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Qatar Demographics - a worsening social problem in Qatar
Qatar is a small country
The population is around* one million, most of whom live in Doha, the capital. But that doesn't tell the whole story. Of this million, only one in five is Qatari. Four fifths of the population are immigrant workers. To every ten Qataris, there are, approximately:
- 10 Indians
- 10 Pakistanis
- 10 non-Qatari Arabs (Egypt, Palestine, Jordan)
- 5 Iranians
- 5 Others (I am one of these!)
* In this article I am using approximate numbers to illustrate trends. You can find more exact demographic details here.
Now remember that 10 Qataris will include children, the elderly, the sick and disabled (because they all live here). When you take this into account, the group of ten Qataris contains only three healthy Qatari men of working age, while the forty foreigners are all of working age and fit for work. We can say that with confidence because anyone who can't work, through illness, redundancy or criminal conviction, is quickly repatriated and replaced.
And of course, the forty foreign workers are a male-skewed group comprising around thirty men and ten women, because most of the work is in Energy and Construction, both heavily male dominated fields (and the immigrant workers are not allowed to bring their families, except for the professional classes).
So there you have it. Every Qatari man of working age is outnumbered ten to one by working men from abroad. How does that feel?
No immigration in Qatar
While many Western countries worry about controlling immigration, Qatar goes its own sweet way. There are no immigrants here, only a temporary immigrant workforce. No-one is given Qatari nationality. To work here, you have to be sponsored. You cannot leave the country without an exit visa issued by the sponsor. You cannot move to another employer without a letter of no objection from your sponsor. When the work runs out, so does your visa (or soon after) and you have to go home. You cannot retire here. Even if you've worked thirty years, at retirement age, you're on your way. You're history.
There are a few, a very few, exceptions to the above, e.g. when Qatar finds itself in need of tall people to play for its National basketball team, but as a summary it's accurate enough.
I can already hear a rumbling from right-wing readers saying, that's the way to do it. We could use some of that over here. But bear with me. There are big problems attached.
What about the Qataris?
As a foreigner in Qatar, it's easy to see only the problems experienced by the foreign communities, and there are many, ranging from lack of representation, substandard working and living conditions to abuse of domestic servants. These and more are well documented elsewhere. But what about the Qataris themselves? How does this demographic pan out for them?
It takes far fewer people to operate a gas plant, refinery, power station, or desalination plant than it does to build it. And in a small country, there is only so much infrastructure that is required. Sooner or later, the big projects must end and the workforce will have to be reduced. And not just the workforce on the plants, but the whole support industry occupying the offices and tower blocks of the new city. Unless the Qataris want an empty city, they will have to attract a different profile of foreigner, and in huge numbers.
This is why Qatar is pitching seriously for its place in the World, through major conferences, summits, sporting events, etc. But it has an uphill struggle. For most of the year, it is far hotter than a Nevada summer with New Orleans humidity thrown in as a bonus. A further disincentive is the restrictive prevailing culture. Qatar is not Saudi but it's still many steps down from being an open society. At present, people come here to work, and tolerate it, but if Qatar wants people to come to live, from choice, that's a very different game.
Go forth and multiply
Maybe the answer is that most traditional one - encourage the Qataris to have bigger families. It's not as if they can't afford it. The oil and gas revenue puts Qatar high among the richest countries in the World, per capita.
But there's a problem here. Qatar is very strong in education and a leader in the field in the Arab World. While this is of course a good thing, it has the interesting side effect that educated, and therefore emancipated, young Qatari women are not rushing to marry Qatari men as previously. Their expectations are altered. Couple that with the strict rules and traditions concerning suitable marriage partners in Qatari society, and what we're seeing for several years now is a gradual decline in the native population. Though this is not much talked about publicly, it is a cause for concern in high places.
There would seem to be no easy solution to the Qatar demographic problem. Will they relax immigration policy? Sanction mixed marriages? Stop educating the girls? Sooner or later, something has to change.
Thanks for reading!
Postscript, June 2011
A new trend is emerging that is further discomfiting the Qatari authorities. With the expansion of the Indian economy, better opportunities and salaries back home are attracting large numbers of Indian expat workers, especially the more professional and skilled sectors, to abandon Qatar in favour of their home country. At home, of course, they will live with their families, earn the respect of the community and enjoy normal human rights. All this and a decent pay cheque at the end of the month. So far, Qatar does not have an answer to this new brain drain within its immigrant workforce. Perhaps this will drive them to extend citizenship rights to those they can least afford to lose? Time will tell.