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Population of Qatar

Workers at the Doha fish market, Qatar. Photo Flickr ©Flickr




According to the Qatar Statistics Authority the population of Qatar numbers 1,696,000 (figure for July 2010). This means the population has increased remarkably in a few years time: according to the 2004 census, the population numbered  744,000. The current population is made up of about 20 percent native Qataris, while 80 percent are migrant workers. The majority of the migrant workers are male, most of them from India (20 percent), Nepal (13 percent, Philippines (10 percent), Pakistan (7 percent), Sri Lanka (5 percent) and furthermore Arabs (20 percent) from Egypt, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen. This large contingent of male migrant workers explains the imbalance in the gender composition of the overall population: 75.7 percent are men, 24.3 percent are women. Foreign workers make up about 90 percent of the total labour force.

Natives of the Arabian Peninsula, many Qataris descend from a number of migratory tribes that came to Qatar in the 18th century from neighbouring areas. Many native Qataris are descendants from the Arabian Peninsula, others are descended from Persian merchants. Most of Qatar’s inhabitants live in Doha, the capital.

The Qataris are mainly Sunni Muslims. Islam is the official religion, and Islamic jurisprudence is the basis of Qatar’s legal system, although civil courts have jurisdiction over commercial law. Arabic is the official language; English is also widely spoken.

Qatar population
Sources: Labour Force Sample Survey 2018″, Planning and Statistics Authority of Qatar, World Bank Data, and World Population Prospects 2019, UN DESA/Population division. ©Fanack ⁃ Fanack

Areas of Habitation

Nearly 96 percent of Qatar’s population lives in urban centres. Doha is the political and commercial capital. Its population has grown explosively in the last few years: 47.5 percent of Qatar’s total population live within the municipality of Doha, 26.2 percent in the municipality of al-Rayyan, and 11.7 percent in the third largest agglomeration, the municipality of al-Khor.

Only 4 percent of Qatar’s population lives in rural areas, mainly in the north-east.

Population Qatar - Areas of Habitation Populated
Areas of Habitation

Ethnic and Religious Groups

According to the Qatar Statistics Authority the population of Qatar numbers 1,696,000 (figure for July 2010). The current population is made up of about 20 percent native Qataris, whereas at least 80 percent are migrant workers (see Population).

Population Growth

The population growth can be attributed to the strong performance of the Qatari economy, resulting in a large number of new projects. Hence the vast influx of professionals and service and contracting sector staff. The age group 20-44 numbers 1.1 million people or 67 percent of the total population. The age group 25-29 saw an increase of 189 percent in the period between 2006-2009. In the same period, the age group 20-24 increased with 144 percent. The age group below 20 years numbers 280,000, or 16.9 percent of the total population.

The 2004 census distinguished between ‘nationals’ and ‘non-nationals’ in some specific areas. This allows for a fairly accurate estimate of the percentage of ‘nationals’ – residents with a Qatari passport – within the overall population. For example, from the statistics on the educational status of Qataris aged three years and up, the total number of nationals in 2004 can be fixed at about 185,000. This means that in 2004, just under 25 percent of the overall population enjoyed full Qatari citizen rights.

Nationality Laws

The Nationality Law of 1961 granted Qatari citizenship to anyone who was able to prove settlement in the country before 1930. In the following years, additional laws granted Qatari nationals some exclusive rights such as ownership of immovable property and commercial businesses. These last two measures were explicitly designed to guarantee native merchants a certain degree of prosperity. It was a successful attempt by the governing elite to neutralize resentment against the merchants’ earlier political marginalization, which had been a side-effect of the creation of an Al Thani-controlled centralized state bureaucracy, based on oil revenues. To this very day Qatari nationals retain the exclusive right to own immovable property (land or buildings) and are provided with free health care, electricity, water, and education. The Sunni nationals have a historically determined privileged access to jobs in the public sector, Shia nationals are predominantly working in the private business sector.

In 2005, a new nationality law came into being, allowing for non-citizen residents who have resided in the country for twenty-five consecutive years to apply for citizenship. However, a maximum of just fifty residents are granted citizenship annually, and there is no such thing as a ‘right’ to citizenship, even if a non-citizen was born and raised in Qatar. By 2008, only a very small number of applicants had been accepted.

Bedouins and Hadar

Many Qatari nationals – especially the older generations – pride themselves on their Arab Bedouin descent. Qatar’s tourist industry is trying to profit from this sentiment by promoting the country’s culture as being based upon an age-old, ‘genuinely Arab Bedouin tradition’. But in reality most of the indigenous tribes of Qatar were sedentary, and are more often than not of mixed ethnicity. Of the non-sedentary tribes who grazed their stock in Qatar, the majority was merely transient. They owed allegiance to the Saudis, whom they paid jizya (tribute). Individual clans of the great Bedouin tribes such as the Al Murra, Bani Hajir and the Manasir nevertheless succeeded in acquiring the Qatari nationality. Some of them even managed to secure a double nationality, enabling them to continue their seasonal migration between Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Of the more indigenous Bedouin tribes, al-Nuaim, numbering about two thousand in 1908, were by far the largest group. From about 1860 their dira or grazing area was located in the hinterland of al-Zubara. Part of the tribe was sedentary, but the majority was pastoral. In the summer a large group of the Nuaim would migrate by boat – with their camels, horses and sheep – to Bahrain. Others took up summer quarters near Doha. In the late 1950s there were only about a thousand Bedouins still living in tents in the whole of Qatar. In 1960, the government started a settlement programme, urging the remaining pastoral Nuaim to exchange their tents for the concrete houses of the newly built town of al-Ghuwayriya.

The majority of tribes in Qatar settled as town dwellers or hadar (people leading sedentary lives) in the 18th century. They generated income mainly from pearl diving, fishing, trade and sea transport. Their economy was therefore oriented more towards the sea than to the desert. In addition, they owned camels, sheep, and goats, which were herded by Bedouins of the interior in the winter months. Some of the hadar tribes also took to the desert themselves during the colder season. Their main objective was the grazing of their stock, but there may also have been a political motive. For example, Al Thani sheikhs used their desert camps to assert influence over the Bedouin tribes of Qatar.

Mixed Ethnicity

From the 18th century until the start of the oil era in 1949, most inhabitants of Qatar were Sunni Arabs who had at some point in history migrated there from Central Arabia, although often by way of a temporary settlement elsewhere. At the beginning of the 20th century there were also five hundred Baharina, mainly Shia Arabs (mostly from Bahrain) and two thousand Huwala (Sunni Arabs from Persia) living as boat builders or merchants in Doha and al-Wakra, as well as 450 Shia Persian artisans and merchants. By 1939, the number of Persians had increased to about five thousand, or almost 20 percent of Qatar’s population at that time.

The Sunni Arabs did not intermarry with these migrants, but they did have offspring from East African, Baluchi and Indian slave girls. When the British started to suppress maritime slave transports in the Gulf in the 19th century, young slave girls – between eight and fourteen years old – were brought to Qatar mainly over land by Qatari traders based in Oman and the present United Arab Emirates. As late as 1942, Sheikh Abdullah bin Jassim Al Thani sent Ibn Saud twenty Baluchi concubines as a personal gift. Because of this intermingling of Arab and foreign races through the system of concubinage or ‘second wives’, the Gulf region has recently been called a ‘considerable cultural melting pot’ by the Zanzibari historian Abdul Sharif.

Black slave girls and their offspring are but one African element in Qatar’s national population. Many of the pearl divers were black slaves or former slaves, who had been captured by Arab-African slave traders from the Omani colonies in East Africa. In 1908, the British estimated that two thousand ‘free negroes’ and four thousand black slaves ‘not living in their master’s house’, were living in Qatar. To this subtotal an unknown number of slaves living in their owners’ households must be added. With a population of only 27,000 in the early 1900s, the estimated portion of pure Africans in the native population must have reached at least 22 percent.

Black slaves were among the first workers in the oil industry. They were paid in cash by the oil company, but had to hand over 80 to 95 percent of their wages directly to their masters. Slavery in Qatar was only officially abolished in 1952. The former slaves seem to have blended into society relatively smoothly. These days former Qatari slaves and their offspring can typically be found in security and army jobs, and in the dance and music sector.


The Anglo-Persian Oil Company’s (APOC) 1935 oil concession required that the oil company give hiring preference to Qataris. But when production on a commercial scale began in 1949 (through APOC’s subsidiary Petroleum Development Qatar Ltd.) there were not enough Qatari labourers to work in the oil industry. A shortage in skilled labourers was especially felt, since schooling in Qatar was only accessible to small groups and of a traditional nature. In the mid-1950s there were only about 600 indigenous literates in Qatar. As a consequence, the oil company had to hire expatriates on a large scale. Two types of migrants – ‘professional’ and semi- or unskilled migrants – emerged, which was in effect a continuation of the pre-oil pattern of migration.

The former social position of the black male slaves and poor Arabs was now filled by non- or low-educated Pakistanis, Indians, Omanis, Yemenis and a small group of Saudis. They came to work not only for the oil company, but also in construction and agriculture. In the oil industry, this led to clashes between nationals and the new migrants in the early 1950s, with the first group demanding – and receiving – preferential treatment. Such tensions did not exist in construction and agriculture as most Qataris refused to work in these sectors. To this very day construction and agriculture in Qatar are almost exclusively the domain of foreign workers and managers.

When oil money started to flow freely after 1973, Asian migrants found work in new fields such as transport and other services. Migrants from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, the Philippines, China, and Indonesia joined the older migrant nationalities. The Nepalese currently form the second largest Qatari migrant group, with an estimated community of about 150,000 members, behind the Indians (roughly estimated at 200,000).

In 2008, Amnesty International reported: ‘Foreign migrant workers, who make up a large proportion of Qatar’s workforce, complained that they were exploited, including by non-payment of wages. They continued to have inadequate protection under the law. In May, hundreds of Nepalese workers staged protests to demand an increase in and monthly payment of their salaries and benefits. They were reportedly arrested and ill-treated before being deported to Nepal.’

The Human Rights Report 2008 of the US Department of State noted: ‘Although the labor law provides the Emir with authority to set a minimum wage, he did not do so. The average wage of non-citizen workers did not provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family. (…) Many such workers frequently worked seven days per week and more than 12 hours per day with few or no holidays, no overtime pay, and no effective means to redress grievances.’ And furthermore: ‘The rights of non-citizen workers continued to be severely restricted. Some employers mistreated foreign domestic servants, predominantly those from South Asia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Such mistreatment generally involved the nonpayment or late payment of wages and in some cases involved rape and physical abuse.’ Some foreign embassies provided temporary 48 hour shelter to nationals who had left their employers as a result of abuse or disputes before transferring the case to local government officials. According to their embassies, the majority of cases were resolved within 48 hours. Those not resolved within 48 hours were transferred to the Criminal Evidence and Investigation Department of the Ministry of the Interior for a maximum of seven days. Cases not resolved within seven days were transferred to the labour court, a special section of the first instance civil court.

A considerable portion of the new group of Asian migrants consists of women hoping to work as domestic servants, nannies or waitresses. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons these girls are often confronted with forced labour – including work on farms in Saudi Arabia – and sexual exploitation.

There is also a relatively substantial white-collar class of educated Egyptians, Palestinians, Jordanians, Lebanese, and Syrians. In accordance with the Labour Law, these skilled Arab migrants have to be hired in preference to other foreigners. They generally work as teachers, civil servants, doctors and engineers. The most influential and affluent – although by far the smallest – migrant group, however, originates from Europe, the United States and Australia. These well-paid and well-cared-for professionals are collectively known as ‘expats’. They live in the relative seclusion of western compounds or districts, and generally consider their sojourn in the Gulf as temporary. Only recently has their luxurious position been threatened by professionals and entrepreneurs from the new economic powerhouses of Asia: India and China.

Position of Migrant Workers

For its infrastructural development, Qatar, as other Gulf states, has depended on the influx of migrant construction workers from poorer Arab countries, South-East Asia and the Far East. Qatar’s treatment of these low-skilled labourers, who have flocked to the country in search of paid labour, has recently been in the international spotlight. More than half a million migrant construction labourers were working in Qatar in 2010, according to the 2010 census.

In June 2012, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report Building a better World Cup on working and living conditions of foreign labourers in Qatar. HRW warned that workers, attracted by new projects in Qatar, are in danger of maltreatment, abuse and violations of their rights. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) characterized the living and working conditions as ‘inhumane’ in its 2011 report Hidden Faces of the Gulf Miracle. These reports exclude higher level employees, often from the West, who live and work in very different conditions. The position of migrant construction workers in Qatar had already been under scrutiny in earlier reports by Amnesty International and the US Department of State (2008).

Problems often start with the recruitment process in the country of origin, where workers have to pay high fees to recruitment companies. This forces them to enter into loan agreements at high interest rates, even before they get the chance to earn money. Many foreign labourers are promised high salaries, but face deception as soon as they arrive in Qatar. Many are trapped in jobs they never agreed upon or get paid much less than expected.

To be able to work and stay in Qatar, workers are dependent on their local sponsor, a Qatari citizen or institution, due to Qatar’s restrictive sponsorship kafala system. As the sponsor is legally and financially responsible for the employee, the employee cannot change jobs or leave the country without his sponsor’s consent. Part of a policy to strictly control (the influx of) migrant workers, this system effectively traps workers in their jobs, making them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation and restricting freedom of movement. As employees are often not in the possession of their own passports, this amounts to forced labour, HRW has argued.

In addition, underpayment, late-payment and even non-payment have been reported as workers’ main complaints. In a study by the Qatar Human Rights Committee, 33.9 percent of workers surveyed said they were not paid on a regular basis, although the Qatar Labour Law requires companies to pay workers on a monthly basis. Many workers did not receive their salaries for up to three months. Employers are also known to illegally deduct wages to pay for costs including visa fees, food and medical insurance. While the government announced wage increases for Qatari employees, foreign workers’ salaries have not kept pace with rising food prices. Most migrant construction workers live in labour camps on the outskirts of the city, kept far away from the glittering waterfront of Doha. While some companies offer their employees good facilities, many workers live in cramped, unsanitary accommodation in miserable conditions, lacking facilities like water and air conditioning. The palm-lined Corniche and luxury shopping malls are off-limits to migrant workers, where they are denied access on their only day off.

In addition to inadequate housing facilities, workers often enjoy insufficient protection against safety hazards on the construction sites. Workers are exposed to dangers including extreme heat, equipment malfunctions and accidents on building sites. Data on workplace injuries or deaths are not publicly reported. ITUC recorded 162 deaths among workers from Nepal in Qatar in the first ten months of 2011, which were often left unexplained.

While the Qatari Labour Law of 2004 requires employers to set maximum working hours (Article 73), pay workers on time (Article 66), prohibits employers from charging recruitment fees to workers (Article 33) and requires them to report injuries and deaths (Articles 108, 115), accounts of HRW and ITUC demonstrate that the law is not adequately enforced, due to inadequate monitoring of companies and workers’ labour and living conditions.

HRW has warned that Qatar’s current system of labour inspection and systems of complaints reporting fail to provide effective protection against abuse and exploitation. Although the government has taken steps to increase workers’ awareness, effective reporting and enforcement mechanisms are absent. Employees who complain face the risk of immediate termination of employment. In addition, Qatar has no minimum wage and bans workers from forming labour unions. Membership of workers’ unions is confined to Qatari workers (Article 116, Qatar Labour Law).

Faced with international criticism, Qatar has announced steps to improve conditions of migrant labour, including tighter rules to control recruitment agencies, improving safety standards and better housing. In May 2012, the government announced moves to scrap the sponsorship system and replace it with contracts between worker and employer. However, the sponsorship system has not been annulled as of September 2012. The position of migrant construction workers in Qatar has started to raise attention since Qatar won its bid to host the FIFA World Cup Football Championship in 2022, for which huge infrastructural projects have been announced.

Islam in Qatar

Islam is the state religion of Qatar. Its ruling Thani family is known to follow the austere teachings of the Wahhabi sect, which is a puritanical offshoot of the Hanbali school of Sunni Islamic Law. Originally, the indigenous tribes of Qatar adhered to the Maliki school of Sunni Islamic Law. However, there were some exceptions, as a few inhabitants were considered adherents to the three other currents in Sunni Islamic Law: orthodox Hanbali, Hanafi or Shafii. The visiting tribes of Bani Hajir and Al Murra were all Hanbali, although in 1908 the British diplomat Lorimer asserted that the Murra clan ‘concern themselves little with religion’. According to Lorimer, Al Thani patriarch Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani was the first of the Maadid tribe to embrace the Hanbali – in effect Wahhabi – creed.

Contemporary publications on Qatar almost invariably claim that all of its non-Shia citizens are Wahhabi Muslims. However, such statements are not entirely reliable, as freedom of religion in Qatar is only relative. Moreover, as in most traditional and authoritarian societies, people tend to keep up appearances in public. It is clear however that most Qatari citizens – about 90 percent – call themselves Sunni Muslims; in addition a minority estimated at 10 percent is Shiite. The Shia have their own mosques, but refrain from ceremonies in public. Converting from Islam to another religion is considered apostasy and is a capital offence according to Qatari law. However, no case of apostasy has been recorded since Qatar’s independence in 1971.

Population Qatar - Building Minaret Grand Mosque
The building of the minaret of the Grand Mosque
Population Qatar - Grand Mosque Doha
The Grand Mosque in Doha

Christians and Other Religious Groups

According to the census there were 63,212 Christians living in Qatar in 2004, or 8.5 percent of the total population. But local media presently give a total of 150,000 Christians living in Qatar, and the Vatican estimates that some 100,000 Catholics work in the country. These are mostly migrants from the Philippines or other South and East Asian countries. In 2001, the government gave legal status to the local Catholic, Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Coptic, and some Indian Christian churches. Since 2001, they are allowed to build churches in the desert outside of Doha, on land designated for this purpose by the Emir. The local Hindu, Buddhist and Bahai communities have not sought official recognition. The 2004 census put the total of ‘other’ believers – neither Muslim nor Christian – at 104,426 or 14 percent of the population.

Socio-economic Composition

While the governing elite seems sincere in its wish to at least minimize the traditional inequality between male and female citizens, its record is dismal when it comes to addressing the far greater inequality between citizens and non-citizens. In 2008, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced that Qatar’s population had become the richest in the world. They enjoy an average income of USD 80,870 a year. However, this figure is somewhat misleading, as only a minority of about 15 percent of Qatari citizens owns most of the Emirate’s assets. Western expatriate professionals are invariably well-paid. But at least 80 percent of the population is made up of semi-skilled or unskilled migrant workers. As a rule they have no insurance and are severely underpaid.

Although the new Labour Law of 2005 stipulates that the Emir can establish a minimum wage by decree, he has not done so yet. There are no official estimates of what unskilled labourers, mostly working in construction or agriculture, earn. But Western observers claim that wages are no more than a few dollars for a working day of at least twelve hours – seven days a week – with little or no rest and no pay for overtime work. Sometimes even these extremely basic salaries are withheld for months by the employer. The salaries of so-called ‘domestic helpers’ (housemaids, cooks, drivers) are even more obscure. Some housemaids are said to work sixteen to twenty hours a day. The rights of these ‘domestic helpers’ are not formally acknowledged by the new Labour Law of 2005.

If a conflict arises between employer and employee, the non-citizen employee might seek shelter at his national embassy. After a refuge of 24 hours, some are sent to the perpetually overcrowded Deportation Detention Centre (DDC), where they have to await trial. National employers are rarely punished, but the foreign employee commonly faces extradition. The local embassies of India, Nepal and Sri Lanka increasingly receive complaints about mistreatment from workers. In 2007, the Sri Lankan embassy received between 50 to 60 complaints a day. Together, the three embassies received 15,000 complaints that year. This indicates that foreign workers in Qatar are becoming increasingly aware of their rights.

The law does not provide workers the right to remove themselves from hazardous working conditions. Workers who do so, or complain about conditions, are considered to have violated their contract and will consequently be deported at their own cost. As a result, no complaints about working conditions were filed in 2007.

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