to their children. Moreover, they should obtain approval from authorities before marrying a foreigner. Individuals with Qatari mothers and non-Qatari fathers need to renew their residence permits periodically just like foreigners. They are also not afforded the same privileges enjoyed by Qatari nationals, such as access to free healthcare and education, subsidized food products, and many public jobs. In August 2017, the Qatari cabinet approved a draft law that allows Qatari women to grant permanent residency to their children. The new legislation helps their children secure the right to live indefinitely in Qatar. However, Qatari women will still be barred from conferring nationality to their children.
Qatari women are also discriminated in marriage issues. According to Qatari Family Law No. 22 of 2006, for a marriage to be valid, the woman’s male guardian should approve and conclude the marriage contract. This agreement should be in the presence of two Muslim male witnesses. Article 58 of the same law specifies that wives should take care and obey their husbands. Although the law forbids husbands from hurting their wives physically or morally, it does not specifically criminalize domestic violence. In fact, when women report incidents of domestic violence, police typically treat these cases as a family issue and thus hesitate to proceed with investigation.
Qatar has also been criticized for restricting the freedom of speech and press, prohibiting political parties and labour unions, restricting migrant workers’ freedom of movement, and limiting the ability of Qatari nationals to elect their own government.
Updated September 2022
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