Course:GEOG352/2019/Urbanization and Migration in Doha, Qatar

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Doha, Qatar

Migration in the global South and East has played a significant role in shaping urban, social, and economic spaces in cities. In the Gulf, migrant workers from South Asia and Southeast Asia have occupied middle/working class industries, mostly in the private sector, such as construction, trade, and service. In comparison, the local population are mostly relegated to the public sector where they occupy positions of authority in government. This social and economic structure is not common in peripheral towns and villages, but rather in large cities and financial hubs that attract foreign investors and cheap labor, such as in Doha, Qatar.

Doha, the capital city, accommodates 80% of the local population with 90% of its workforce as migrants who make up 88% of the population, the largest group being Indians[1].The divide between these two groups of different ethnic, social, and economic background - as observed all across the Gulf - has presented challenges when forming public spaces and integrating these two economically interdependent groups. It has also presented the government with the challenge of preserving local identity as well as to accommodating the migrant population crucial to sustaining the economy. As the migrant population continues to grow in this region, nearly surpassing that of the local population, planning spaces that will ensure social harmony will become increasingly challenging. Nonetheless, the trends of urbanization present in Doha are almost identical to those found across the Gulf, highlighting the apparent impacts of globalization and the deep interconnectedness of Doha to its neighbors.


Migrant workers hold high populations in countries of the Gulf, such as Bahrain, Oman, and Saudi Arabia. Similarly in Qatar, migrants represent 94% of the working force[1]. The dependence on these workers throughout the Persian Gulf Region has played a significant role in developing the economy, structure and population of the joint countries. With these hired employees, the social space has been altered with different cultures and restructured urban areas. Since 1980s the country of Qatar specifically has increased their full population from 0.2 million people to 2.639 million in 2017[2]. 70% of Qatar's population are migrant workers with the majority of individuals working in industries of trades, such as construction and development, as well as craft work through recruitment held in their home countries. The overall trend in the region has shown migrant workers as the driving force in the economy of the Gulf Region and how current restructuring has affected the migration population and society. This has brought a vast segregation in ethnic backgrounds, which is shown especially through Qatar’s history in urbanization and structure[3]. With the country’s migration population surpassing the local population, Qatar is trying to balance itself on a thin rope, with one part of the local population advocating modernization and westernization of the country while the other is traditional in its aims to preserve the local culture and identity. It is worth noting that migrant workers in the Gulf follow the Kafala (sponsorship) system, which is designed to keep order throughout the region, as hired workers are not allowed to leave or enter the country, nor transfer employment without permission from the kafeel (sponsor).

Population of Qatari Vs. Internationals

Scope and Scale of Case Study

The theme we have chosen, which is the impact of migrant working populations on the social construction and urbanization of a city, is not limited to Doha, Qatar. The scale of such an issue extends beyond the city, or even the country, to encompass the entire globe. However, the specific social and economic construction of Doha is unique, in which migrant workers not only make up the mass majority of the working class, but also fill particular niches in the economy that the local population is either underskilled in or is unwilling to occupy. Since the focus of the theme is on social construction and urbanization, the scale attempts to focus in on the ways the former shapes the process of the latter, thereby examining the way neighbourhoods are separated and organized. In this way, we can understand the way society in Qatar is constructed as a result of the interaction between migrant workers and the local populations. As such, the scope of this issue focuses on two types of demographics in Doha primarily - and by virtue of similar development, the Gulf region at large - migrant workers as well as local populations, who either have the power to influence development plans, or are in higher economic positions. More importantly, the scope will focus on the ways in which each demographic group occupies public space and how as a result society and urbanization in Doha is constructed. The scope and scale further extends to examine the relationship between formal and informal economies within Doha, as administered by the demographics in question. By specifying clearly the scale and scope of this inquiry, a better and more nuanced understanding of the economic, social, and urban conditions underlying the Gulf region, and specifically Doha can be reached.

Case Study

Since the 1990s, Doha has been among the Gulf cities which envision establishing themselves as international hubs of trade, culture, investment and tourism[4]. To bring this vision to life, Qatar recognized it needed to diversify its economy. The General Secretariat of Development Planning in Qatar has identified international knowledge as an important asset for Doha to possess in order to compensate for any skill sets the local Qatari may be lacking as well as to support the rate of economic growth the country hoped to obtain[4]. Since the 1990s, Doha has been rapidly growing, both economically and in population. The UNICEF reports that in 2003, Doha’s metropolitan population was 700 000 and by 2015 had increased to 1.8 million people[4]. Currently in Doha, migrants workers comprise around 90% of the city’s population and play such a vital role in the city’s economy that the General Secretariat of Development Planning in Qatar has begun in recent years to court migrants by focusing on developing appealing urban living conditions[4].

History of urbanization in Doha

Historically, Doha’s social structures have been built on native communities living in welfare state structures while migrants supplied the manpower necessary to sustain the city. Native Qatari lived in modern suburban housing and migrants in Doha lived either in the city’s historical downtown center, or if of a higher income, occupied the transitional zones from urban periphery to core[4]. While the inner city areas have been identified as pedestrian friendly and the urban periphery as necessitating its residents to own a car, the mid-low income neighborhoods of downtown Doha consistently have frequent problems with residents being unable to access water, sewage, and electricity[4]. In comparison, the native Qatari and migrants with higher incomes are able to live in high security, car friendly, gated communities in which these problems are minimal or nonexistent[4].

Spaces as influenced by migration

Neighbourhoods in Doha have been historically shaped by ethnic enclaves. The rich Qatari natives inhabit gated communities, while the migrants from South-East Asia and the Indian Subcontinent who are frequently relegated to low income jobs, took the cheaper rent of the previously undesirable city core[5]. Recent interest in downtown areas for their heritage value and as well as their convenience of being a central location has resulted in low income groups being moved to labor camps in industrial areas along the city’s periphery[5]. The Qatari government has implemented several large scale construction projects in Doha in an attempt to increase tourism and further establish a unique Qatari identity. This has resulted in gentrification which leads to increases in rent which low income migrants cannot afford and thus they are forced by circumstances to the state sponsored labor camps[5]. The high income rents in areas which migrants once based their lives around means migrants are now excluded from the informal structures they had created over the years.

Indian Community in Qatar

This top-down restructuring has several implications for the migrants of Doha. Fragmented development in terms of both space and time of when and where the construction takes place, of large-scale projects will disrupt the current spatial cohesion and integration of migrants in Doha as well as prevent or at least severely hinder its redevelopment[5]. Given the demands of the Kafala system, this may make it more difficult for migrants without a specialized skill set to receive a sponsor and/or exacerbate already cramped, insufficient living space conditions. Spatial fragmentation may additionally undermine the ability of migrants to socialize with each other thus leaving individuals feeling isolated which may have negative consequences for their health. Another possible consequence of the new mass housing the city is constructing for migrants on the urban periphery is it won’t allow for informal adaptation of space thereby condemning migrants to even less reliable access to sewage, electricity, and water[5].

Lessons Learned

Graph describing migrant employment

Migrants workers currently comprise about 90% of the city’s employed sector yet they are over represented in the low income bracket. The native Qatari population, on the other hand, is overrepresented in middle- high class income brackets. Solutions to these issues are quite difficult to implement. Fainstein[6] explains that Urban space diversity is seen worldwide as a precondition to overcome boundaries and it is particularly challenging to establish in fast growing emerging cities[5]. The rapid globalisation of the Gulf region has recently led to various rising conflicts between preserving the local identity and enabling the accommodation of migrant communities according to their needs as well as cultural preferences[4]. Some of this issues stems with the lack of social space that would foster better relations between Qatari and non- Qatari. For example, one of the most consistent priorities of Qataris regarding their neighbors was the preference to live near others similar to themselves. Qataris operationalize this preference through their selection of lands, building family compounds, maintaining family neighbourhoods and restricting interaction with neighbours unlike themselves[3]. In order to help integrate local and non local populations, Qatar could look at implementing shared social spaces that are not invasive to either population. The issue of fragmented social spaces continues due to fact that “obtaining naturalization in Qatar is a constraining process for non-nationals: it requires 25 years of continuous presence in the country”[7]. This requirement reinforces the notion of us and them in Qatar. A maximum of 50 residents are granted permanent residence a year in Qatar. The Qatar government can look to make this process more accessible in order to help mitigate the inequalities migrants face in Qatar. Economically, migrants are overrepresented in low skilled jobs while they are underrepresented in high skilled jobs. In order to combat this, the Qatar government can work to create greater accessibility to education for migrants while creating migration policies that target both low skilled and skilled workers.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Snoj, J., 2017. Population of Qatar by nationality in 2017. Priya DSouza Communications. Available at: [Accessed April 11, 2019].
  2. Chalabi, M., 2013. Qatar's migrants: how have they changed the country? The Guardian. Available at: [Accessed April 01, 2019].
  3. 3.0 3.1 Nagy, S., 2006. Making Room for Migrants, Making Sense of Difference: Spatial and Ideological Expressions of Social Diversity in Urban Qatar. Urban Studies, 43(1), pp.119–137.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 Salama, A.M., Wiedmann, F. & Ibrahim, H.G., 2017. Migrant Knowledge Workers’ Perceptions of Housing Conditions in Gulf Cities. Journal of International Migration and Integration, 19(1), pp.15–33.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 Salama, A.M., Azzali, S. & Wiedmann, F., 2017. The everyday urban environment of migrant labourers in Gulf Cities: the case of the old centre of Doha, Qatar. City, Territory and Architecture, 4(1).
  6. Fainstein, S.S., 2005. Planning Theory and the City. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 25(2), pp.121–130.
  7. Babar, Z.R., 2014. The Cost of Belonging: Citizenship Construction in the State of Qatar. The Middle East Journal, 68(3), pp.403–420.

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This urbanization resource was created by Will Engle. It is shared under a CC-BY 4.0 International License.