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Why did Qatar just change its residency laws?

- August 9, 2017

For more than two months, Qatar has been under a political and economic blockade led by Saudi Arabia. Just last week, Qatar approved a draft law that gives permanent residency status to certain noncitizens, including children of Qatari women married to non-Qatari men.

With everything the besieged country has been doing — changing its shipping routes, finding new importers of basic food products, and solidifying its defenses — why is Qatar spending time changing its residency laws?

Qatari leadership is using this crisis to its advantage

By pushing through domestic policy goals that will reshape not only the country but the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) as a whole, this move is an indication that the Qatari leadership is using this crisis to its advantage.

It is also the clearest sign yet that Saudi Arabia’s influence over the six-country GCC is waning. The Saudi-led blockade was an attempt to force Qatar back in line with the more conservative members of the GCC. But Qatar’s move on residency laws demonstrates that the blockade is having the opposite effect intended.

Citizenship laws in the GCC: Exclusive and patriarchal

The six monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula formed the GCC in 1981 as a unified front to protect against Iraqi and Iranian encroachment. Iraq’s invasion of oil-rich Kuwait in 1990 demonstrated the hollowness of GCC protection against external threats, but the GCC has been very good at protecting its autocratic rulers against internal threats. Under Saudi Arabia’s influence, the GCC has followed a conservative path, acting (or failing to act) as a unified bloc on sensitive domestic issues and giving each country a measure of political cover from citizen dissent.

In line with the GCC, Qatar has always enforced citizenship laws that pass down citizenship only from father to child. Being born in Qatar gives one no claim to citizenship: Even children of Qatari women married to non-Qatari men do not get citizenship upon birth.

Qatar’s new law is the first in the union to bestow noncitizens with the economic benefits akin to those under full citizenship — including free education, free health care and preferential hiring — as well as the stability of permanent residency rather than temporary visas that must be renewed annually.

Public support for legal changes

In my 10 years of living and working in Qatar, I investigated Qataris’ hunger for changes. In 2013 and in 2014, I conducted two surveys of Qatari citizens’ attitudes on gender roles, economic satisfaction, political efficacy and policy preferences. Both times, 9 out of 10 Qataris — both men and women — supported a change in the laws to allow Qatari women to pass their citizenship on to their children.

Qataris are not silent about these concerns: Local media frequently broadcast complaints from those who are excluded from citizenship and its corresponding state-distributed benefits, including public-sector salary increases, land ownership, education scholarships, employment — and even the ability to marry and have children.

While the Qatari government acknowledged these concerns and pledged to review the laws in its National Development Strategy, there had been no movement.

Why change the law now?

While Qatar has frequently charted an independent course in external affairs, Saudi pressure and conservative voices from established families within the country have kept Qatar from experimenting with internal change. It seems that the humanitarian crisis caused by the blockade has given the Qatari regime the domestic political cover to act. Thousands of citizens across the GCC are intermarried. But with spousal transfer of citizenship difficult at best, most retain their home country’s citizenship even when marrying, living and working in another GCC state.

When the crisis began, the blockading countries recalled their citizens from Qatar and forced Qatari citizens to leave their countries, splitting families across the region during the holy month of Ramadan. Qatar’s granting of permanent residency to previously excluded members of society is a shrewd political move to use the immediate humanitarian crisis of the blockade to solve a longer-term domestic problem. And public approval was immediate: On Twitter, Qatari citizens and expatriate residents largely expressed support, with many encouraging further expansion of residency and citizenship laws.

This may be just the start for Qatar

The permanent residency law may herald more change to come. A GCC-wide value-added tax on goods and services was set to unroll in 2018 to help these states with budget deficits and unsustainable energy subsidies. The splintering of GCC unity throws this initiative into doubt.

Already, Qatar’s plans for increased taxes internally have been shelved: A promised “sin tax” on alcohol in July never materialized, suggesting that Qatar is less interested in making money than in keeping its expatriate community, including important business interests, happy. Qatar is also hinting that it will change the rules of foreign investment and ownership to attract additional business away from its blockading neighbors.

Similar to the strategy pursued by Kuwait in the 1960s and 1990s to gain political legitimacy in the face of Iraqi territorial threats, we may see increased political changes in Qatar as it seeks to differentiate itself, including the long-awaited elections for the national (advisory) legislature.

Qatari citizens themselves may expect this step: My 2013 survey showed, again, an overwhelming majority of Qataris (90 percent) agreeing that electing their national legislature, as promised by their 2004 constitution, would be a good thing. A Qatari citizen recently told me, “If there ever was censorship revolving around political topics, at this time there is none — political conversations are occurring in the majlis and in public, too.”

With the blockade settling in for the long haul, Qatar’s move to expand its residency laws may be the first of several attempts to make progress on societal issues that have been simmering for far longer than the blockade itself. Qatar’s next moves will continue to illuminate the unintended consequences of a miscalculated blockade.

Jocelyn Sage Mitchell is an assistant professor in residence of political science in the liberal arts program of Northwestern University in Qatar.