A Very Strange Society

The State of Qatar is a most unusual place.

For starters, it is a really wealthy country. In 2007, Qatar’s oil and natural gas wealth gave it the fifth highest per capita income in the world, $67,000 (according to the US State Department’s Background Note on Qatar.) Then there’s the composition of the country’s population. In May 2008, a month or so before my most recent visit, there were about 1.45 million people in Qatar, three quarters of whom were male. The population pyramids below (from the US Census Bureau) makes this clear. They also reveals that a large share of the country’s male population is in the 20 – 50 year old age range, and that this share is projected to increase significantly by 2025. A country where females are outnumbered three to one by males; how can this be?

Population pyramid of Qatar in 2000, showing a disproportionate number of males aged 20 - 50
Projected population pyramid of Qatar in 2025, showing an even larger proportion of males aged 20 - 50 than in 2000

The picture gets even stranger when we look at the ethnic composition of the population: Arab 40%, Indian 18%, Pakistani 18%, Iranian 10%, other 14%. Yet Qatar is part of the Arabian peninsula and the Arabic world. In terms of nationality, only a quarter of the country’s population is Qatari, the rest are foreigners. An Arab country where citizens are outnumbered three to one by foreigners, and Arabs two to one by non-Arabs; what’s going on here?

In June 2008, I made a brief stop Doha, Qatar’s capital, and there I met a few members of Qatar’s largest demographic group, foreign males, who helped me understand the country’s rather unusual demography.


Raoul is man in his late twenties who works for a Qatari taxi company. He is the driver who took me from the airport to my hotel in Doha. He told me that his home is in the Philippines; he had been working in Qatar for eight months. Yes, he admitted in response to my question, he did miss home a lot. “Especially today,” he said, “This is the first time I have had to spend my birthday away from my wife and son.” They were back home in Manila; his work visa does not permit him to bring any family members to Qatar with him.

Raoul was recruited for his job by an agency in the Philippines. The agency paid for his airfare to Qatar and will cover his return home at the end of the contract. He may go home for a visit after a year if he wishes, but he would have to pay for that trip himself. His passport was taken from him by the recruiting agency as soon as he arrived in Qatar, so he would not be able to leave the country without the cooperation of his employer. What is the longest amount of time he would be allowed to work in Qatar, I asked him. “I don’t know,” he says, “I don’t want to think about that.”

Like many guest workers, Raoul lives in accommodation provided by his employer. He shares a room with four other men. He tells me that he wants to leave his current employer at the end of the first year of his contract, because the company doesn’t treat its employees well. Specifically, he says that he is being paid less than the going rate, but he didn’t learn this until he arrived in Qatar and compared notes with other foreign workers.


The cab driver who took me back to the airport the following day was a very garrulous young man named Samuel. He is another typical Qatari, since he isn’t a Qatari at all, but hails from Kerala (in southern India) where all of his family still lives. Like Raoul, he was recruited and interviewed in his home country by agents for the cab company for whom he now works. They were interested first and foremost in his ability to speak English. He adds that workers in the service sector come largely from Sri Lanka, Philippines, and India, since people from these countries are most likely to speak English. Nepalis and Bangladeshis apparently do a lot of the manual labor here, particularly in the burgeoning construction sector.
(Samuel can now speak Arabic, but that wasn’t a requirement for the job, he told me in answer to one of my many questions. He learned Arabic in his previous job, a two-year stint in Saudi Arabia.) He earns 900 Riyals, he volunteers (about $250, I presume he meant per month.) Rent on a one room apartment is 3000 Riyals. Qatar is expensive, he says, much more expensive than Saudi Arabia. He works the night shift; it is now 6 pm, and I am his first customer. He will finish work at 5 am, go home, eat breakfast, and go to sleep. He will get up at 3, have lunch, and start work again. He thinks he will be in Qatar for 7 years and then he will go back to Kerala.

Five dead Sri Lankans

From the front page of “The Peninsula,” an English language daily, published in Qatar, the day I arrived in Doha (June 20, 2008):

Inferno Claims Five Lives

Doha – Five Sri Lankan workers were charred to death and four others were seriously injured when one room in a building burst into flames on Wednesday night…

The very old building has four flats with three bedrooms each. Only one room on the left side of the first floor was completely burned; amazingly, the other two rooms, the kitchen and the bathrooms in the flat were left virtually untouched by the razing (sic) inferno…

The room, which was entirely gutted, housed 11 labourers, whose belongings were all consumed by the fire.”

Photograph of part of the front page of The Peninsula newspaper, showing a photograph of a burned out room. The article below is headed <em>Inferno Claims Five Lives.</em>
An accompanying photograph (see above) shows the charred remains of the room, with two sets of bunk beds still standing, and what looks like the frames of several others piled against the wall. Above are the burned remains of a ceiling fan.

A large white building behind an iron fence.Picture of the Qatar Advisory Council building during a duststorm: The building where Qatar’s Advisory Council meets (the country has no legislative body.) The Council’s 35 members are all appointed the Emir. Emir Hamad bi Khalifa al-Thani came to power in 1995 when he overthrew his father, who came to power in 1972 after deposing his cousin. The Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs is Sheikh Hamad bin Jasim bin Jabir al-Thani , the Deputy Prime Minister is Abdallah Al-Thani. The Cabinet also includes Ministers Fahd Al-Thani (Economy and Commerce,) Ahmad Al-Thani (Communications and Transport,) Nasir al-Thani (Cabinet Affairs,) and Hamad al-Thani (State.) The Governor of the Central Bank is Abdallah bin Saud al-Thani.

A Recipe for Economic Success?

Qatar is not alone in relying primarily on foreign workers to keep its economy running. The United Arab Emirates and Kuwait have similar population structures to that of Qatar. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia also rely heavily on foreign workers to fill lower paying jobs. This relieves these countries’ economies of the need to provide education, health care, or retirement benefits that would come with a native work force. It also makes for a very disciplined and hard working labor force: there are a lot more workers eager to come and work here, so employers can easily replace slackers or troublemakers. And the governments of the Gulf States, not known as bastions of democracy, don’t have to worry about satisfying the political demands of their labor forces, since foreigners don’t have the right to make any demands, and if they do they can be sent back home.

Sounds like an ideal kind of labor market. I wonder why other wealthy countries haven’t thought of it.

Note: I have borrowed the title of this entry from the title of a 1967 book by Allen Drury, A Very Strange Society: A Journey to the Heart of South Africa. South Africa’s apartheid economy relied on migrant workers from rural areas of the country as well as from neighboring states These workers were housed in crowded barracks, forbidden from bringing their families into the cities with them, and denied political rights.

Update February 2009:  The international economic recession is having a profound impact on migrant workers. This article from the New York Times describes the impact on Dubai, as skilled and wealthy migrants are laid off and leave the country (as well as their cars, apartments, and debts.)

Another update, June 24 2009: According to a news story from the BBC, the economy of the  tiny Pacific Ocean country of Tuvalu (population 12,000) is heavily dependent on a particular kind of migrant labor. Forty percent of Tuvualan men work on foreign freighters; in 2006 they sent home remittances of $4 million, more than a quarter of the country’s annual national revenue. Recently, eleven Tuvualan seamen were kidnapped by Somali pirates, who are demanding a ranson of $15 million, an amount which exceeds the entire country’s national income.

And another, May 13 2010. An interesting article in the New York Times, reporting on the frustrations Qataris feel at being a minority in their own country.


  1. Dave August 2, 2008
  2. Melissa S. June 20, 2013
  3. Donald Rallis June 20, 2013
  4. Alicia L. June 20, 2013
  5. Chris Garcia July 13, 2013
  6. Jessica Kamvar July 19, 2013
  7. Elizabeth Rival July 24, 2013

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