Qatar an­nounces visa-free en­try to 80 na­tion­al­i­ties

Gulf di­plo­matic cri­sis splits fam­i­lies, dashes dreams

Kuwait Times - - FRONT PAGE -

DOHA: Qatar, iso­lated by its neigh­bors in a di­plo­matic cri­sis, yes­ter­day in­tro­duced a visa-free en­try pro­gramme for 80 na­tion­al­i­ties to stim­u­late air trans­port and tourism. “The visa ex­emp­tion scheme will make Qatar the most open coun­try in the re­gion,” tourism depart­ment of­fi­cial Has­san Al-Ibrahim told a news con­fer­ence in Doha. In­te­rior min­istry of­fi­cial Mo­hamed Rashed AlMazrouei said that na­tion­als of 80 coun­tries would only need to present a valid pass­port for en­try to the en­er­gyrich Gulf state which is to host foot­ball’s 2022 World Cup.

The waiver pro­gram, which came into im­me­di­ate ef­fect, ben­e­fits coun­tries of the Euro­pean Union’s Schen­gen zone, other Western states, Latin Amer­i­can and Asian na­tions, in­clud­ing In­dia. Le­banon is the only Arab coun­try in the list pub­lished at the end of the news con­fer­ence, although the six-na­tion Gulf Co­op­er­a­tion Coun­cil of which Qatar is a mem­ber al­ready al­lows free­dom of move­ment by its na­tion­als.

Na­tion­als of 33 coun­tries will now be au­tho­rized to re­side in Qatar for 180 days and the other 47 states listed for up to 30 days, pe­ri­ods which are re­new­able a sin­gle time. Mazrouei said the coun­tries were se­lected on the ba­sis of se­cu­rity and eco­nomic con­sid­er­a­tions, or for the buy­ing power of their na­tion­als.

Qatar Air­ways chief Ak­bar Al-Baker said his car­rier, which this year plans to ex­tend its net­work to 62 new des­ti­na­tions, would be a pri­mary ben­e­fi­ciary. “This his­toric an­nounce­ment comes at time of his­toric sig­nif­i­cance while some coun­tries in the re­gion have de­cided to close their skies and their bor­ders, Qatar has in­stead opened its bor­ders,” he said. On Aug 3, Qatar cre­ated a new per­ma­nent res­i­dents sta­tus for cer­tain groups of for­eign­ers, in­clud­ing those who have worked for the

ben­e­fit of the emi­rate, a first for the Gulf. Un­der the new rules, chil­dren with a Qatari mother and a for­eign fa­ther can ben­e­fit from the new sta­tus, along with for­eign res­i­dents who have “given ser­vice to Qatar” or have “skills that can ben­e­fit the coun­try”. Those deemed el­i­gi­ble for the new sta­tus will be af­forded the same ac­cess as Qataris to free pub­lic ser­vices, such as health and ed­u­ca­tion. Qatar has a pop­u­la­tion of 2.4 mil­lion peo­ple, 90 per­cent of whom are for­eign­ers, in­clud­ing many from south Asia work­ing in con­struc­tion.

For Qataris af­fected by the di­plo­matic cri­sis rock­ing the Gulf, the re­al­ity of pol­i­tics is stark: fam­i­lies di­vided, as­sets frozen and dreams put on hold. Sara, a 29-year-old Qatari, had been poised to start her se­nior year in busi­ness school in Dubai when on June 5, a bloc of Arab states led by Saudi Ara­bia abruptly cut ties with her coun­try. “We were sud­denly told that we were no longer per­mit­ted to at­tend classes and had to go back to Doha,” she said.

Saudi Ara­bia, the United Arab Emi­rates, Egypt and Bahrain ac­cused the Gulf emi­rate of sup­port­ing Is­lamist ex­trem­ism and be­ing too close to Riyadh’s re­gional archri­val Iran. They or­dered all Qataris to leave their ter­ri­to­ries within two weeks, re­called their am­bas­sadors and cit­i­zens from the emi­rate and banned Qatari car­ri­ers from their ports and airspace. Qatar de­nied the al­le­ga­tions and de­nounced what it called a “block­ade” aimed at bring­ing the wealthy emi­rate to its knees.

Qatari au­thor­i­ties have com­mit­ted schools and uni­ver­si­ties to en­rolling repa­tri­ated stu­dents. But for Sara and many like her, the cri­sis was per­sonal. “When some­one pre­vents you from study­ing, it de­stroys your dreams,” she said. “One day, overnight, with no warn­ing - sud­denly you’re told ‘you have to stay home, no school for you’.” As the stand­off drags into its third month, the un­cer­tainty is caus­ing agony, par­tic­u­larly for fam­i­lies of mixed na­tion­al­ity. Sara, who did not want her sur­name re­vealed be­cause she feared the con­se­quences for her rel­a­tives else­where in the re­gion, has an Emi­rati mother and a Qatari fa­ther. That is noth­ing un­usual in a re­gion where cross-bor­der mar­riages are com­mon­place. The di­plo­matic spat has thrown such fam­i­lies into their own crises. “Half my fam­ily is in Dubai, in the UAE. I also have fam­ily in Bahrain,” Sara said, chok­ing back tears.

When her grand­mother fell ill in Dubai, her mother was re­luc­tant to travel to the UAE for fear she would not be al­lowed to re­turn to her chil­dren in Qatar. States in the Saudi-led bloc have de­manded that their cit­i­zens leave Qatar, but many have hes­i­tated to do so - es­pe­cially those with fam­i­lies in the tiny gas-rich emi­rate. Some say they fear pun­ish­ment by their own gov­ern­ments.

One Saudi mother, who has been based in Qatar for years and asked to re­main anony­mous, said she was ter­ri­fied. She and her two adult daugh­ters are caught be­tween fear of their own gov­ern­ment and un­cer­tainty about their fu­ture in Qatar. “We feel trapped,” she told AFP by phone. “We will have to re­new our visas in a year. It’s fright­en­ing we don’t know what will hap­pen.”

She said she does not want to go back to Saudi Ara­bia, but fears that if she does not she will be blocked from ac­cess­ing her late hus­band’s Saudi pen­sion, her only source of in­come. Her daugh­ters, who work in Qatar, also want to stay. One has started los­ing her hair be­cause of stress over the is­sue. All three de­clined to meet AFP jour­nal­ists in per­son for fear of the con­se­quences.

Other Qataris, in­ter­viewed at a cen­ter in Doha set up to sup­port those af­fected by the cri­sis, fear for their as­sets in other coun­tries. Nour, who de­clined to be named in full, owns apart­ments in Dubai but can no longer ac­cess them. Ah­mad and Ab­dul­lah own camels worth a for­tune, but they are in Saudi Ara­bia where they are tra­di­tion­ally sent to graze. Many Qataris are in a state of shock. Qatari civil ser­vant Ah­mad said po­lit­i­cal is­sues “should stay be­tween lead­ers, peo­ple should not be in­volved”. Ab­dul­lah Al-Marri, an­other gov­ern­ment worker, said he was sur­prised at the turn of events. “I didn’t think such things could hap­pen be­tween brothers,” he said. — AFP

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