Qatar has been making headlines in the media – mainly controversial – over the last few years. It is a land of intrigue since very little of the “local” news makes it out of the country, even less now that Doha News has had to “scale back” its content.

The tiny desert nation has a population of about 2.6 million people (official figure from the Qatar Statistics Authority) with slightly over 10 percent comprising local Qataris. Authorities are very careful with releasing the exact number of Qataris, and figures available today have been arrived at through calculations from various data sources made public. The reason why, obviously, is because Qataris are such a huge minority in their own country.

When we initially mapped the population of Qatar for BQ magazine (The 2017 report on the population by nationality is now available on my own website), we had to, for months, respond to questions from Qatar’s Ministry of Interior about the motive behind the article. That people are just curious about the numbers would have escaped their attention.

Qatar, after all, is incredibly cosmopolitan. At the farewell party we hosted at home just before we left (in October 2016), we had 23 of our very close friends over, and they represented 17 nationalities.

Most people I met in Qatar were always curious about Qatar’s past. When they heard I was born there especially, the questions kept coming.

My family has lived in Qatar since the 1950s and a lot of the information in this and subsequent posts will come from our collective experiences in the desert nation. Through the Qatar series (there are loads of stories to tell), I hope to shed some clarity on the Qatar community (both local and migrant) to aid those looking to make Qatar home for the next few years get a feel of the place and the resident population.

Some of the topics I will touch upon in the series include:
– Have Qataris always been a minority in their own country? (see below)
Qataris and migrants – a sense of community (growing up in Qatar)
– Qataris and migrants – then versus now
– How safe is Qatar?
– Migrant workers – white and blue collar – in Qatar (rights and treatment)
– Is Qatari society hypocritical?
– Has Qatari society become more intolerant?
– Working in Qatar and censorship (my experiences in education, publishing and beyond)
– Qatarization

Qataris – an ever-increasing minority

Migration to Qatar started increasing from 1949 when the country first began exporting oil. Qatar’s population in 1970 was estimated to be between 108,000 and 110,000 and local Qataris numbered at 47,000 – comprising 42 percent of the population. In the 1950s and 1960s, the majority of the expatriates came from Iran, India and Pakistan, and they were mostly traders while other Arab expatriates from Iraq and Yemen mainly also worked for the oil sector.

Qatar was still a British protectorate and the currency used until the mid-70s was the Indian rupee. After Qatar became independent (1971) and Sheikh Khalifa Bin Hamad Al Thani became Emir (1972), the early 70s was focused on nationalizing the oil sector, which happened in 1977. With independence and nationalization of the oil sector, also came the Qatarization drive (more related to this in a future blog post) – yes, Qatarization has been happening since the 1970s.

In the 1970s, conflict in the Middle East saw expatriates from Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon arriving in Qatar in big numbers. Quite a few of them were also naturalized though there is no official public data with regard to numbers. Many prominent family businesses today from these migrant communities were established around this time too.

The 80s saw an influx of more Arabs from Egypt, Sudan and Yemen and from the subcontinent – from Bangladesh. Migrants from the Philippines, Qatar’s third most populous expatriate base today started coming to Qatar in big numbers mostly from the 1990s.

An area of old Doha where mainly blue collar migrants live. Image credit:

Qatar’s early migrants

These bigger communities of expatriates who migrated to Qatar from the 1950s until the early 1990s, many of whose families and descendants continue to live in Qatar, are not Qatari. [Qatar has strict naturalization laws which require a resident to have lived in Qatar for 25 consecutive years; speak Arabic; have a clean criminal record; and a lawful means of income. The new law, however, limits the number of those to be granted Qatari citizenship to only 50 annually.]

But many of them think of Qatar as home, and quite a few of the younger generation, especially from Iran and Pakistan, who were born in Qatar have not even been to their own countries, ever. I had a few students who were in similar situations and I asked them what they would do if Qatar ever asked them to leave; they/their families had never thought of that possibility. For the purpose of this and future posts I will refer to this group as the ‘old expats’.

Many old expatriates, like my family (my uncle went to Qatar in 1955, my father in 1969), had close connections with local Qataris. We didn’t just count them among our friends, we were also part of their families. Growing up in the 70s in Qatar was all about community. Again, not all old expats had friends from the Qatari community. For many of the expats who went to Qatar in the 1980s and after, there were enough of their compatriots to forge ties with. There were also lots more community clubs and schools dedicated to the various communities since the late 80s.

The population of Qataris by the end of 1990 was about 122,000 while the total population was 474,000 thereby reducing the locals to slightly over a quarter of the populace.

The 1980s in Qatar

There were lots of other changes in the 1980s too. The price of oil went up, nearly twentyfold in the 1980s (crude oil per barrel was at $1.63 in 1960; $12.5 in 1977 and $27 in 1985) due to the oil embargo. State revenue from the oil sector also increased as a result of a number of production sharing agreements with foreign oil companies. This brought a lot of wealth to this nation and Sheikh Khalifa, to consolidate his position, increased allowances for the locals.

Qataris were of course happy to become rich and nobody really questioned the State about budgets or finances, besides a few dissenting Al Thanis and Qataris whose privileges were then cut. The locals getting rich was one major change in the 80s. This practice of increasing allowances and salaries for locals whenever the ruling family experienced any dissent continues to this day (more on this in subsequent posts).

The second major change that happened in the 80s has to do with Qatar finally feeling independent of the influence of the British. By the early to mid-1980s, Sheikh Khalifa had started moving Qatar towards its own identity with more “restrictions” being imposed on migrants. For instance, up until the early 80s, pork products were available openly in some supermarkets – my father was one such importer and distributor.

Migrants, however, always needed to have a permit to buy alcohol, which until the establishment of Qatar Distribution Company in the 1990s, was first overseen by International Aeradio Ltd, then syndicates (the term used by old expats to this day) like Almana, QGPC, among others, that had several designated locations in Qatar where one could buy alcohol.

Sheikh Khalifa was, however, well-liked by many migrants – they didn’t really have any say in Qatar’s political or economic narratives, and this didn’t really matter as long as they got to make good, tax-free money – but things for the growing expatriate population were beginning to change for sure, especially when it came to personal freedoms. Qatar’s residents started getting used to the idea of self-censorship (more on censorship in another post) in their thoughts and deeds, while newspapers had their own censorship desk in-house.

The Pearl Qatar where the country’s affluent migrants live.

When Sheikh Hamad overthrew his father in 1995 in a “bloodless coup” (being operative words here – will explain in another post), expatriates were suddenly very insecure for the first time in Qatar, but they soon realized not much was changing for them in terms of policies on (personal) freedoms.

Qatar also started implementing measures to check the demographic imbalance and suddenly work visas – especially for Indians, Pakistanis and Iranians – became very hard to get. Qatar looked towards the Philippines and Nepal for migrant workers during this period. Western migrants were mainly British up until now, but that too was beginning to change – especially after the 1991 Gulf War.

Sri Lankans too started to increase in number in the early 2000s when they replaced Indians mainly in clerical and engineering positions – they were also paid less than the former. The demographic adjustment is something Qatar, understandably, continues to maintain along with the other GCC states. In 2014, people from the Indian subcontinent alone represented 55 percent of Qatar’s total population.

On the domestic front as well, housemaids, nannies and drivers, who used to be mostly Indian up until the 1990s were no longer given visas unless you had vasta (connections). These positions were now filled with migrants from the Philippines, Indonesia, Ethiopia, Sri Lanka and Nepal even in the hospitality sector.

A surge in Qatar’s migrants

The next big wave of migrants Qatar saw was after it won the bid to host the 2006 Asian Games – by 2005 there were close to a million people in Qatar, and the number of blue collar migrants also was higher. Qatar also started focusing on sports, education and health 2000 onwards, hosting huge events, expanding universities (besides collaborating with major international universities) and research centres.

Indian work visas were slowly reintroduced for the construction sector primarily, though Qatar was now making companies recruit people from countries it had bilateral agreements with, through granting companies nationality quotas for visas. Focus for workers was shifting from Asian to African countries too.

The 2022 World Cup and related infrastructure and other development projects saw the population rise to over 2.2 million by end of 2013 while the local population comprising 12 percent of the total populace numbered at 278,000 (our recent report on the population of Qatar by nationality, meanwhile estimates there are 313,000 Qataris as of mid 2016). However, the drop in oil prices in 2015 and 2016 meant many white collar positions were made redundant, especially when the oil and gas sector decided to let go of migrant staff. Though some projects were either delayed or postponed because of budget cuts, there are a few priority projects like the Doha Metro and those related to the World Cup that continue to create jobs and therefore migration.

In media reports over the past year, the problems of migrant workers, both blue and white collar, have gained even more attention. That, however doesn’t seem to stop people from wanting to go to work in Qatar for now. While the draconian kafala (sponsorship) law was recently amended, the changes seem to be superficial and won’t really bring respite to any existing or potential employee.

I have not focused much on migration since 2010 in this post, primarily because there is a lot of information out there on the issue thanks in particular to all the attention it has gained since the World Cup bid – be it on the treatment of blue collar migrants; Qatar’s foreign workers who make up 94 percent of the country’s workforce; the gender imbalance because of “bachelor” migrants (those actually married but who don’t earn the minimum wage required to be able to sponsor family members to come live with them); or the segregated communities (nationals, white-collar workers mainly from the Arab and Western worlds, and labourers from South and Southeast Asia) – but I will talk about these issues in another post.

No citizenship for migrants in Qatar

Coming back to the question of Qataris being a minority in their own country, it is clear they have been so for decades. While their numbers were more equal until the 1970s, they have been declining ever since to sit somewhere around 10 percent today.

Many activists and media outlets bring up the subject of the GCC countries like Qatar not granting citizenship to migrants who have lived there for a long time calling it a rights violation. I was asked several times why I hadn’t thought of getting Qatari citizenship myself. I remember distinctly in 2012, Hassan Al-Jefairi, a Qatari social activist, came up to me while I was waiting for somebody at a hotel lobby, as said, “Don’t you think you deserve a Qatari passport as a right?” I was stunned that he remembered I was born in Qatar as I hadn’t seen or spoken to him in a few years. He reiterated he was fighting for the rights of people like me (who were born in Qatar).

Migration to Qatar
Residents watching the Qatar National Day parade. Image source:

For the ruling family, the concern, since Sheikh Khalifa’s time, continues to be Saudi domination and interference, and not their dwindling numbers. Rightly so. Qataris may be a minority now, but laws in the country guarantee they have the strongest rights. As Dr Darwish Al-Emadi, founding director of The Social and Economic Survey Research Institute at Qatar University, told Jenifer Fenton for the The Arabist, “If Qatar were to open up a greater path to citizenship, which is severely restricted and almost 100 percent hereditary, Qatari nationals feel they would become a minority with minority rights in their own country.”

Dr. Jane Bristol-Rhys, associate professor of Anthropology at Zayed University, Abu Dhabi, points to the fact that migration to Gulf countries is done for different reasons than to the US or Europe. “Are we beginning with the premise that all expatriates want to have Qatari or Emirati passport?” Most people move to these countries to improve their lives at home, to put their children through schools, to buy a home or to fatten their pension funds. “Everyone who comes here knows this is not a place for immigration. This is not a place you would migrate to become a citizen.”

While the above may be true for many migrants, those living in Qatar for generations have at some point hoped for Qatari citizenship. For now, they hope their children can continue to live and work in Qatar, though they are also, for the first time in decades, considering returning home or concurring with other migration options of their children.

And while Qatar will always hold a special place in my heart as the country I was born in, the Qatar of the last decade and what it is turning into, is the reason I had very little choice but to leave.

Priya DSouza Consultancy offers cultural awareness, business intelligence and related services. For more information see the Consultancy page or email us at [email protected].