Qatar's recruited athletes stir debate on citizenship

Thu Aug 25, 2016 7:10am EDT
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By Tom Finn

DOHA (Reuters) - When 39 athletes from Qatar qualified for the Rio Olympics, the most in the tiny Gulf state's history, Noor al-Shalaby celebrated the achievement in a Facebook post.

"Qatar! You are in my blood and my soul," wrote the 34-year-old accountant.

The small team delivered the country's first silver medal at the Rio Olympics.

And the Olympians - at least 23 of whom were born outside Qatar and brought in to help the country flourish athletically - are a source of pride for Egyptian-born Shalaby, who was raised in Qatar.

But their status is also a reminder of restrictive citizenship laws that have complicated Shalaby's life and made her future uncertain.

Qatar has for years used its immense oil and gas wealth to recruit sportspeople from around the world, part of an ambitious vault onto the world sporting stage by the wealthy Arab state which will host the soccer World Cup in 2022.

Kenyan runners and Bulgarian weightlifters granted citizenship to compete internationally for Qatar are compared by outsiders to 'mercenaries' sent to win medals for Doha and promote its standing abroad.

But the practice of handing passports to these athletes has stirred a debate about national identity inside Qatar where residents like Shalaby who have lived in the country for decades, and whose expertise may be needed in a post-oil economy, have no obvious path to citizenship.   Continued...

Saif Saaeed Shaheen, Qatar's 3,000 metres steeplechase world champion, speaks to the media in Kenya's capital Nairobi September 20, 2006. REUTERS/Antony Njuguna/File Photo