Qatar's Soccer Stars Are Guinea Pigs in an Experiment to Erode … – Foreign Policy

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Argument: Team Qatar Wanted Immigrant Players—Not Citizens Team Qatar Wanted Immigrant Players—Not Ci… | View Comments ()
Qatar spared nothing in its preparation for the 2022 World Cup. Multiple stadiums and sprawling fan facilities were built from scratch—as was the national team, which includes players from Iraq, Sudan, Algeria, and Portugal, among others. Before building the World Cup facilities, Qatar invested in the massive Aspire Academy, a state-of-the-art soccer school and sports district staffed with top instructors from around the world who scout thousands of promising young players starting at age 12 from dozens of countries every year. These foreigners play and train for years knowing that, if they get selected to play for Qatar’s national team, they stand to gain both glory on the field and a rare, coveted Qatari passport.
But Qatar has not simply spent money to import and train a soccer team: It has also redefined the very idea of citizenship. Like most states in the Persian Gulf, Qatar is a majority-foreigner country. There are only about 300,000 actual Qatari passport holders out of a population of nearly 3 million. Pathways to citizenship are notoriously exclusive, and only 50 new citizenships can be granted per year to those personally approved by the emir of Qatar himself. Yet 10 of the 26 players on Qatar’s national soccer team are naturalized citizens.
To comply with FIFA regulations, the entire team consists of Qatari citizens. But these naturalized soccer players are not quite immigrant-origin  national heroes, in the vein of Zinedine Zidane or Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Qatar spared nothing in its preparation for the 2022 World Cup. Multiple stadiums and sprawling fan facilities were built from scratch—as was the national team, which includes players from Iraq, Sudan, Algeria, and Portugal, among others. Before building the World Cup facilities, Qatar invested in the massive Aspire Academy, a state-of-the-art soccer school and sports district staffed with top instructors from around the world who scout thousands of promising young players starting at age 12 from dozens of countries every year. These foreigners play and train for years knowing that, if they get selected to play for Qatar’s national team, they stand to gain both glory on the field and a rare, coveted Qatari passport.
But Qatar has not simply spent money to import and train a soccer team: It has also redefined the very idea of citizenship. Like most states in the Persian Gulf, Qatar is a majority-foreigner country. There are only about 300,000 actual Qatari passport holders out of a population of nearly 3 million. Pathways to citizenship are notoriously exclusive, and only 50 new citizenships can be granted per year to those personally approved by the emir of Qatar himself. Yet 10 of the 26 players on Qatar’s national soccer team are naturalized citizens.
To comply with FIFA regulations, the entire team consists of Qatari citizens. But these naturalized soccer players are not quite immigrant-origin  national heroes, in the vein of Zinedine Zidane or Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
These immigrant players all carry “mission passports”—documents that confer citizenship for the purposes of sports competition but anthropologist John McManus reports in his book Inside Qatar: Hidden Stories from One of the Richest Nations on Earth that these passports give the holders none of the benefits Qatari citizens hold: no housing assistance, no interest-free loans, no cash assistance for newlyweds, no sinecure government jobs beyond the soccer stadium. Nor are they permanent. A recent report by the Middle East Research and Information Project states that this type of citizenship comes with a built-in expiration date, making these immigrant players’ citizenships temporary as well as second class.
The fact that Qatar has redefined the very nature of citizenship—without fanfare, controversy, and with the sole goal of appeasing FIFA nationality regulations—takes this story of temporary citizen soccer players beyond the realm of Gulf labor exploitation. The creation of an entirely new type of citizen, without the same rights as those who are fully naturalized, places Qatar at the vanguard of a slow-burning but alarming regional trend. The Middle East and North Africa are becoming a kind of citizenship frontier: a region where certainty, permanence, and protection of citizenship is being uniquely and dangerously corroded. And Western countries are enabling this dynamic.
There is very little information about Qatar’s mission passports. The topic is sensitive due to the exclusivity of Qatari citizenship and the scrutiny Qatar has faced from some international sports bodies for its heavy use of recently naturalized players. The Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs only mentions mission passports in a press release saying that they can be renewed online. Qatar understands it is under the microscope—FIFA has scrutinized Qatari naturalization policy closely after a minor scandal about the Qatari handball team.
Nobody has been able to determine the exact duration of the passports’ validity, either. Neither the Qatari government nor any of its athletes have been willing to openly discuss the specific duration of this status. Two researchers writing in the International Journal of Sport Policy and Politics determined that temporary citizens are allowed to retain their original nationalities (Qatar normally forbids dual citizenship), but they are never allowed to physically possess both their passports at the same time. Some temporary citizens only see the proof of their Qatari nationality when their coaches show their passports to immigration officials.
Some immigrant players who won the Asian Cup for Qatar complained that even a year after their championship, their promised passports were nowhere to be seen.
McManus reports from conversations with Qatari immigrant players that the mission passports are occasionally upgraded to full Qatari citizenship as a reward for good sports performance. However, some immigrant players who won the Asian Cup for Qatar complained that even a year after their championship, their promised passports were nowhere to be seen. This raises questions about what will happen to the players’ citizenship statuses now that the Qatari team has been knocked out of the World Cup.
It is tempting to see the Qatari mission passports as an outgrowth of the kafala system, the infamously exploitative labor-sponsorship system that has defined much of Gulf society and has been the subject of much of the criticism of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup.
But if one only focuses on this system, one can miss the forest for the trees. The creation of a new, opaquely defined but unambiguously lesser form of citizenship is not a symptom of exploitative labor conditions. It’s a symptom of a regional erosion of citizenship. The difference matters.
The 20th century has given the region its fair share of complicated, conditional citizenship statuses. The Ottoman royal family went into exile stateless, eventually being granted French passports that allowed travel but did not confer citizenship. Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain all emerged as states containing substantial populations of bedoon—stateless residents who were not recognized as citizens and were, in some cases, denied even birth certificates.
Most significant of all are the post-1948 populations of Palestinians in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, millions of people who were eventually issued identity documents by several governments, such as subvariants of Syrian passports (Syrian travel documents for Palestinian refugees), which looked like and served as passports but faced adamant political insistence from all sides—save Jordan, which eventually largely naturalized Palestinians—that this documentation was not, in fact, citizenship.
Yet as complicated as these citizenship issues were, they were not regionally unique in the 20th century. Tibetans in exile have been granted pseudo-passports—but not citizenship—by India. Residents of American Samoa are “U.S. nationals” not possessing the full rights of citizenship. The disintegration of Yugoslavia left thousands of Roma people stateless. Issues of statelessness and ambiguous citizenship are universal in any part of the world which experiences crisis and conflict.
Since the 2010s, the Middle East is emerging as a kind of experimental zone where the erosion of citizenship rights can be trialed.
What is unique to the Middle East region, and what Qatar’s temporary citizenship category is part of, is a more recent, subtle, and pernicious development. Since the 2010s, the Middle East is emerging as a kind of experimental zone where the erosion of citizenship rights can be trialed. While Qatari soccer players are temporary citizens naturalized with an expiration date—even if the details of when their passports expire is not public—Western countries are increasingly comfortable denaturalizing and revoking the citizenship of their own immigrant citizens of Middle Eastern origin when those citizens are accused of terrorist activity in the region.
The very real threats of transnational terrorism and domestic radicalization have emerged simultaneously with a far-right political moment in the United States and Western Europe when some right-populist movements are claiming that Middle Eastern and North African immigrants are somehow not really American, Dutch, or British. Western security intervention in the region has proceeded alongside increasing western entanglement with Gulf nations’ sovereign wealth funds and investment in new fields beyond old relationships based on oil and defense, like urban development and education.
Along with these contemporaneous processes come new loopholes and exemptions when it comes to state sovereignty. The West looks the other way as Gulf states chip away at citizenship norms for expediency, and local governments don’t protest too much when Western governments strand their denaturalized ex-citizens in the region. Especially after the emergence of the Islamic State, with its large contingent of Western, immigrant-origin fighters, the revocation of citizenship became an appealing alternative to long and complicated criminal prosecutions.
When I first worked as a consular officer in India, the conferment of U.S. citizenship was viewed as an almost sacred act. Procedure and regulation emphasized that each case needed to be almost triple-checked, because the decision was essentially permanent. The renunciation of that citizenship was only possible after a deliberately difficult and expensive process explicitly initiated by a U.S. citizen. As in most countries, there are some enumerated crimes—such as a criminal conviction of treason—which can result in loss of citizenship but these are subject to a very high evidentiary standard and occur as the result of a trial. That isn’t quite how it works for everyone everywhere anymore. European citizens who have traveled to the region to fight for the Islamic State have found themselves subject to a revocation process which is, sudden, one-sided, and arbitrary.
In 2018, I was at a working-level meeting of Western diplomats in Ankara, Turkey, called to discuss the difficulty of repatriating U.S. and European citizens stranded in Syria. When I complained about what a headache this process was, a French diplomat honestly asked me why we didn’t just strip them of their U.S. citizenship. My jaw dropped.
Citizenship has been the definitional core relationship between a government and its people ever since the Enlightenment. The French official who recommended denaturalizing inconvenient Americans in Syria must have studied the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” in high school, and he represented a government that holds this fundamental definition of citizenship as constitutional law.
Citizenship is legally and philosophically held to be as essential a marker of identity as parentage or a person’s name. It is not something that should be walked away from easily. And now it was being suggested by a peer over lunch that it would be more convenient to erase that bond out of expediency. He was right to point out that stripping those people of their citizenship would have solved all of my problems. If their actions could be held to make them somehow less American, they would cease to be my responsibility.
Western institutions in the Middle East have led the way in demonstrating that the definition of citizenship can be changed to solve an embarrassing problem.
Western institutions in the Middle East have led the way in demonstrating that the definition of citizenship can be changed to solve an embarrassing problem, be that one of your citizens swearing allegiance to the Islamic State or the fact that half your national soccer team is foreign. The only similarity between these examples is the place in which they happen: a part of the world where it is felt that these things can be gotten away with. Qatar is not playing games with the meaning of citizenship in a vacuum. To mix sports analogies, Qatar is taking a pass and running it forward.
The erasure of citizenship rights in these cases can be tolerated by international legal regimes because they are considered exceptional. It’s just for some athletes. It’s just for terrorists.
But it doesn’t stay that way: The model, once implemented, is attractive for other uses. No one knows what those might be. Right now, a handful of soccer players for the Qatari national team have been given a temporary, degraded form of citizenship, and this is something FIFA is fine with. But now that Qatar has been eliminated from the World Cup, it’s unclear what will happen to its players. Like them, no one can be sure of what the future holds in regard to Qatar’s limited citizenship.
No one knows if Qatar’s citizenship policy will find other uses: say, if criticism of the kafala system will be mitigated by extending this limited citizenship to some foreign workers. What’s clear is that other forms of temporary or conditional citizenship are all being implemented under similar obscurity. I can imagine a future in which other countries, even Western ones, see the use in the Qatari model and opt to extend limited and contingent citizenship to populations they accept only begrudgingly.
What the world is witnessing in Qatar is an example of conditional citizenship, a term coined by the American author Laila Lalami to describe people who, through a web of big and small prejudices and bureaucratic procedures, have “rights the state finds expendable.” Her work is a critique of the implicit prejudices that can devalue the meaning of citizenship. The treatment of citizenship in the contemporary Middle East is not in any way implicit. In a region that has made it clear that some matter more than others, this kind of conditional citizenship has emerged in an explicit, if embryonic, form. Everyone should be watching closely.
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