April 1st, 2010


Qatar ends visa-on-arrival system

Starting May 1, it's going to get a whole lot more difficult to visit Qatar.

Until now, tourists from "affluent countries" could just fly to Qatar and buy a tourist visa on the spot. Now, Qatar will only issue you a visa on arrival if YOUR country issues QATARIS visas on arrival. So, starting May 1 (happily, three days after my in-laws arrive), Westerners will have to send their passports in to the Qatari embassy in their home country before they can fly here.

This is part of Qatar's new "reciprocity" kick. A few months ago they switched to a reciprocity system for driver's licenses: American licenses can't be automatically converted to Qatari ones, because the US doesn't automatically convert Qatari licenses. However, having to retake a driving exam is a pretty minor inconvenience that only affects people moving her long-term. But requiring all tourists to get a visa in advance? That just seems like a good way to ensure that no Westerner will ever visit Qatar.

I actually entered Qatar on a tourist visa once. When I moved here, my visa and other permanent residency documents were all issued under an incorrect name. For three years nobody cared, but then one day, as I was flying home from Gabon, an immigration officer noticed. She invalidated my visa on the spot, and I had to buy a tourist visa and then go through the entire immigration process over again. It's alarming to think that if something like that happened after May 1, I would be stranded in the Doha airport.

I'll be interested to see if they actually implement this new law, and if so how long it stays in place. This seems so self-evidently counter to Qatar's own national interests, it's hard to believe they'll really follow through with it.

Then again, it is part of a definite trend: customs has started scrutinizing books being imported, I've heard a few stories in the last year of women being officially told off for wearing provocative clothes, etc. Are conservative forces starting to exert more influence on Qatari politics? Is a move to limit European/American tourism actually intentional? Or is this just a bit of political grandstanding with unintended side effects?

UPDATE: The Qatari government web portal has just been updated to show that citizens of the 33 "affluent" countries can now request tourist visas ONLINE before they travel, and have them approved/rejected on the spot. So, this is much, much less of an inconvenience than the Gulf Times article suggested.