By Alaa Shahine and Nafeesa Syeed
Qatar, facing a boycott by a Saudi-led alliance, approved a draft law that will grant permanent residency cards to some foreigners, an unprecedented action among Gulf Arab monarchies that have for decades relied on expatriate labor to run their economies.
Under the law, those eligible for the card include children of Qatari women married to foreigners, those who have special talents “needed by the state,” and others who have extended notable services to the country, the official Qatar News Agency reported late Wednesday. The cabinet will issue the law’s executive regulations later.
Cardholders will be treated like Qatari nationals when it comes to state-run educational and health-care services, and will be given priority, after locals, for military and civilian public jobs, QNA reported. They also would be allowed to own property and to run certain commercial activities without a local partner.
With few exceptions, the majority of foreigners in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council need to be sponsored by locals to live and do business. Citizens, on the other hand, receive state support widely seen as an exchange for political loyalty.
Qatar passed the draft law after the country’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, instructed officials to expedite measures to lure investments and to reduce the economy’s reliance on energy after Saudi Arabia and three allies severed their diplomatic and transport links with the country in June. Addressing the cabinet at the start of Wednesday’s meeting, Sheikh Tamim also urged authorities to strengthen “the home front,” QNA said.
Qatar is giving expatriates a “deeper stake” in a country that’s “under siege,”
Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said in a phone interview.
Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt accuse Qatar of backing extremist groups to destabilize the Middle East. Qatar has repeatedly denied the charges.
“If you give people a greater sense of involvement, you bind them more closely together,” Ulrichsen said. The decision also could be designed to garner international support against the Saudi-led boycott by portraying Qatar as “something different in the region, tolerant, open and inclusive,” he said.
The idea of allowing foreigners to reside in Gulf countries for longer periods has also been discussed in other countries as they seek to to bolster non-oil revenue after the plunge in crude prices.
Last year, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Bloomberg in an interview that the government was weighing a green card-type program for foreign workers. The U.A.E. said in February it was working on a new visa system designed to attract top foreign talents in fields such as medicine, science and research to the country.
Qatar came under intense international criticism over its treatment of foreigner laborers after winning the right to host soccer’s 2022 World Cup. The government has since pledged to improve the workers’ living and working conditions.
Approving these laws doesn’t mean that implementation will swiftly follow, said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“That doesn’t mean that there aren’t good intentions,” Cordesman said. “But one has to be careful about assuming too much until you see the practice.”
— With assistance by Mohammed Sergie