Qatar’s discrimination against naturalized citizens

Qatar’s Law No. (6) of 2021, approved in July of the same year to pave the way for the first elections of the country’s legislative body (the Shura Council), provoked controversy and small-scale demonstrations due to its disenfranchisement of thousands of Qataris from voting or running.

As the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch asserted: “Qatar’s attempt to establish citizen participation in government could have been a moment to celebrate, but it has been tarnished by denying many Qataris their full citizenship rights”. This is not to say that the Emir will not exert great power over the legislative branch, as the law regulates the election of 30 of the 45 seats on the Advisory Council (Majlis al-Shura) and he would still appoint the 15 remaining seats.

The new electoral law states that only citizens aged 18 and over, whose original nationality is Qatari or who are considered naturalized citizens but can prove that their grandfathers were born in Qatar, are allowed to vote in the elections. All the other naturalized citizens are, however, denied the right to vote, and all naturalized citizens are ineligible to run. This alarmed, in particular, the members of the semi-nomadic Al-Murra tribe, one of the largest tribes in Qatar and one of the most affected by the discriminatory 2005 Law of nationality, on which the new electoral regime is based.

If anything, this episode brought to light the biased citizenship and nationality rules that prevail in Qatar and the policies that, derived from them, discriminate against naturalized or non-native citizens by granting these people “only a fragile and marginal status in the country”. For example, naturalized citizens cannot be equated with Qatari nationals – those who settled in Qatar before 1930 and those proven to have Qatari origins by Emiri decree- when referring to the right to work in public positions or work in general for five years; nationality revocation is easier in the case of naturalized citizens; children of naturalized Qataris retain their father’s second-tier legal status; naturalized citizens are only able to apply for a housing loan if 15 years have passed since their naturalization and, unlike Qatari citizens, cannot benefit from being granted housing or the funds to buy land, etc.

Notwithstanding this clear treatment differentiation, the truth is that some naturalized Qataris are not aware of their citizenship status and often find out about it when they are barred from certain government services and benefits. Some others, however, found out when they tried to register to run or vote in the election.

It should also be mentioned that the restriction of some Qataris’ political participation sparked online criticism and wide-scale protests that ended with the arrest of figures such as Hazza bin Ali Abu Shurayda al-Marri, a prominent Qatari lawyer and member of the Al-Murra tribe, who posted a widely shared video on YouTube addressing the Emir in regards to the Shura election’s law. Later on, his brother Rashed bin Ali Abu Shurayda al-Marri, also a lawyer, was detained after inquiring the Public Prosecution about the reasons for the arrest of his brother and requesting to act as his legal representative. In 2022, both were sentenced to life in prison on charges of organizing unauthorized public meetings and contesting the electoral law ratified by the Emir in a trial that lacked minimum standards to be deemed fair.

These facts stand out as clear violations of Qatar’s international human rights obligations.  Particularly, Qatar, a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), acted contrary to Article 14 recognizing the right to a fair trial, and Article 19 enshrining freedom of expression.

The discriminatory nationality and electoral laws that led to this point in the first place should be strongly criticized. More specifically, Qatar’s nationality law has to be scrutinized as it creates second-class citizens and perpetuates the lack of full citizenship rights through generations.