Expats, Migrant Workers, and Residency in Qatar
Expatriates (defining expats and sponsorship)
Migrant workers (the migrant worker situation in Qatar—it’s a doozy—and my brief experiences with migrant workers)
Citizenship & residency (the residency status of expats and the requirements of becoming a Qatari citizen)
Qatar is home to a lot of people from a lot of different places. About 90% of the population is expatriate.
I had never heard the word “expatriate” in my life, let alone discussed the subtopics of migrant workers, citizenship, and residency when it came to living and working in a foreign country. After all, my entire life I had been a U.S. citizen living in the U.S. with a U.S. education and goals of working in the U.S. . . . the fine print outlining what it took to accomplish those things as a non-citizen had never come up in my 20 years of life. However, my experience in Qatar changed all that and I learned a lot about expatriates and its many subtopics, which at times were confusing, concerning, or just complicated. In this post, though, I’m going to do my best to sift through it all as simply as possible.
So, let’s get into it!
A lot of expats lived in the Pearl, Qatar’s manmade island outside of Doha. This photo of two men doing maintenance on the canal may not be the most glamorous image, but it is what I saw (and perhaps a decent transition into my section about migrant laborers coming up soon).
An expatriate (or “expat”) is simply someone who lives outside their native country. I was confused about this term because 1) I’d never heard it before and 2) I had only ever heard the word “immigrant” used to refer to someone who lived in a country other than their own. So, if you’re at all confused like I was, here’s a quick vocab lesson:
An “immigrant” is someone who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. An “emigrant” is someone who leaves their home country in order to settle permanently in another. And a “migrant” is someone who moves from one place to another, especially in order to find work or better living conditions.
I also learned that expatriate can be used a noun, verb, and adjective. C’mon, grammar is fun, guys!
I mentioned that the country’s population is roughly 90% expatriate. Here’s an easy-to-read article about Qatar’s demographics from 2017.
In order for an expatriate to live in Qatar, they need a sponsorship (from their employer, school, spouse, or parent). I later learned that this particular sponsorship system is called the Kafala System, but every article I read about it only referenced it in the context of low-income migrant laborers. That said, I’m not sure if migrant laborers are the only expats the Kafala System applies to (meaning that non-migrant expats—presumably in higher-paying, not laboring positions—are subject to a slightly different sponsorship system) OR if the system applies to all expats, but migrant workers are the ones who feel the grunt of it. After all, there are a lot of negative critiques on the Kafala System, to the point where Qatar actually got rid of it in the autumn of 2018 . . . I think. Some sources said that the entire system had been nixed, some sources said that the system was in the slow but steady process of being nixed, and other sources said that only one aspect of the system had been partially nixed, that one aspect being the Exit Permit requirement.
When you have a sponsor, you need to ask them for permission to leave the country. I found this out at random when I was invited on an impromptu Athenian adventure, which meant I had to leave Qatar, go to Greece, and come back to Qatar. However, according to a faculty member, if I didn’t get an Exit Permit from Qatar Foundation (the umbrella VCUQ is under), I wouldn’t have been allowed back into Qatar (even though I had a big fat VCUQ-sponsored Visa stuck to my passport). I was definitely confused by it, but I went with it. Either way, I’m not entirely sure if this is still a thing; I was in Qatar in January – May of 2018, and that new policy I mentioned about the Exit Permit requirement getting slowly nixed wasn’t put into effect until September 2018.
I initially thought this whole Exit Permit thing was weird; after all, I had only ever been a U.S. citizen living in the U.S., able to come and go as I pleased without risk of being turned away from the country I resided in.
I learned that it wasn’t a terribly arduous process getting an Exit Permit as a VCUQ student. When it came to VCUQ international excursions, the school got the Permits for the students, and when it came to personal trips, I just had to email my travel dates to HR preferably a month prior to my departure. There was also a way for me to apply for an Exit Permit online through VCUQ, but I couldn’t get the dang system to cooperate, so I emailed HR about a 10 days prior to my departure (the date being when I was leaving Qatar at the end of the semester), and I got the Permit within two days.
As an expatriate, new to the country, you’re going to have to undergo a medical exam. My experience with the medical exam was a triggering and confusing nightmare, which you can read about it in the post, What’s Up Doc?
Construction was everywhere around Doha, with dozens of different projects going on simultaneously in the name of making Qatar spectacular. Wanna guess who’s responsible for physically erecting all these things?
Migrant workers are expatriates by definition, but they’re considered “migrants” specifically because they immigrate to Qatar in search of work. Granted, a lot of people move to Qatar to work a variety of jobs, so denotatively a lot of expatriates could be considered migrant workers, but connotatively a migrant worker is someone who migrates to another country in search of work and wind ups working a low-income job: Construction workers, maids, nannies, custodians, taxi drivers, car washers, trash collectors, manicurists, waiters, security guards, etc. In Qatar, they are typically from South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Sub-Saharan Africa. In contrast, the term “expatriate” typically referred to people with office jobs—people who were managers, architects, accountants, professors, or even students—often from Europe, the U.S., or other Arab countries.
It’s no secret that Qatar doesn’t like to talk about the negative aspects of their migrant worker situation, and it can be difficult to find information about it, especially from Qatari sources. That said, I will simply list some basic facts for you:
90%-95% of Qatar’s labor force are migrant workers. Here’s a nice link with huge infographics to break down a lot of the migrant worker situation, including stats. Honestly, if it’s one link you click in this whole post, let it be this one.
For example, only 2% of the laborers are employed on World Cup construction sites, but the fact the World Cup is fast approaching is why so much attention has been on migrant workers in Qatar.
There have been reports of migrant workers dying as a result of on-the-job hazards, but also random incidents like car accidents and heart attacks. The numbers and causes of death are a little blurry, but the estimated death toll is in the thousands and the fact Qatar doesn’t like to talk about it is what makes the whole situation suspicious.
There have been reports of migrant workers living in substandard conditions.
There have been reports of migrant workers not getting paid for weeks or months at a time, as well as not getting paid the amount that was originally agreed upon.
There have been reports of migrant workers having their passports confiscated by their employers.
Qatar does not permit labor unions
Qatar did not have minimum wage standards until 2017, which is when they implemented a temporary minimum wage of 750 QAR, about $200 a month (about $6.70 a day). As of 2019, it doesn’t look like they’ve implemented a final minimum wage standard; that temporary $200 is still the norm.
This really caught me off guard because the student jobs I was offered at VCUQ were $10 an hour, better than the minimum wage in Virginia at the time, and a wild contrast to the $6.70 a day some people were making.
Essentially all this information, and much more, can be found in the infamous Amnesty International report from March 2016 (and a small update from September 2018, without much improvement to report).
Many media outlets in Qatar chose not to mention the 2016 Amnesty International report, but notably Doha News did. Go ahead, take a minute to Google Doha News—or better yet—here’s a link detailing how they came about and what their fate was.
A team of journalists were arrested in May 2015 while filming a migrant workers’ soccer tournament outside Doha.
Qatar’s migrant worker issues are just one of a few reasons why people in the U.S. have questioned the existence of so many U.S. universities in Qatar. It’s a situation of “What does it mean for the U.S. to be so cool with a country that has a terrible human rights record?”
The artist in me couldn’t help but see some symbolism in this photo. In the foreground we have the pigeon towers at Katara Cultural Village, covered in doves and housed within a place devoted to Qatar’s cultural identity and creative endeavors. Then, in the background, we have an unfinished building probably erected by migrant laborers. However, the pigeon towers are blocking most of the scene, kind of like how Qatar is blocking much of the information about its laborers.
One of the student affairs employees in Education City mentioned an “alternate” tour of Doha they were considering hosting, a tour that showed where the migrant workers lived, far from the glamour Doha is known for. However, the field trip never happened; in fact, it was never again mentioned to students outside our first meet-in-greet.
I remember leaving uni late in the evening after working in the studio and seeing the migrant construction workers pile into the large vans and buses. There was nothing inherently wrong or suspicious about this, but I bring it up because the image stuck out to me. It felt like they were being carted away under the cover of night to some mysterious location, as though they were being kept out of public view. Funny thing is that I had this thought before learning about all the atrocities Qatar had been accused of when it came to their migrant laborers.
In order to access VCUQ, I had to circumnavigate a mini construction site, and one morning a Nigerian construction worker stopped me to ask if I was from Nigeria. I politely told him “no” and continued on, but then something hit me: He wasn’t the first migrant worker to speak to me like that, to casually engage me in the sorts of conversation one foreigner may ask another foreigner. I realized I had had mini conversations like that with other migrants—security guards, Uber drivers, custodians—commenting on things like the holidays, the traffic, the (ferociously hot) weather, or just simple nods of acknowledgement . . . interactions that anyone not from Qatar would exchange with someone else not from Qatar.
I also realized that there were certain people who weren’t getting engaged in conversation the same way I was, specifically Qataris, other Arabs, and white people. It’s not that anyone was being discriminatory or straight up mean, it’s just that there seemed to be a different level of comfort between the migrant workers (many of which were black and brown) and the black and brown people in Qatar.
This gorgeous city that photographs well at every angle was erected almost entirely by foreign laborers. They’re a huge part of the reason why the country is as clean, beautiful, and impressive as it is. They’re the reason why new highways and railways and stadiums and cities get built so fast, and they’re the underlying force behind the much of Qatar National Vision 2030; they’re why Qatar is capable of becoming a gleaming example of a sustainable future,
Residency & Citizenship:
As mentioned earlier, an expatriate’s residency in Qatar is tied to a sponsorship. All sponsorship contracts have to be renewed. Around Education City, those contracts lasted 1 to 3 years.
It’s not uncommon for people to switch jobs or go back to their home country at the end of a sponsorship cycle. Of all the expatriates I met, most in Education City, it seemed like 20 years of working in Qatar was their personal limit. Of the working expats I spoke to—who had been in Qatar for 10, 15, or 20 years—were all considering going home soon (or already had plans to leave).
When I first heard about the sponsorship contract system, I actually vibed with it. Of course, there’s that worry of being “stuck” in a job until a contract runs out (because breaking a contract can lead to a monetary fine), or simply being in an unfamiliar system (because in the U.S., I can start a job and quit the next week if it so pleases me). However, my honest first thought when I heard about the contract system was 1) Job security and 2) The ability to really map out a life plan, piece by piece, reevaluating every few years.
I love things with finite beginnings and ends—with clear step by step plans—so to see a job system that fit that pattern was a surprising comfort. I felt as though if I were to get a job in Qatar, I’d be able work through my life in bite-sized chunks, all centered around my job’s timeline. Things like building credit, paying off student loans, doing my savings account justice, evaluating career advancement, evaluating career change, and knowing what my time looks like (both on and off the job) are all things I could do in any employment system, but knowing that I’d be on timeline that readjusts every year or two makes me feel less aimless when it comes to those things.
Note, though, that this sponsorship system is one of the things Qatar has been accused of abusing when it comes to their migrant workers, keeping them in the country for longer than their contract states.
I kept having the word “RP” tossed at me, people assuming I knew what it meant and how it related to me. I later learned it was short for “Residency Permit”, essentially the ID the government issues you when you’re on a sponsorship. The entire card was in Arabic, just like my Visa (inspiring another negative critique about Qatar’s migrant labor situation; Qatar puts so many other things in Arabic & English [since English is more or less the worldwide common tongue] but why not things like Visas and RP’s?)
My RP card featured the most unprofessional photo of me ever to grace a federal document. When VCUQ asked me for a “photo with a white background”, they didn’t mention it was for my RP; I had assumed it was something VCUQ wanted, something that’d be used to document their exchange students, mention us in PowerPoints, print temporary student ID’s . . . something casual, private, and personable, something simple to reflect ourselves as exchange students at an art school. Well, that assumption was incorrect, so they made us retake our RP photos (“us” being 3 of 4 exchange students because, apparently, all our photographs were wrong in some way). Thing is, even after retaking and submitting our new photos, they used the old ones for our RP anyway. I go into a bit more detail about this in the post TIQ, “This is Qatar”.
In 2018, Qatar became the first GCC country to start issuing permanent residencies to a few residents. Being a permanent resident gives someone some of the perks of citizenship, like being eligible for free healthcare and education, being allowed to buy property, priority when applying for government jobs, and not needing an Exit Permit from a sponsor when they want to leave the country. I’m not even sure if permanent residents still need a sponsor.
The policy started out by giving a few hundred people permanent residency. It seems like the government is slowly but surely giving eligible people residency (with perhaps an emphasis on the word “slowly”).
The policy gives preference to children with Qatari mothers and people who have lived in the country for at least 20 years.
Even though the law is small in the grand scheme of the migrant worker issue, I think it’s at least half a baby step in the right direction when it comes to remedying the situation (specifically the part that forbids them from leaving the country without an Exit Permit and the part about them never being a part of the country they physically built and sustain)
When I first learned that being born in Qatar didn’t automatically make someone a citizen, I was surprised, simply because that’s not how it works in the U.S. It was odd talking to people who had been born, raised, and even educated in Qatar, but didn’t have the same rights as Qatari citizens, or even permanent residents. Instead, these people were automatically citizens of their parents’ home countries. To add what I felt was insult to injury, if these kids—these 20+ year residents of Qatar—didn’t find their own sponsorship before their original parent-based sponsorship expired, they’d have no choice but to leave Qatar in exchange for their passport country, a country that they may have never visited, full of people who speak a language they may not understand, with laws, cities, customs, and even a culture they may be unfamiliar with.
When it comes to applying to citizenship, expats can technically do it, but it’s one hell of a process. They have to be really good at Arabic, possess no criminal record (and “good moral character”, which seems very subjective), a steady source of income, and had to have lived in the country for at least 20 years (15 if you’re an Arab citizen elsewhere). To boot, if you do manage to get citizenship in Qatar, you’ll have to relinquish the citizenship you currently have, because Qatar doesn’t allow dual citizenship.
If a Qatari woman has a child with a non-Qatari man, that child is not a citizen of Qatar. This law caught be off guard because in the U.S., if one of your parents are a U.S. citizen—whether they be your mom or dad—you’re eligible for U.S. citizenship. In Qatar, though, this child would have to go through the process of applying for citizenship just like everyone else. This is one of those clearly biased laws that, in my opinion, put an archaic wrench in Qatar’s glorious vision of the future.
Qatar is a very patriotic country, which undoubtedly plays a part in their consideration of residency and citizenship. Their patriotism isn’t inherently bad, not at all; they seem to genuinely approve of their government leadership, and with Qataris being only 10% of the total population, it makes sense for there to be widespread support for preserving and expressing their cultural, religious, or national identity. However, there’s a dialogue going around that states Qatar’s laws about citizenship and residency are the way they are specifically because they don’t want to risk Qatari identity being displaced by foreigners.
I’ve got two minds about this. On one hand, I think it’s great for a group of people to want to preserve their cultural identity, and I think it’s cool to have a government that supports it. The fact so many expats are in-and-out of Qatar within two decades is also an understandable reason for the government to not want to pass out citizenship to temporary residents. On the other hand, though, to have laws that seem to be trying their best to keep “others” at a distance from the culture—to the point where making babies with someone “other” runs the risk of your kid losing citizenship—seems over the top.
Even still, though, as a black U.S. citizen, I can’t help but bring my own baggage to my thoughts about this. The U.S. is a young country, and much of what it is today was built upon displacing whatever was here first and absorbing what was left into the dominant (Eurocentric) culture. Of course that’s problematic, but there are a lot of things that weren’t removed or absorbed; some things remained and contributed to American identity (for example, consider states like Louisiana, Florida, or New York with tons of historical “non-American” influences that are now considered American standards, or how so much of American pop culture over the decades starts amongst minority groups). To add another layer to it, being a black person in the U.S. is tied to the fact that your ancestors were probably slaves who had much of their traditional African identity squeezed out of them, from dress, to religion, to language . . . everything. So, in response, African-Americans built a new cultural identity, which was then simultaneously marginalized and appropriated by the dominant (white) culture.
In short, American identity can be a big ball of intertwining knots; trying to figure out how much of a culture should be preserved, what aspects of a culture should be preserved, who should be in charge of preservation, how it should be preserved, who’s allowed to be a part of this culture, and how national identity can be defined when it’s a religious, ethnic, and cultural “melting pot” is . . . complicated. This complicatedness is what I’m used to as an American, though, and it’s why I can’t quite find my footing when it comes to my thoughts on what Qatar chooses to do with their cultural identity. At the end of the day, though, I don’t really have a voice on the subject; I’m not Qatari and I haven’t had the experiences that Qataris have had when it comes to the mass influx of foreigners over the last four decades. This is just me reflecting on how different my cultural experience in the U.S. is from Qatar, you know?
Being a temporary expat in the country, I couldn’t help but think about how I would feel being a resident there for more than four months. I thought about the different rights in Qatar were for expats vs. citizens, especially compared to how the U.S. functioned. On the downside, as an expat I wouldn’t get the perks like free healthcare, free education, or the ability to vote in elections (despite the fact I’d still have to abide by whatever laws and policy-makers the government produced). I also wouldn’t get the comfort of knowing that I genuinely lived in Qatar, the comfort of knowing my ability to find a sponsorship didn’t have a deadline and was tied to my being booted out the country. When I first though about all this, it immediate rang unfair (especially from a U.S. perspective), but then I thought about everything I’d be giving up in exchange for Qatari citizenship.
For example, when I was filling out paperwork prior to my Athens trip, there was a document that asked me to certify that I had my father’s permission to leave the country if I was under 25 years old. I asked the faculty member what this meant and she told me not to worry about it and just sign it; I realized she didn’t want me to worry about it because this particular requirement didn’t apply to me because I wasn’t a female citizen of Qatar. Or, knowing that if I were to have a child out of wedlock or come out as anything other than a cisgender heterosexual—things that are technically illegal for anyone in the country—I still had the safe haven of my home country to live in, a place where these two things may be contentious subjects (to varying degrees), but not illegal.
And when it came to things like healthcare and education, even though they weren’t free for expats, the country still made them more affordable than anything the U.S. was offering. The cost for an uninsured guy who got a physical, x-rays, and two prescriptions was only $40, and his visit to the dentist was only $35. And school? I talked to so many expats educated in Qatar who didn’t know whether they had taken out student loans, and the only people who don’t remember taking out loans (and crunching numbers, and Googling definitions, and figuring out payment plans, and making appointments with subpar financial aid officers) are the ones who ultimately didn’t take out student loans. This means that living in Qatar without Qatari citizenship would give me access to more than I have in the U.S. as a citizen when it comes to things like doctors, meds, and high education.
So, sure, the perks of citizenship are cool, but to trade it in for needing a man to sign off on what I choose to do with my life, or worrying about who I choose to shack up with because my of my theoretical future kid’s citizenship, or to risk punishment for having a kid out of wedlock, or coming out as anything on the LGBT+ spectrum, or straight up relinquishing the citizenship of my home country was in no way appealing. It’s not that I was ever thinking about applying for Qatari citizenship, these are just the meanderings of my mind.
A shot of Qatar from the Doha corniche (and another construction project to the right center, by the way).
Mind meanderings aside, I hope this long list of bullet points, links, facts, and anecdotes was helpful. I hope that if you’re on you’re on your way to Qatar, maybe even planning for a study abroad adventure like I was, that something I mentioned in this post has given you more awareness than I had when I first experienced the country. When I got there, there was terminology that went way over my head, actions about my Visa & residency that I was ignorant to, and somehow some way I hadn’t heard a single thing about the migrant laborer issue. So, if there’s just one new thing you’ve learned from this post, one word you can add to your vocabulary, or just one topic that’s given you some food for thought, then congrats! That means you’re a more learned person than I was when starting out, and knowledge is one of the best things anyone can have.