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Qatar expats granted new rights under landmark law

The move to grant foreigners residency would be the first in the Gulf region [Getty]

Date of publication: 3 August, 2017

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Qatar's landmark law will grant foreigners permanent residency and new freedoms, marking a significant step towards change in Gulf societies.
Qatar has passed a transformative law to grant permanent residency to expats.

The move would be the first in the Gulf region, where the privileges of nationals have been guarded and foreigners – who make up 88 percent of Qatar's population – have limited access to public services and property rights.

Under the new law, cardholders will be treated like Qatari nationals and will benefit from elements of the state's generous welfare system, including education and health-care services, the official Qatar News Agency reported late on Wednesday.

They will also be given priority, after locals, for military and civilian public jobs, be allowed to own property and run certain commercial activities without a local partner, QNA reported.

Those eligible for the card include children of Qatari women married to foreigners, people with special talents "needed by the state," and others who have extended notable services to the country, it said. Citizenship, however, will remain off-limits to foreigners.

The "symbolically significant" move could give expatriates an incentive to stay and make additional investments in the country, said Allison Wood, a Middle East and North Africa analyst with the Control Risks strategy firm in Dubai.

The action comes amid a sea, land and air blockade and economic sanctions on Doha imposed by Saudi Arabia and three allies who severed their diplomatic ties with the country in June.

"The new law provides an opportunity to put Qatar in the headlines as a more open, forward-thinking state when compared to its neighbours, which do not have similar residency programmes," Wood added.

The new law provides an opportunity to put Qatar in the headlines as a more open, forward-thinking state when compared to its neighbours, which do not have similar residency programmes

The legislation was approved after Qatar's ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, instructed officials in a July 22 speech to expedite measures to lure investments and reduce the economy's reliance on energy in the wake of the boycott. He said opening up the economy was no longer a "luxury" but an obligation. 

The six Gulf nations that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council are under pressure to diversify their economies amid low oil prices, and they rely on expatriates who began pouring into the region during the energy boom of the 1970s to run their economies. 

Except for Saudi Arabia and Oman, foreign workers and their families outnumber local populations in the GCC.

With few exceptions, the majority of foreigners in Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait need to be sponsored by locals to live and do business. Citizens, on the other hand, receive state support widely seen as a tradeoff for political loyalty.

The idea of allowing foreigners to reside in Gulf countries for longer periods has also been discussed in other countries as they seek to bolster non-oil revenue after the plunge in crude prices.

Last year, Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said that the government was weighing a green card-type programme for foreign workers.

However in its latest attempts to reinvigorate its economy and employment, the kingdom has become increasingly hostile to expats and pledged to open up more jobs to nationals.

The UAE 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.

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