Signing your life away. Qatar’s sponsorship system for western expats explained — aka ‘Kafala’.

Regardless of who you work for and how you find yourself in Qatar, you’ll be employed under the country’s much maligned ‘Kafala’ system.

In other words, you’ll have a local sponsor. And whether that sponsor is an individual or an organisation, they basically own your ass.

As has been pointed out by everyone from CNN to Amnesty International, an employee needs their sponsor’s permission to do anything and everything from leaving the county, to opening a bank account, renting a home, changing jobs, or buying alcohol.

While the Kafala system is usually associated with the third-world labourers that make up the bulk of Qatar’s workforce, the unspoken reality is it also applies to white-collar western professionals. So, basically, the people reading this book…

The only real difference is sponsors are much less likely to screw over a white person with a U.S. or British passport because a), it will end up in western papers and may scare off other potential employees and b), the governments from these countries are not entirely corrupt and will actually step in if a local business owner tries to enslave a bunch of nationals.

If you were a first-year university student you would probably refer to this as ‘white privilege’ while writing an overwrought essay about injustice. But regardless of your views on ‘sponsorship’ and its potential for abuse, it’s the reality for most foreigner workers in Qatar.

I say ‘most’, because there are a couple of ways around it. If you work for a large multi-national organisation with a satellite branch in Qatar, you can work out here under your original western contract. In this instance your company will be your ‘sponsor’. Alternatively, you can come out on a tourist visa and work illegally, making ‘visa runs’ to Dubai every few months.

Incidentally, the Kafala system isn’t unique to Qatar; similar systems exist in other Middle Eastern countries. Qatar has received a lot more attention because of the FIFA World Cup 2022 and the associated scrutiny. Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. all have some form of sponsorship in place, although it’s usually aimed at low-skill migrant workers, rather than white-collar expats.

You can find more tips on living and working in Qatar in my book — God Willing: How to survive expat life in Qatar.

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