On April 4, 2022, fans around the world started their online shopping frenzy to secure the best seats for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

The Qatari capital Doha as the Gulf emirate prepares for the FIFA 2022 football World Cup. Giuseppe Cacace/AFP/Getty Images

The same day, Qatari media outlets quietly reported an overnight policy change. Anyone unable to obtain a match ticket would not be allowed entry into the country during the tournament. Fans wanting to enter Qatar now needed a pre-approved “Hayya Card,” a new visa tied to the purchase of a FIFA ticket that doubles as a transportation pass and provides entry into stadiums. While Qatar has since softened this stance—allowing ticketed fans to bring up to three companions—throughout the tournament these hayya cards will still serve as the only foreign entry permit issued.

Since winning the bid to host the tournament in 2010, Qatar has invested billions of dollars in its tourist infrastructure. In addition to reconstructing several parts of Doha and installing a metro system, it has developed an entirely new twin city, Lusail, on the capital’s outskirts. Yet at the much-anticipated kickoff to the World Cup, in an unprecedented move, the state abruptly started limiting the number of visitors by denying access to less financially-capable auxiliary fans.

Official justifications for this brisk change in policy by the Qatari government were slim, referring to generic safety and “capacity” concerns around tourist accommodation. With a national citizenry of around 300,000, and overall ticket sales exceeding 2.4 million, there is likely basis to these concerns.

Local Qatari news outlets, however, also cited the menace of crowds trying to break into stadiums, referring to the Euro 2020 Final at Wembley Stadium in Britain. Such security concerns bely a deeper unease about the state’s ability to maintain control over the established social hierarchy at a critical juncture, particularly given the international media attention accompanying the tournament. For similar reasons, Qatar has already moved ahead with devising “purposely ambiguous” legislation intended to restrict foreign film crews’ freedom of coverage during the tournament.[1]

It is no coincidence that World Cup soccer fans are now finding themselves allotted into haves and have nots. The sudden curb on ticketless soccer fans reflects Qatar’s long tradition of using ambiguous legislation to differentiate and socially divide resident groups so as to retain as much control as possible over local and global public opinion as well as the political status quo inside the country.

Similar dynamics of bureaucratic engineering through ambiguous migration and citizenship policies regulate not only the migrant worker community in Qatar but also, increasingly, the local citizenry, changing what it means to be Qatari. Qatar’s ambiguous and last minute policy maneuverings in relation to FIFA sports fans—whether pertaining to ticketless fans or the rights of the attending LGTBQ+ community—are no ad hoc deviations. Rather, they are part of a larger state- and nation-building project in which migration and citizenship policies form a central node.


Making a Mega Event


In December 2010, Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, becoming the first Arab country to organize the tournament in 93 years. This win was not without controversy, much of it centering on Qatar’s contentious record of migrant workers’ rights. Qataris make up an elite demographic within the country, constituting around 12 percent of the total population. The great majority of residents in Qatar are low-wage workers from the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia whose presence is tightly regulated by the country’s infamous kafala sponsorship system.

Read an interview with Natasha Iskander on the Politics of “Unskilled” Labor in Qatar for MER issue 304.
In its current form across GCC countries, the kafala system operates as a mode of production that allows local citizens to serve as migrant sponsors and profit as a shadow rentier class. This state-endorsed patronage system directly and indirectly allows Qatari sponsors to appropriate an asymmetric proportion of the surplus value generated by migrant labor. Despite noteworthy policy reforms in Qatar in recent years, Human Rights Watch accurately points out that the “kafala (visa sponsorship) system, which facilitates the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers, remains intact.”[2]

Even with the many controversies over workers’ rights, the World Cup has succeeded in putting Qatar on the map. Qatari authorities have mobilized this mega event as their poster child for a futuristic development push known as the Vision 2030 project meant to usher in massive transformation and bring Qatar’s industrialization on par with the UAE.

In addition, the World Cup serves Qatar in making itself known to the world as a state separate from its powerful and much larger Gulf neighbors. Indeed, the FIFA tournament not only boosts the state’s legitimacy inside the country but equally affirms its territorial integrity within the inter-state complex of the Arabian Peninsula, particularly in the face of Saudi Arabia’s historically expansionist ambitions. Such concerns of the Qatari political elite, which have long been shared by their counterparts in Abu Dhabi and Oman, took on new urgency in the face of the 2017 Blockade leveled against Qatar by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.

While it is common to frame large sports events as a form of cultural diplomacy, soft power and “sportswashing,” Qatar’s hosting the World Cup also marks an urgent consolidation of national sovereignty on the part of its state authorities.
While it is common to frame large sports events as a form of cultural diplomacy, soft power and “sportswashing,” Qatar’s hosting the World Cup also marks an urgent consolidation of national sovereignty on the part of its state authorities. For a country that was only founded in 1971, the World Cup functions alongside other major events, like the 2017 Blockade, as an important unifying force.

In a conversation with one 22-year-old Qatari woman who works at a government ministry, she described how, after the blockade, the differences between Qataris of various geographical or tribal origins have grown less prominent, a change she also attributed to the World Cup tournament. As she put it, “Nowadays, you would rarely find people identifying Qataris in that [tribal] sense … it is slowly becoming less important. The same goes for the World Cup: it will always keep doing what it did ever since we won the bid, which is bringing people together.” Alongside the 2017 Blockade and the 2022 World Cup, Qatari nationalism is coming of age.


Qatar’s “Second-Generation Expats”


The World Cup might be uniting some Qatari citizens in unprecedented ways. Yet, as Qatar pushes ahead with its ambitious Vision 2030 development plan, the country seems to be pushing out a segment of loyal human capital long invested in its overall development.

Many so-called “second-generation expats”—often the children or grandchildren of doctors, engineers or merchant business families—seem to be experiencing increasing precarity in terms of their employment and residency outlook. In the aftermath of the 2017 Blockade, a number of long-term Egyptian residents in Qatar received overnight deportation orders or simply had their work visas cancelled and residency permits revoked.[3] Families that had called Doha home for generations, many with no particular political affiliation, were arbitrarily disposed of in a tit-for-tat political showdown between states.

Flagpoles of World Cup competitors in Doha, featuring the FIFA 2022 digital countdown timer, located at the Corniche Waterfront Promenade. Courtesy J. Alloul.

In another example of the ongoing devaluation of non-GCC Arab citizenship in Qatar, young Arab professionals with European or American university degrees are increasingly finding themselves thwarted from taking advantage of professional opportunities.

Take Farid, a Jordanian national of Palestinian origin who was born and raised in Qatar. Growing up, he considered himself Qatari. He wore the local national dress, the thawb, to work and prided himself on speaking with a Qatari Arabic accent. In 2021, he was shocked when the immigration department of the Ministry of Interior denied his request to change jobs despite his former and future employees both endorsing his move. To Farid, the only discernible motive he could see for this form of direct state intervention into his career development was that he was Jordanian.

Like many Arab residents in Qatar, Farid had believed himself part of a privileged group that was above the vicissitudes of the kafala system. When his request was denied, he had already signed up for his new job and handed in his resignation to his former employer. He suddenly found himself without a sponsor. Unlike unmarried women, unemployed men over the age of 25 cannot revert their sponsorship back to their father. Farid was suddenly faced with the reality that he could at any time be deported from the country he had always called home.

The glass ceiling Farid encountered shows that being Arab, Muslim and “skilled” is no longer enough to ensure belonging in contemporary Qatar.
The glass ceiling Farid encountered shows that being Arab, Muslim and “skilled” is no longer enough to ensure belonging in contemporary Qatar. There is no special birthright for people like him in Qatar’s expanding state and nation-building project, where an increased nationalization of the workforce (“Qatarization”) has now been built into the structure of the economy. Fed up with this extreme legal precarity, Farid decided on emigrating to Canada in search of more secure citizenship. Over the course of several conversations, he made it clear that the very restricted Permanent Residency scheme that Qatar introduced in September 2018, which grants long-term residency rights to a handful of qualifying non-Qataris per year, would not suffice. Only full citizenship rights would convince him to stay in Doha.

Farid’s case highlights a sophisticated migration and citizenship policy characterized by methodically segmenting resident populations along ambiguous categories with strikingly divergent tiers of entitlement. Indeed, the same policy of differential inclusion is playing out, albeit in different ways, amid the Qatari national soccer team, which has controversially included foreign-born athletes who have been naturalized in order to play for Qatar. The so-called “mission passports” granted to foreign-born athletes are in fact temporary documents with a legal time limit, meaning that most naturalized “Qatari” athletes remain citizens of their country of origin. Only those performing extraordinary achievements in their field of competition have the chance to receive permanent Qatari citizenship at a later stage, indicating that the overall institution of Qatari citizenship will likely remain very restrictive and increasingly racialized around ever-narrowing notions of ethno-nationalism.


The 2021 Elections and Internal Dissent


Speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos in May 2022, Qatar’s leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, hailed hosting the World Cup as a transformative vehicle for national development. He credited the tournament and the spotlight it placed on Qatar for the implementation of a series of progressive reforms—reforms like the nation’s first ever elections held in 2021 after years of stalled attempts. In reporting on these elections, English language media outlets were also quick to draw a direct line between the attention on the World Cup and the timing of electoral reform in Qatar.

Yet, Qatari state policies limited just how transformative these elections would be. Succession in the Gulf Arab states is largely premised on hereditary rule rather than representative electoral politics. In the elections held in October 2021, 30 seats of the 45-member Shura Council were up for vote, while the last 15 members of this proto-parliament were still appointed directly by the emir.

Immediately prior to these elections, Qatari citizens staged a rare set of protests in Doha against electoral restrictions put into place in July 2021 that barred thousands of Qataris from running or voting. Like the sudden cap on World Cup fans slated to enter the country, the Qatari state enacted a similar last minute policy, creating a new electoral law that drew on older divisions within Qatari society in order to limit electoral participation.

Like the sudden cap on World Cup fans slated to enter the country, the Qatari state enacted a similar last minute policy, creating a new electoral law that drew on older divisions within Qatari society in order to limit electoral participation.

The restrictions in the new electoral law were based on Qatar’s controversial 2005 Nationality Law. The 2005 law had divided Qatari citizens into three nationality tiers. Qataris who could trace their lineage back to 1930s were labeled as “native” and thus fell into the first tier. A second tier of “naturalized” citizens were those who could trace ancestry to a post-1930s date. Those unable to formally document their earlier presence—the case for certain prominent Bedouin Arab tribes—were also labelled as “naturalized” and were obliged to request a special decree from the emir. The process of obtaining such a decree is arbitrary and resembles a grand symbolic bargain initiated by the Arab clans who dominate the state.

Between these three groups, the difference in the allocation of state benefits is considerable, including the right to work in certain public institutions, access to land and housing purchases and loans, protection from the state revoking one’s citizenship and, as of the new electoral law, the ability to run and vote in legislative elections. Compounding the arbitrary nature of this policy, government information on these internal categories is not public and Qatari passports display no visual documentation of the legal category of “Qatariness.” Some citizens only find out what citizen tier their specific family unit belongs to when an application for particular government services is denied.

The recent July electoral law barred “naturalized” citizens from running in the 2021 Shura Council elections. Moreover, only those who could prove their grandfathers were born in Qatar could vote. As with other entitlements, many only learned of their exclusion when their voting registration was denied, leading to public outcry and daily sit-ins by Qatari citizens across Doha. Shortly after, arrests started taking place, restricting protest and polemics to the online domain. In late 2021, heated debates among Qataris were still ongoing on Twitter, which has become a key space for public debate in the Gulf as well as for state surveillance and propaganda.[4]

These internal contentions in Qatar highlight how the Gulf state’s tiered model of rights allocation does not only concern differently positioned migrant worker groups—whose accrual of benefits may diverge greatly based on attributed skill levels, citizenship and racialized status—but also encompasses the local citizenry. This dynamic is often overlooked by outside reportage on the region, which typically focuses, as the World Cup scrutiny has shown, on the condition of low-wage workers, conjuring the conveniently neo-colonial image that such toiling bodies “require saving by liberal whiteness.”[5]


Generational Change in Qatar?


FIFA ticketholders who make it into Qatar for the tournament will be able to visit the recently built Bin Jelmood House, a museum dedicated to the history of slavery in the context of the region’s maritime past. Located in the heart of new Doha, the museum features whole sections about “Slavery in Modern Pearling and Date Cultivation” and “The Faces of Modern Slavery.” Walking through the latter exhibition, you will find images of Qatar’s migrant workers with captions describing the kafala system along with information about “bonded and forced labor.”

Certain textual elements of the museum’s overall narrative seem to relegate responsibility for the abuse of workers’ rights to private-sector subcontractors and “traffickers,” rather than tackling head-on the systemic nature of state-condoned labor exploitation in the Gulf. Other elements, however, like the video testimonials by African-descent Qataris about racism in the Gulf, render the Bin Jelmood House “a potentially subversive space.”[6]

While the museum was undoubtedly meant to showcase a self-critical canvas for incoming soccer crowds visiting Qatar during the tournament, this venue also reflects some of the changes among a new generation of Qatari citizens. In conversations with several young Qataris, a number have confided that they are in favor of abolishing the kafala system, with some even likening it to “a modern form of slavery.”

These developments signal the need to distinguish between the power exerted by the state and the attitudes and practices of Qatari citizens writ large, hinting at the emerging space for everyday solidarity between Qatari citizens and migrant communities of all sorts.
In one of these conversations, another young female employee of a state ministry voiced a comprehensive critique of the state’s approach to how citizenship is determined. “What I would also like to see is the ability to have [proper] Permanent Residency here, or even the ability to become Qatari,” she said. She added, “there is not a lot of transparency about these policies and laws. How do you become a citizen? I think it is something like 25-50 people who become Qatari citizens per year, so what is the actual process behind it? How can you become Qatari if you are not Qatari, and if you would become Qatari, would you be treated equally?”

These blunt deliberations underscore subterranean developments in Qatari society that are seldom reported on. The modernization discourses accompanying the FIFA World Cup are spurring social and cultural transformations, especially among Qatar’s younger generations. These developments signal the need to distinguish between the power exerted by the state and the attitudes and practices of Qatari citizens writ large, hinting at the emerging space for everyday solidarity between Qatari citizens and migrant communities of all sorts.

Today, a new Qatari generation is coming of age: women set on joining the workforce are increasingly enrolling in universities, strongly supported by their parents and quickly overtaking men in terms of performance. At the same time, a growing number of Qatari students venture abroad on government scholarships for specialized academic training in Europe and the US. Yet others can now make use of the branch campuses of renowned Anglo-American universities in Doha’s massive “Education City,” a prestigious development which noticeably engenders a more liberal habitus among elite students slated to enter the Qatari state bureaucracy.

The FIFA World Cup has served as a top-down instrument to construct and fortify a distinctly Qatari nationalism, overlaying potentially contentious tribal and ethnic cleavages present among the Qatari citizenry. At the same time, the tournament has not erased the underlying tensions and inequities in Qatar’s migration system and citizenship policies. State authorities in Qatar are clearly anxious about the extent to which the World Cup—if left to its own dynamism—may come to challenge the established social contract, which favors and insulates a demographic minority of the total resident population.

The sudden curb in the number of soccer fans during the immediate run-up to the World Cup is a testament to the sophisticated and highly securitized Qatari migration and citizenship regime, one which has long been devised to maintain the political status quo in Doha. That said, in Qatar, as in other Gulf countries like the UAE or Saudi Arabia, a lot more is moving on the ground than meets the eye. It is imperative therefore to take stock of how complex social transformation continues to affect the Gulf region’s younger generations in the wake of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.


[Jaafar Alloul is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Sociology at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Singapore, and a Visiting Scholar in Residence at Georgetown University Qatar. Laavanya Kathiravelu is Associate Professor in Sociology at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.]





[1] Shanti Das, “Qatar World Cup accused of imposing ‘chilling’ restrictions on media,” The Guardian (October 15, 2022).

[2]“Qatar: End of Abusive Exit Permits for Most Migrant Workers,” Human Rights Watch (January 20, 2020).

[3] Nada Soudy, “Home and Belonging: A Comparative Study of 1.5 and Second-Generation Egyptian ‘Expatriates’ in Qatar and ‘Immigrants’ in the U.S.,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 43/9 (2017).

[4] Andrew Leber and Alexei Abrahams, “A Storm of Tweets: Social Media Manipulation During the Gulf Crisis,” Review of Middle East Studies 53/2 (2019).

[5] Zahra Babar and Neha Vora, “The 2022 World Cup and Migrants’ Rights in Qatar: Racialised Labour Hierarchies and the Influence of Racial Capitalism,” The Political Quarterly 93/3 (2022).

[6] Nidhi Mahajan, “Remembering Slavery at the Bin Jelmood House in Qatar,” Middle East Report 299 (Summer 2021).


How to cite this article:

Jaafar Alloul, Laavanya Kathiravelu "Constructing Qatari Citizenship in the Shadow of the World Cup," Middle East Report Online, November 02, 2022.

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