April 30, 2020 | Policy Brief

COVID-19 in Qatar

April 30, 2020 | Policy Brief

COVID-19 in Qatar

As Qatar’s COVID-19 epidemic worsens, the country’s dismal human rights record has returned to the spotlight. Doha has locked down crowded labor camps that house expatriate workers, leaving them few options to protect their health amid an outbreak that is among the world’s worst on a per capita basis.

Situation Overview

As of April 30, Qatar has reported 13,409 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 10 fatalities. The number of cases doubled roughly every eight days during the month of April, so the country now has one of the highest per capita caseloads in the world, comparable to Spain and ahead of Italy. Qatar’s daily infection numbers are skyrocketing, with authorities reporting 518 new cases on April 21, 761 new cases on April 24, and 929 new cases on April 26. After announcing that it tested almost 86,000 people and “doubled” its efforts to track coronavirus transmission chains, the Ministry of Public Health predicts that Qatar’s epidemic has begun to peak and that the infection rate will soon begin to decline.

While Qatar’s initial cases came from Iran, authorities attribute most of the new cases to expatriate workers who came into contact with infected individuals. In mid-March, Qatar locked down an industrial area in Doha populated mostly by expatriate workers. The move effectively trapped hundreds of thousands of workers in cramped conditions, which can feature eight to 10 men in a single room. After extending the lockdown on April 1, Doha announced last week that the government would gradually lift its lockdown, but has yet to do so.

COVID-19 in the Greater Middle East

Country Cases Deaths
Turkey 120,204 3,174
Iran 94,640 6,028
Saudi Arabia 22,753 162
Pakistan 16,117 358
Israel 15,870 219
Qatar 13,409 10
UAE 12,481 105
Egypt 5,537 392
Morocco 4,359 168
Kuwait 4,024 26
Algeria 4,006 450
Bahrain 3,037 8
Oman 2,348 11
Afghanistan 2,171 64
Iraq 2,003 92
Tunisia 980 40
Lebanon 725 24
Somalia 601 28
Jordan 453 8
Sudan 375 28
W. Bank & Gaza 344 2
Libya 61 2
Syria 43 3
Yemen 6 2

Source: JHU Coronavirus Resource Center
Data current as of 1:30 PM, April 30, 2020.


Qatar’s lockdown of the Doha industrial area reflects a broader trend. Like other Gulf countries, Qatar relies heavily on foreign labor for the bulk of its workforce, particularly in sectors such as construction and domestic services. The country’s roughly 2 million expatriate workers comprise over 88 percent of the population and 95 percent of the labor force. And while Qatari citizens enjoy comfortable public sector jobs and an average annual income of $125,000, expatriate workers are subject to exploitative conditions, poor pay, inadequate worker protections, and even forced labor and human trafficking.

This pattern of mistreatment has carried over to the COVID-19 crisis. In mid-March, for example, Qatari authorities forcibly detained hundreds of Nepali workers under the pretext of testing for COVID-19, only to summarily deport them without allowing them to gather their belongings or collect their pay.

The latest lockdown threatens to trigger a crisis given workers’ squalid living conditions. Authorities have barred the workers from exiting or entering the camp and deployed police to enforce the perimeter. As one worker put it, “The situation is getting worse each day… [M]y friends who live there are in extreme panic.” Another expat stated, “[C]rowding is the problem, and washing hands is almost unrealistic.”

What to Watch for

If COVID-19 cases continue to increase in the country, the treatment of Qatar’s expatriate workers could worsen. Although the emirate has allocated more than $800 million to help companies pay their employees and has shortened the workday to quell the virus’ spread, many foreign workers’ rights are still an open question, particularly given Qatar’s extremely poor track record.

Varsha Koduvayur is a senior research analyst focusing on the Gulf at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where she also contributes to FDD’s Center on Economic and Financial Power (CEFP). For more analysis from Varsha and CEFP, please subscribe HERE. Follow Varsha on Twitter @varshakoduvayur. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CEFP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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