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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Under boycott pressure, Qatar announces visa-free entry for 80 countries

The visa waiver comes as Qatar enters its third month of isolation over accusations that it supports terror groups

Passengers arrive at Hamad International Airport in Doha on June 12, 2017. Malak Harb / AP
Passengers arrive at Hamad International Airport in Doha on June 12, 2017. Malak Harb / AP

Qatar announced on Wednesday visa-free entry for the citizens of 80 countries, in the latest move by Doha to counter economic isolation measures against it by three of its GCC neighbours and Egypt.

More than two months into the boycott, which deprived Qatar of its only land border crossing, key air routes and access to the Arabian Gulf's main ports, Doha has announced a series of measures to try and weather the pressure.

The trade and travel ties were cut by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt over what they say are its support for terrorist groups and attempts to undermine their regional policies and domestic affairs. The quartet also cut all diplomatic relations.

The visa waiver, which takes effect immediately, allows the citizens of 33 countries to stay in Qatar for 90 days within a 180-day time span, while the nationals of the remaining countries can now stay in Qatar for up to 30 days. Both 30-day and 90-day travellers are eligible for multiple entry to the country.

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Read more:

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Qatar crisis: What you need to know

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The move may be aimed at increasing tourism numbers in the shorter term to help offset economic losses incurred by the boycott by the four Arab countries and to make Doha more attractive to foreign workers and companies.

But the chief objective, analysts said, is to fire another shot in the battle over perceptions in Washington and other western capitals by the countries involved in the dispute.

"I think it is an effort on the part of the Qataris to appear as open to the international community, particularly to stakeholders outside of the region — including Washington, DC," said Allison Wood, Qatar analyst at the Control Risks consultancy in Dubai.

"There is some evidence that tourism, particularly hotels, have been impacted by the travel restrictions currently in place, and visa free travel may incentivise some tourists to spend time in Doha who otherwise would not. However, a lot of tourism to Doha was from other Gulf states or business travel, and this is unlikely to recover quickly."

The visa announcement comes less than a week after Qatar became the first GCC country to create a permanent resident status for expatriate workers who have “given service to Qatar” or possess “skills that can benefit the country” — another move widely read by analysts as a response to the travel and trade boycott.

Countries on Doha's visa waiver list include India, China, and Russia, with Lebanon the only Middle East nation, aside from GCC countries, which technically still have visa-free entry to Qatar. Qatari nationals are largely blocked from entering the three GCC countries isolating Doha.

A Qatari interior ministry official, Mohamed Rashed Al Mazrouei, said the countries now eligible for the visa waiver were chosen because of their nationals’ spending power, and that security considerations were also a factor.

The Doha News site reported that Qatari officials are considering “further enhancements” to visa policy.

"I think that there is a hope that this will give eligible expatriates more of a stake in the future of the country, and incentivise them to stay despite the current diplomatic crisis," Ms Wood said. "There is likely an intent to dissuade investors in Qatar from withdrawing their investments, and gives them some confidence that they can have some security in long-term investments."

But, she added: "It's worth noting, however, that the pool of people eligible for permanent residency is likely to be fairly limited, though we haven't seen the specific legislation yet."

The new residency rules also give permanent residency to children with Qatari mothers and foreign fathers, and allow non-citizen permanent residents to access subsidised public services like health care and education. These services had previously been reserved for Qataris only.