Upon hearing of our move to Qatar, my daughter exclaimed, “Omigosh, that’s the Middle East.” If the thought of living in the region causes a similar, perhaps more expletive-filled reaction and sends shock waves through your body, take a deep breath and relax. Qatar is a very safe, livable place for expats who make up 75 % of Qatar’s total population of about 1.7 million. Called the “Middle East for Beginners,” here you can experience the richness and flavor of the Arab culture without sacrificing Western conveniences. Well, at least not too many.
Qatar may not be as well known as some of its Middle East neighbors because of its small geographic size and because it has remained immune from much of the region’s economic and political turmoil. Unlike its size, however, Qatar’s petrochemical reserves are vast and have brought the country great financial wealth.
Recently, the tiny, relatively young country has drawn positive world-wide attention, boasting an economy that is not in the tank, a willingness to spend its fortunes to improve the lives of its people and build educational and cultural institutions. Being named the 2022 World Cup 2022 host has not hurt its recognition factor either.
The great majority of Qatar’s population (and an even higher percentage of its activity) resides in and immediately around Doha where bedouin tents and camels have been replaced by construction cranes, architecturally unique skyscrapers, shopping malls, fast food restaurants and some very high priced automobiles. Usually understandable English is spoken just about everywhere.
Just drive 45 minutes out of Doha and into the desert if you want to see a more primitive Qatar. On the way, you’ll undoubtedly have to stop for a pack of camels crossing the highway. In the desert, it is not unusual out in the dunes to see wild camels that you can actually approach (slowly) and pet or to have a bedouin ride up and offer the opportunity to sit up on his camel (for some fantastic photos to send back home.)
Although Qatar is quite westernized for a Middle Eastern country, expect some initial culture shock and regular frustrations that will cause you to shake your head to the point of whiplash. Know that none of the aggravations or inconveniences is insurmountable with more than a little patience and a glass or two of wine (which you can get, but more on that later).
Often, the daily routine in Qatar can seem very similar to life in any European or American city. Once you are assimilated, you will soon become immune to drab, tan landscape and piles of rubble that decorate the roadsides; figure out how to get things shipped to you since there is no home mail delivery; no longer notice or be awakened by the five calls to prayer broadcast over the numerous mosques’ loud speakers; and automatically begin to factor in extra time for routine, daily errands.
You should get to know this phrase because you will hear it quite a bit. Technically, it means “God willing” or only by God’s grace will something happen. For example, “I will see you tomorrow, inshallah,” implying that only God knows if the speaker will be alive another day. More often than not, however, “inshallah” is used as a built in excuse for someone who has absolutely no intention of doing what you are asking them to do, then claiming it is out of their hands and up to a higher power.
A typical conversation may go something like this: Expat: “When will my mattresses be delivered?” Translation: I have been waiting patiently for my mattresses which were supposed to be delivered three weeks ago. Salesperson: “They will be delivered tomorrow, Inshallah.” Translation: I have no idea when your mattresses will be delivered, but I do not want to disappoint you so I will tell you what you want to hear.
Modernised and progressive in many ways, Qatar is still a very traditional Muslim country. Locals are friendly and helpful, but they do expect expats to respect cultural and religious norms and dress and act conservatively out in public. When at your home or another private residence, feel free to go as naked and act as boorishly as you please!
The Islamic culture and calendar dictate daily life. Pork products are prohibited, and alcohol consumption has strict restrictions. The work/school week runs from Sunday through Thursday which is one of the hardest adjustments to make. Do not be surprised if the children get a few tardies on their records because you forgot to take them to school on a Sunday until midmorning. On Friday, the Islamic holy day, most stores and businesses will be closed until late afternoon or evening. The Christian churches in Doha also hold their services on Friday.
Typical to the gulf region, most local Qatari men wear the traditional white thobes (though you will see some dark colored ones in the winter) and headdress of white or red/white checked head cloth (ghutrah or shemagh) and igal (black rope). Most Qatari women wear black abayas which can be plain or decorated quite elaborately with swarovsky crystals, beads or embroidery, and they cover their heads with a hijab (scarf) or full or partial veil covering their face.
Western women do not have to “burqa up” or cover their heads and faces, but exposed shoulders, knees or cleavage are discouraged. You will still see the occasional spaghetti strap, bare midriff, short shorts or mini-skirt (and just like at home it’s usually on women who shouldn’t be wearing those items in the first place let alone in a Muslim country.) Most expat women abide by the rules to avoid the rumored “culture police crackdowns” that result in those not dressed appropriately being asked to leave stores or clubs, fined, or even arrested. As someone whose upper arms look much better covered and the mother of a teenage girl, I personally appreciate the dress restrictions and forced modesty.
Calendar and Holy Times
The Islamic holy month of Ramadan brings additional restrictions and limitations and requires an increased cultural awareness. The dates of Ramadan change annually, usually moving 11 days earlier than the previous year, but the actual dates are dictated by and not officially declared until a certain point in the lunar cycle. Daily routine will be affected, but Ramadan also offers opportunities to experience the literal and figurative cultural flavor of the region. During this time, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. Out of respect, most non-Muslims refrain from eating and drinking in public during these hours also. (So, best not to even bring that water bottle or cup of coffee or tea in your car.)
Avoiding public consumption is fairly easy since many restaurants remain closed during the day. Offices, stores and other businesses often have reduced day time hours, to allow fasting employees to rest, then reopen late into the evening. Remember to check business hours before heading out, but even if you do, do not be surprised if they have changed by the time you get there. NB you will need to call because many businesses do not have websites.
In Doha, at sunset, a cannon is fired off downtown, and people head out into the streets to go eat or to do their errands. Restaurants generally offer Iftar (large meal usually eaten after sunset) or Suhoor (large, meal eaten very late at night/early morning before dawn before fast begins) buffets rather than a la carte menus, and some of the big hotels will also have festive meals complete with entertainment like music, whirling dirvishes and henna artists. Definitely worth experiencing one, but ask for recommendations because they can be pricey.
Arrive in Doha between April and October and the first thing you will notice as soon as you step off the plane is the heat. Unless you have previously lived in the Middle East (or an oven), not much can prepare you for Qatar’s sweltering temperatures. Thermometers can rise into 50s Celsius in summer months making most outdoor activities unthinkable. Some days, even emerging outside from the comfort of an air-conditioned building or car is like having a wave of energy-sapping heat and humidity crash down on you. Your glasses will fog and your clothes will stick to you as you feel yourself literally melting.
Most expat mums and children take the first plane out of town as soon as the school term ends to avoid being there in the height of the heat. Late fall and winter months are actually pleasant, but the “cooler” temperatures can bring more flies and frequent sandstorms. No matter what you do, dust will infiltrate your home, and your contact lenses feel as cruchy as corn flakes by day’s end.
Traffic, Driving and Drivers
Just as unbearable as the summer temperatures, Doha traffic can be described as insane, life threatening, exasperating, and humorous (but only once you arrive safely at your destination). Lanes and traffic patterns seem arbitrary, as you witness drivers squeezing four cars in a two lane wide road, hopping curbs and barreling down the shoulders and slip roads.
Survival behind the wheel requires anticipating the other drivers doing the craziest or most ridiculous thing possible and being ready to quickly swerve or break appropriately. You also have to remember to pay attention to those other cars while you stare at a truckload of camels or goats flying by you at breakneck speed or gasp in horror at the completely crumpled car on the roadside marking yet another victim to the Doha streets.
Traffic violations are common, and fines can be rather hefty. Most expats bookmark the Ministry of the Interior traffic department website link and regularly check their tag numbers to see if any fines have been levied against them since many violations are caught by roadside cameras and radar. Since violations and fines are assigned to the car rather than the driver, before buying a used car make sure to check out the tag on the website to see if there are any outstanding fines, because they will transfer along with ownership of the car.
Getting around town takes persistence and some luck to manage the numerous accidents, roundabouts, multiple rush hours, enormous speed bumps, and randomly appearing sections of unpaved roads. Always try to allow extra time because a trip that takes 10 minutes one day may take 45 minutes the next time you make it. The navigationally challenged may have a hard time getting a sense of direction in Doha because few roads run strictly north/south or east/west. As ubiquitous construction crews work to upgrade and improve Qatar’s roads and infrastructure, the well-intentioned efforts can change traffic patterns daily rendering most GPS systems useless for in town driving.
Roadway signage is in Arabic and English, but the erection of signs is far from complete, and their placement often seems too late to help frustrated, lost drivers get into the appropriate exit lane. Many long-time residents do not bother to learn street names other than the main “ring” roads and a few other major thoroughfares, and give directions by notable landmarks or, more specifically, the nearest round about (arch, sports, treasure chest, etc.). One good thing about driving in Doha is that petrol in incredible cheap. So, it may take a while to get somewhere, but it doesn’t cost a fortune.
You can hire a permanent or as-needed driver to scurry you around town if you are too chicken to drive or do not want to deal with getting your Qatar driver’s license, a process inducing great anxiety and nightmares for Americans but is much easier for Brits and Aussies. For those times that you just cannot face the Doha traffic as a driver or passenger, many restaurants and stores deliver!
Whatever time of year you arrive in Qatar, the residency process will undoubtedly cause some aggravation even if your sponsoring employer has an expediter to guide you and your paperwork through the process. Along with a big dose of patience, bring many blue and white background passport and visa sized photos and copies of your passport to hand out to just about everyone you meet until you have your Qatar ID. (Get over any identity theft fears quickly.)
To obtain residency and the Qatar ID, you must undergo a medical exam, fingerprinting and a separate blood type test. The medical exam facility can be as orderly as a military parade one day and as frenetic as a cattle drive the next (and there is a good chance you will have to go back more than once since some machine will inevitably not be working.) After you proceed through the proper, gender-designated door, register and pay, you will have a chest x-ray and blood draw which is separate from the blood type test that can be done at one of the many medical centers throughout the city.
Helpful hints for the medical test: Pay by credit card; and women can keep an absolutely plain white t-shirt on during the x-ray if they do not want to change into the facility-issued robe which must be removed. Also, be aware that NO radiation safety protocols are followed, and you may have a certain “glow” afterwards from waiting in the actual x-ray room while four or five other women have their turn in front of the machine. Since the doctor and technicians do not wear safety bibs, do not expect to get one.
Going out – Eating and Drinking in Doha
You can find restaurants of every cuisine, in every price range and quality from less than mediocre to fabulous. Bypass the fast food places for the good, cheap shawarma places, but get recommendations rather than test your gastrointestinal fortitude yourself. If you want to know which nicer restaurants the locals frequent, look for parking lots crowded with white Land Cruisers and tables filled with thobed and abayed diners smoking shisha. Most hotels house moderate to expensive restaurants.
If the traffic, weather or life in Qatar drive you to drink or you would just like some wine with your meal, you will have to go to one of the hotels or the Diplomatic Club, Doha Golf Club and a few places out on the Pearl development. Not all hotels serve alcohol, though, so be sure to check before making dinner or hotel bookings for non-tea-totaling out of town visitors.
The hotels also house the only nightclubs and bars in town. Entry requires showing your Qatar id or passport and adherence to the dress code. If you do go out clubbing or have something to drink with dinner, remember that driving under the influence is a very serious, even deportable offense in Qatar. It is easy to get a ride home from the hotels, just know that the hotel cars are significantly more expensive than the turquoise Karwa taxis.
You can imbibe in the comfort of your home, but to do so you have to purchase your alcohol at Qatar’s one and only liquor store, Qatar Distribution Company or QDC, which actually has a decent selection of wine, beer, spirits and mixers. In order to buy from QDC, you must have a QDC card which can only be obtained once you have your id AND a letter of permission from the sponsoring employer. Monthly purchasing quotas are imposed based on a percentage of the sponsored employee’s annual income. NB No alcohol can be purchased or served in public during the Ramadan, but monthly allowances are doubled in the months preceding and following Ramadan.
There are a number of banks with very conveniently located branches and ATMs. Until residency is established, current accounts cannot be opened, and the accounts must be in the employed male spouse’s name. Once the account is opened, however, it is important to get the wife’s name added as soon as possible to ensure she has access to financial resources in the event something were to happen to the male spouse. Cheques are not commonly used except for rent and auto payments, and few are issued to the account holder.
I am Woman
Women in Qatar have innumerable rights and freedoms, but it is still a patriarchal society. The male spouse is the head of the household, and all official documents such as bank accounts, leases, auto registrations, utility accounts, etc. must be in the male’s name and, in addition, require documentation of permission from the sponsoring employer. Also, before running into your nearest bank branch office, look to see if there are gender segregated service areas. Some banks have one open room for male customers, and a closed room with veiled tellers for females. To the uninitiated female expat, this can be a bit of a shock.
Most expats live in villas, similar to a townhouse or attached home, in a gated compound with anywhere from 10 – 100 or more units. Compounds are like neighborhoods and some are much more desirable than others. Other options are “stand alone” villas which are not part of a compound (though they may actually be attached to one or more villas) and apartments.
Some companies house all of their employees in certain compounds which are not available to the public. For those who have to find their own accommodations, the market is much more favorable to expats since the ongoing construction boom created a wealth of new residential options. You no longer have to immediately get on every possible waiting list and take the first space that becomes available. For a fee, a leasing agent can show you residential options or you can go it alone. Drive around, and if you see a compound or apartment building that interests you, inquire with the guard if there are vacancies and if someone can show you the interior of a villa.
A few points to consider whether you are looking for a compound villa, stand-alone villa or an apartment:
1) When you do find the right place, you may be required to write out and give 12 (or however many months your lease is) post-dated checks when you sign your lease and/or a cash deposit.
2) “Furnished” means the space should have appliances and basic bedroom and sitting room furniture. “Semi-furnished” usually means it has air conditioning (an absolute must) and some or all appliances.
3) Finding furniture that is not massive, covered in velvet and gold scroll is a daunting task in Doha. If you want to furnish your version of Middle Eastern “Graceland” you will have no problem. However, if you prefer furniture with clean, simple lines you will have to look for it. When you see something you like, buy it.
4) Location, location, location. With Doha’s traffic even short distances can take a long time to cover so you may want to live near the place(s) you will be going most often. Also take note of what is immediately around you. For example, you may not want to have your bedroom windows right next to a mosque’s loud speaker so you are not woken up during the early morning calls to prayer.
5) Maintenance - If you do not want to handle repair issues (finding a handyman/serviceman and waiting hours or days and then paying for them), make sure you find accommodations that offer maintenance staff or, at least, a contact person. Some property management companies are known for their responsiveness and efficient maintenance, and they generally command higher rents and waiting lists for their properties. Some expats are willing to forgo a newer, more stylishly appointed villa for one in an older compound with a good maintenance reputation and record.
6) Amenities. Most compounds and apartments will have security, a pool and a gym. Some larger (and generally more expensive) properties also offer tennis and basketball courts, cafes, convenience stores, dry cleaners, theaters and common rooms you can rent for private gatherings.
Once you have found the household, it is relatively easy to find people to help you run it. Most expats have a housekeeper or nanny since it is so affordable and almost necessary to keep homes, especially floors, clean with all the dust. For nannies and live-in help it is best to go through an agency to handle all of the sponsorship and screening issues. If you just require once a week or intermittent cleaning, you can ask friends for names or just wait for the flood of offers from your neighbors’ housekeepers or compound staff who want to earn extra money on their days off.
A mobile phone is a must in Qatar. Once you choose one of the two service providers, Vodaphone or QTel, and purchase a SIM card, you can select a plan or just buy credits as needed. Both providers have kiosks and stores throughout the city. For internet service, QTel is the one and only provider. They are very responsive and helpful, but you may have to wait a while for your installation. Be sure to contact them as soon as you have lease in hand. Internet connections are notoriously slow, but there is talk of Qatar installing fiber optics which should speed things up in the future.
TV/Cable - Qtel is the only cable provider with various packages of Westerns and Arabic shows. Many expats sign up for one (or more) of the numerous satellite companies. Most villas have satellites dishes already installed, but it is up to the individual renter to establish service.
Daily home mail delivery does not exist, and many package delivery services (FedEx, UPS, etc.) will not deliver to residential compounds. A very few compounds (mostly company sponsored) will receive mail and deliver to the individual villas on a weekly basis, but, if not, your options are to get a box at QPost or have it sent to the spouse’s place of employment, particularly if it is urgent or irreplaceable. There are also private companies that offer a “receiving” service for packages ordered through the internet. Getting things here takes a while whatever service you use.
In general, Qatar is a very safe place (except on the roads). In addition to security at most compounds, there are numerous guards in every public place. The consequences of crime here are pretty severe, and they work well as a deterrent. Common sense should still prevail, but, generally, it is safe to walk around day or night. If you leave personal items in an unlocked car or villa, they should be there when you return.
There isn’t quite the same priority put on personal safety from injury, and you will witness cringe-inducing sights daily. Infant and child car seats are rare, and expect to see drivers holding babies in their laps (often while texting and/or smoking) as well as unrestrained children standing up in the front and back seats of cars or literally hanging out the car windows.
With Doha’s numerous shopping centers and malls, you will be able to fulfill all your shopping needs, but maybe not all your wants. Do not expect the selection or quality to match that of your home shops. Some things, like tasteful furniture, can be difficult to find (as mentioned above) and expensive once you do.
It is also best to bring school supplies with you, especially if you want to guarantee your little tots get certain cartoon characters adorning their lunch boxes and pencil pouches. A few stores will have a decent supply of basics for the fall “back-to-school” rush, but during the year, you may have to look hard for outdated, off brand school supplies that cost more than your rent.
For a real Doha shopping experience, head to “old” Doha where the streets are line with independent stores or souqs. Try to get an experienced Doha resident to take you there the first time, and it may even take subsequent trips to learn your way around. Popular with tourists and locals, Souq Waqif is maze of shops that carry anything and everything from touristy trinkets like Sheikh bobble heads and every type of camel souvenir imaginable, to spices, parakeets or hamsters, camping equipment, musical instruments and jewelry.
They also have restaurants and cafes, but definitely try the outdoor kebab place and Arabic bread bakery for a cheap but fantastic meal. Most vendors in Souq Waqif are open for a few hours in the morning, close for the afternoon and reopen about 4 pm. To get the full experience and flavor, go in the evening when the place is hopping.
Also worth a visit are the souqs behind Salwa and Wholesale Market roads. You can get some good deals on gardening items, baskets, ceramic pot and decorations. This is also where the produce and meat markets are located. The produce market is quite a site with the bright colored, beautiful fresh, fruits and vegetables filling up the open air stalls around the perimeter. Men with wheelbarrows will follow you around offering to carry out your purchases. Nearby, at the fish and meat markets you can pick your seafood, chicken or sheep watch it be prepared for you. This is not nearly as pretty or picture-worthy as the produce market and not for the feint of heart.
In the souqs, if you are comfortable bargaining, be firm but not insulting. Remember, the vendors have to make a living. To cut to the chase, just tell the vendor you live in Doha and will be back so you want his “best price.” It is easier to move on to the next vendor for the common touristy items, but that is not always possible for more unique items.
Many large stores and vendors will accept debit and credit cards, but American Express is not widely accepted. It is the safest bet to carry cash for the souqs and smaller markets.
For a more modern shopping trip, head to one of the many, large malls located throughout Doha. You will recognize stores like The Gap, Banana Republic, Zara, Top Shop, and Monsoon, however, do not expect the same volume or selection of items. Just like with furniture, if you see something you like, buy it but make sure you ask about the store’s return policy. Some places have return periods as short as a few days even with a receipt. Also, most stores will refund the price of the item in cash rather than crediting your account.
The bigger malls - Villagio, Landmark, CityCentre - also serve as major entertainment venues offering movie theaters (showing English language films, although sometimes edited versions,) ice rinks and amusement parks (complete with ferris wheels and roller coasters inside). Going to the mall is one of the popular evening and weekend activities year round but especially when temperatures are the highest. Beware that mall parking lots become as crazy as the streets on weekend nights.
Grocery shopping – Completing your grocery shopping list usually requires a few stops since no one store will carry all the items you want. Do not become too attached to any product because store inventory is consistently inconsistent, often changing week to week. It is not uncommon as you stroll through the aisles to see expats hoarding a store’s entire supply of a favored product in their carts since you never know when you might see that item again. On that subject, most shopping carts in Doha roll the exact opposite way of where you direct them.
The grocery stores favored and frequented by expats are Megamart, Giant Stores, Carrefour, LuLus and Spinney’s. You can find a number of imported products, but expect to pay a premium and do not expect the same level of product freshness. (The Halloween candy that you see in May will taste a bit stale, trust me). Do not be surprised to see birds flying and hopping around some stores. You will get used to it, but just make sure you spend a little extra time washing your produce.
Megamart has the most US/Western imported products for which you will pay a premium, go there for those items you have to have from home – but don’t get your basics like paper good or personal hygiene products there.
Giant in Hyatt Plaza is a big store but has a much smaller selection of Western products. Carrefour and LuLu’s are convenient “one stop shops” that sell everything from groceries to appliances, electronics, clothes, toys, housewares. and is located in the bigger malls. LuLu’s Hypermarket has both grocery and other items – treadmills and waffle irons – prices tend to be lower. Beware of the Lu Lu parking lots (especially at the D Ring Road store) on the weekends, they can get quite busy.
Expat Life- Finding Friends
Numerous opportunities exist for mixing and mingling among Qatar’s large expat community. Some of the bigger compounds have social gatherings for the residents, and some of the hotels sponsor theme (beach, reggae, disco) parties. Some of the best avenues for meeting other families are the school events and numerous youth sports activities and programs run by school and outside organizations including swimming, football, rugby, baseball/softball, ice hockey, scouts. While the children are at school, mums can attend a host of expat coffee and social groups. So many exist, one could coffee chat every day.
Things to do
For some culture, Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art, designed by architect I.M. Pei is a masterpiece both inside and out. The permanent exhibits are well designed and informative, and the museum regularly brings in some fantastic touring exhibits. New to the Doha culture scene, the Arab Museum of Modern Art, Mathaf, is also worth a visit, showcasing Arab artists rather than Arab style art. Katara Cultural Village was built to reflect the heritage of Qatar, and the location hosts various performances and exhibits. There are a number of restaurants and a public beach as well.
When the temperature and humidity start to drop, the entertainment options increase exponentially. In the autumn, the Doha Tribeca film festival brings some great independent movies and well-known celebrities to the area. The films are screened at various indoor and outdoor venues, and tickets sell quickly.
In the cooler months, many expats spend their weekends out in the desert camping at Zikreet or the Inland Sea. It’s also exhilarating to go dune bashing, but make sure you go with a hired driver or at least some experienced drivers and bring lots of water and a strong rope. The Qatar Natural History Group leads regular dune and camping outings all around Qatar.
Qatar is a great place to be a sports spectator to watch everything from seasonal camel races with robot jockeys to professional football matches, tennis and golf tournaments, equestrian events and motocross races. The country recently hosted the Asian Games and Asian Cup Football championship. Tickets to sporting events are free or relatively inexpensive and easy to get from kiosks in most malls and other locations around Doha.
Qatar has much to offer and is a nice, safe place to live, but when you want a change of scenery or weather, it is also an advantageous point of departure. Traveling within the region is easy, convenient and inexpensive. Just book one of the daily, short flights to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Jordan. Beyond the Middle East, destinations in Africa, Europe and Asia are also very manageable.
It is an exciting time to be in Qatar, a country with unlimited possibilities for business and culture. The quickly increasing world-wide stature is well deserved. Some expats may count down the days until their post in Qatar is over and never fully appreciate the culture. My family and I think Qatar is just beginning to reach its immense potential, and we hope to stay a while (Inshallah).