The tiny Gulf state of Qatar has risen to global prominence largely due to its vast resources of oil and gas. A small peninsula bordering only Saudi Arabia by land, it lies on the Persian Gulf. Although the country only officially gained independence from Britain in 1971, it has been effectively been ruled by the Al-Thani family since 1850, with the current Emir His Highness Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani taking office in 2013.
With a long cultural history, Qatar boasts relics from many of the great regional powers of the past including the Persian, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. Today it is a rapidly developing country with a transient population boosted by large numbers of migrant workers from all over the world. Governed by a combination of civil and Islamic law, the country is considered amongst the Middle East’s more liberal, with less restrictions on non-Muslim visitors and women’s rights than some of its neighbours.
Pastimes in Qatar depend largely on the weather, with the extreme summer heat generally putting a halt to most outdoor activities. When temperatures drop, Qataris enjoy their own traditional sports such as falconry, fishing, camel racing and horse racing, as well as embracing popular global sports like tennis and golf. The country is particularly passionate about football, and in 2022 it will become the first country in the Middle East to host the FIFA World Cup. Qatar also has its own brand of modern ‘sand sports’ including dune bashing and sandboarding, and a host of cultural sites and museums on offer, so visit the Qatar Tourism Authority website for more ideas.
Food and drink
Food culture in Qatar today is heavily influenced by its multinational population and there are a variety of restaurants serving international cuisine, with Indian and Turkish food amongst the most popular. Traditional Qatari cuisine shares some characteristic flavours with North African cooking, and often features seafood. In accordance with Muslim beliefs, meat is halal and until recently pork was banned, although it can now be bought for home consumption only. Coffee is very popular in Qatar, and fruit juices and smoothies are also widely available from street vendors. Alcohol is not completely banned, but is strictly regulated and can only be consumed in licenced bars and restaurants, or purchased at the Qatar Distribution Company by alcohol permit holders.
Arabic is the official language of Qatar, but English is taught in schools and widely spoken by business people and Qataris working in service industries. Signage and travel information is often displayed in both languages.
Qatari Arabic has some difference in both sound and dialect to the language spoken in other Gulf states, but it is considered mutually intelligible and most non-native speakers would struggle to detect the variations.
Qatar is known for its extremely hot summers. Temperatures can reach 50°C (122°F) in July and August and with humidity often high as well, air-conditioning is a must! In winter the temperature drops to around 15°C (59°F), but rainfall remains minimal – rarely reaching 20mm in a month. Qatar’s small size and flat terrain means that regional variation is minimal and the weather tends to be consistent for long periods of time.
Safety and security
Qatar is usually a very safe place to live and crime rates are very low. However, foreigners visiting the country are advised to take extra care when travelling at night and ensure they use licensed taxis to get home. Although foreign women are not obliged to wear the traditional Qatari abaya, they are strongly advised to dress modestly both out of respect for the beliefs of others and also to avoid any unwanted male attention.
It is also important to be aware of Qatari law. Although alcohol is available to expats, you must be 21 to drink and it is illegal to be drunk in public. Drug laws are extremely strict and if you require prescription drugs you are advised to carry a doctor’s note. Sexual relationships outside marriage are illegal and unmarried men and women are not allowed to live together in Qatar, regardless of their relationship. Homosexuality is also illegal in Qatar, while public displays of affection such as kissing or hugging can land even married couples in trouble with the police.
Qatar’s Supreme Education Council (SEC) has ambitious plans for its education system and is investing heavily in improving standards. The school system in Qatar is divided into three levels: elementary school (ages 6 to 12), preparatory school (ages 12 to 15) and secondary school (ages 15 to 18). Elementary school and preparatory school are compulsory. Students who continue to secondary school may choose between an academic course in preparation for university or a vocational course to prepare them for the labour market.
The academic year in Qatar generally runs from around September to June so that the long summer holiday falls in the hottest months of the year. Depending on their curriculum and teaching style, international schools may operate different term structures, so contact the school directly for details.
Established in 1973 as the College of Education, Qatar University is the oldest university in the country. However, higher education is now growing rapidly in Qatar, with overseas campuses of foreign universities swelling the numbers of institutions based in there. The Qatar Foundation has been instrumental in this growth, with many of these universities situated at its Education City location in Doha.
Universities in Qatar charge tuition fees, which vary depending on the institution and course. The Qatar Foundation is the main source of student loans and scholarship funding, although some students now choose to take out a private education loan.
Qatar University offers a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses within its 7 colleges. The various international universities offer a range of programs including degrees, diplomas and short course qualifications between them, however some specialise in a particular area of study or type of course. Detailed information is available through the universities’ websites.
As well as being committed to improving education standards, part of the Qatar Foundation’s vision is the development of world-class research facilities. The Foundation helps to support the Qatar National Research Fund, which administers several funding programmes and grants for academics and is a very useful resource for people seeking research opportunities in Qatar.
Elementary, preparatory and secondary education
The compulsory elementary and preparatory school years for children aged 6 to 15 are government-funded for Qataris through the independent school system. While some independent schools do admit foreign nationals, places are limited and the vast majority of expats choose to send their children to private schools. The private school system in Qatar is still regulated by the SEC, but schools are free to set their own curriculum and award international qualifications. Fees vary, but some employers offer an education allowance to help staff fund their children’s education.
Preschool and childcare options
Qatar values early education very highly. As a result, the SEC is considering plans to make educational preschool compulsory for children aged 3 to 6 to promote a culture of learning through play. Nurseries and kindergartens are usually private and fee-paying, but they remain popular with parents in Qatar. There are many different preschools to choose from, with costs varying depending on the facilities.
The standard of living is reputedly very high in Qatar, and with extremely low unemployment rates it’s believed that virtually none of the population lives below the poverty line. Doha is considered to be one of the richest and most modern cities in the world but the cost of living there is relatively modest compared to similar cities around the world. This is not necessarily because prices are low, but because the lack of taxation and generous utility subsidies mean that people have more disposable income and better purchasing power. Accommodation costs can be significantly higher in Doha compared to other cities in Qatar.
Foreign nationals have only recently been allowed to purchase property in Qatar, and there are still restrictions on where expats are allowed to buy. As a result, most foreigners continue to rent property instead, with rents estimated to account for around a third of expat expenditure. The most desirable properties tend to be on secure compounds which have shared communal facilities and public spaces. It is fairly common for companies to arrange accommodation for their international employees, but if you are renting privately you will find that Qatari law offers good regulation of the landlord-tenant relationship. Rents are capped, but you often have pay estate agent fees on top.
Deposits in Qatar are typically one month’s rent and are usually returned at the end of the lease providing that there has been no damage to the property. Some expats are alarmed to find that landlords ask for a whole year’s rent up front in the form of post-dated cheques, but this is a very common system in Qatar as banks will usually refuse to cash cheques before their date.
There are no property rates or taxes to pay in Qatar.
Electricity and water supply are provided by the state-run Qatar General Electricity and Water Corporation, better known as Kahramaa. Tariffs are subsidised so they appear very cheap compared to many countries, but remember that air-conditioning in summer months will soon increase your electricity bill. Telephone, internet and pay TV packages are provided by Ooredoo, which also offers mobile phone services in competition with Vodafone.
There is no fee for owning a TV in Qatar, and television programming is available in several languages. However, most expats pay extra to access more channels in their native language.
Healthcare and medical costs
Non-Qataris who hold residency status in the country are entitled to apply for a health card. The card costs QR100 (≈£16.35), but it allows you to access subsidised healthcare and prescriptions through state-run medical facilities, so it can be excellent value for money. The quality of care is generally very good but service can be slow, so some expats prefer to use private medical centres. This is a growing service area in Qatar and can be very expensive, but many employers offer private medical insurance as part of their benefits package.
Doha has a great selection of shopping malls and obtaining designer goods and branded products is not usually a problem. However, as almost everything is imported, the price of goods can be very expensive. This includes food and grocery shopping, with just a small choice of local produce available at lower prices. Alcohol is also very expensive.
There is no value-added tax charged in Qatar. The only tax levied on services is the 10% service tax and 5% government levy on restaurant and hotel bills, while goods imported for resale are subject to import tax.
Rent on 1-bedroom apartment in city centre – QR7,168.42 (≈£1,171.28) per month
Rent on 1-bedroom apartment outside city centre – QR5,124.81 (≈£837.36) per month
Price of apartment in city centre – QR21,967.38 (≈£3,589.34) per square metre
Price of apartment outside city centre – QR21,788.22 (≈£3,560.06) per square metre
Qatar has a good system of modern roads and well-maintained highways, and the extraordinarily cheap price of fuel makes driving a very attractive option. However, driving standards can be erratic, so drivers who are new to Qatar are advised to be cautious. In Qatar, you can learn to drive at the age of 18 and you drive on the right-hand side of the road. Unlike some countries in the Middle East, there are no restrictions on women driving. Qatar has a zero-tolerance policy in relation to drinking and driving, and if you are caught driving under the influence of alcohol you are likely to be arrested, fined and banned immediately. Driving without insurance is also illegal.
For short visits, foreign nationals may be allowed to drive on a valid licence issued in their home country or apply for a temporary Qatari licence for up to three months. People who hold an international driving permit can drive on it for up to six months, but if you intend staying for longer or taking up permanent residency you must apply for a Qatari driving licence and will usually have to take the country’s driving test.
If you want to take your car with you to Qatar, be aware that any motor vehicle that is over five years old cannot be imported to the country. Many expats choose to buy cars in Qatar, and the large transient workforce in the country means there can be some really good deals on used cars as people leaving the country sell theirs on. If you buy a new or used car, you will need to register your ownership and renew it on an annual basis.
Taxis and limousines
The state-owned public transport operator Mowasalat operates a fleet of distinctive turquoise-coloured taxis across Qatar under the brand name ‘Karwa’. These reasonably-priced metered taxis can be pre-booked, hailed in the street or found at taxi ranks in all the main towns, or for a more luxurious experience the same company also offers a limousine service. Tipping is considered optional in Qatar.
Mowasalat is also responsible for the bus network that was introduced in 2005. Providing public routes and school services, the air-conditioned buses are very modern and comfortable to travel in. Bus services now connect most towns and offer a cheap and convenient way of getting around, with the Faresaver card a popular option for regular travellers.
Qatar currently has no rail infrastructure. Early development work is in progress for the construction of a railway network, with the first phases scheduled for completion in 2019.
Although there is no underground railway in operation at the moment, the ambitious Doha Metro project aims to give Qatar’s capital a four-line underground metro system in time for the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Qatar has two international airports: Doha International Airport and the new Hamad International Airport. Hamad International opened in 2014 and most major airlines serving Qatar are in the process of transferring their services to this modern new hub. Good connections are available to Europe, Asia, Africa and Australasia, but Qatar’s small size and lack of domestic airfields mean there are no internal commercial flights within the country.
Other ways to get around
Water taxis offer an alternative way to travel in Qatar’s coastal areas and out to its island territories. Although not a primary form of transport, they are a novel way to miss the traffic in Doha and provide a different way to see The Pearl-Qatar artificial island. Mowasalat plans to expand its water taxi operation over the next few years.
The working week in Qatar is Sunday to Thursday, but the times worked vary. Office-based companies normally work from 8.30am to 5.30pm, but banks and schools often start and finish earlier, while shops have a break in the middle of the day. Under Qatari labour laws the maximum working time allowed each week without overtime pay is 48 hours and employees are entitled to at least one day off – usually Fridays or Saturdays. During the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, hours are reduced to 36 per week.
Full-time workers are legally entitled to paid annual leave after one year of continuous service. The minimum allowed is three weeks of leave, rising to four weeks after five years of service, although there are more restrictions on when you can take your holiday than in some countries. Paid sick leave and maternity leave are also defined within the law and may be granted depending on your length of service. Muslims are also entitled to take two weeks of unpaid pilgrimage leave once in their working life to observe the Hajj.
The main public holidays in Qatar are for the religious festivals of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, the dates of which depend on sightings of the moon. Other public holidays may also be granted on a local level, so it’s best to check with your employer.
Bank holiday dates
National Sports Day: 12th February
Eid al-Fitr: 5th June*
Eid al-Adha: 12th August*
National Day: 18th December
*Dates may change according to the lunar month
Visas and eligibility to work
With large numbers of foreign nationals working in Qatar, there is a comprehensive system of visas and work permits in place. For tourists and people on short business trips, visas are relatively easy to obtain with residents of certain countries able to take advantage of the visa on arrival scheme. However, to live and work in the country you will also need to apply for a residency permit with the support of a sponsor. Once you have a job offer, your employer will usually sponsor your application. If you want to move jobs your sponsor will need to give their consent, and they will also have control over your transit in and out of the country.
If you are relocating with family, they will need Family Residence Visas. Usually you may sponsor a family member’s visa application yourself, provided that you earn over QR7,000 (≈£1,150) per month. Be aware that to live with a partner in Qatar you must be married. Male children must be under the age of 25 to receive your sponsorship, while female children may be sponsored at any age as long as they are not married. Family Residence Visas do not give your family the right to work in Qatar – this would need to be granted separately.
Qatar famously charges very few taxes and there is no system of personal income tax on employees. Business activities are taxed in Qatar though, so if you are self-employed you may be required to pay tax. Depending on their nationality some expats may also be required to pay tax on income earned from their Qatari job in their home country.
Although there is a state-run pension scheme for Qatari citizens, there is currently no provision within it for foreign nationals. Some employers may make a company pension scheme accessible for expats, or you could take out a private pension or continue to contribute to a scheme in your home country.
Although Qatar does offer benefits to its citizens, there are not currently any social security benefits available to foreign nationals.
Qatari law prevents discrimination against people with disabilities and there is a quota system in place to ensure that disabled people have access to jobs. However, foreign nationals living in Qatar are not entitled to disability benefits.
Status and wealth are very important in Qatari culture, with senior managers commanding a high level of authority and respect. This is reflected in the typically hierarchical structure of Qatari-owned businesses, where decision making is usually top down. However, some international businesses operating in Qatar may operate a flatter organisational structure.
Management in Qatar can appear quite dictatorial because of the tendency to defer to senior people. Although they may be asked to contribute an opinion or idea, once a decision is made employees are given clear instructions and expected to follow them to the letter. The pace of decision making may sometimes be slower than in other countries, but efficiency is valued amongst the workforce.
Qataris can be quite formal, so you will probably be addressed by title before moving to a first name basis. Some visitors find the use of given names, ancestral names and family names confusing to begin with, so if in doubt ask what the person prefers to be known as. With high-profile contacts, it may be appropriate to use their Arabic titles such as ‘Sheikh’ or ‘Hajji’. If you are offered a business card, show your respect by looking at it carefully then either keeping hold of it or placing it on the table in front of you rather than putting it away.
Strong relationships are central to Qatari business culture, so take the time to get to know the people you meet. Don’t expect to talk business at the first meeting – initial contacts often feel more like a social occasion than a business event, but the purpose will be relationship development. Be open and friendly, and keep the conversation neutral – steer clear of religion and politics. Family is a good topic to discuss, but avoid asking about female family members as this is considered disrespectful.
While some business people in Qatar wear traditional Arab business dress, the high proportion of international businesses operating there means most wear western clothing. However, it is important for both men and women to dress conservatively in respect of Islamic custom. Women should select modest blouses and suits that cover their knees and elbows, and men should wear either a business suit or long-sleeved shirt and lightweight trousers.
Enthusiastic greetings are important to Qataris, so take the time to make a good impression. Greet the most senior person first, and always use your right hand to shake hands. Handshakes can last longer than usual as Qataris are generally quite tactile. Don’t be surprised to see men holding hands as this is common in the Middle East and does not carry the same connotations as elsewhere in the world. When greeting women, wait to see if you are offered a handshake rather than initiating physical contact yourself.
Qataris are quite relaxed on punctuality, so while it’s best to turn up on time for meetings, don’t necessarily expect the same from your contacts. It is not always necessary to book meetings in advance, but if you do and someone arrives late it should not be taken as a sign of disrespect or disinterest as it will not be intended as such. Note that many meetings take place in the evening in Qatar, so be flexible enough to accommodate this.
Meetings can appear quite chaotic, with no fixed agenda and numerous digressions. Don’t be surprised if you are interrupted by phone calls, requests for signatures or other points of urgent business. Often, meetings are lengthy, but if you remain patient they can be very productive. Avoid being pushy or aggressive when selling but expect to negotiate extensively. Be careful not to use the word ‘no’ or any other directly negative terms as a more indirect communication style is preferred in Qatar. Finally, make sure you can deliver on anything you promise as verbal agreements are taken very seriously.
Qatar is fairly liberal compared with other countries in the Middle East, but you should still be respectful of local culture and beliefs. Be aware of your body language as pointing with your finger and showing the soles of your shoes can both be considered rude. Although alcohol is available in hotel bars and restaurants, most Muslims do not drink so it may be best to stick to soft drinks when meeting your Qatari colleagues over dinner.
Arabic is the main language of Qatar but English is widely spoken as the international language of Qatar’s cosmopolitan business community. When doing business it is useful to have your documentation printed in both Arabic and English, and learning a few phrases of Arabic always gives a good impression even if your contacts speak impeccable English.