Home to the planet’s third-largest oil reserves, Qatar is a wealthy country in the Arabian Peninsula with an exceptional standard of living and an extravagant lifestyle.
As one of the more Western-friendly nations in the Gulf, expats from across the world flock to Qatar in search of lucrative job opportunities, especially in the petrochemical and engineering sectors. Construction and tourism have also seen huge boosts ahead of the country’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
Although governed by Sharia law, foreigners should feel relaxed as social dynamics are some of the least restrictive in the Middle East, especially when it comes to expectations for women.
This guide will help expats adjust to their new life in Qatar and introduce everything from visas, weather, education and accommodation, to healthcare, the cost of living, social etiquette and business norms.
Qatar has a visa-waiver program for citizens of 80 countries, with regular visiting stays lasting from 30 to 180 days. Tourist visas last for a month and aren’t extendable. Those intending to live and work in Qatar will need a Work Residence Permit, the paperwork of which employers usually handle. These can be renewed annually.
This permit allows expats to access many public services, such as signing leases, loan applications and extending licenses. It also allows them to sponsor family members, who can register for Family Residence Visas, which last for one to five years.
Wives on Family Residences Visas may work in Qatar without a permit, as long as they have approval from their husband.
Most foreigners settling down in Qatar locate to the capital city of Doha and prefer to stay in expat-dominated compounds with terraced or detached houses. The increased security in these compounds, as well as shared values of other tenants, help residents ease into life in their adopted home.
Safely enclosed, these compounds have many amenities such as pools and gyms. Some upmarket ones even have restaurants, small shops and sport facilities. Other accommodation types include villas, perfect for raising families, or apartments in the bustling urban areas, ideal for the single professional.
Accommodation is mostly fully furnished and lease agreements normally last for one year, with an option to extend at the end of this period. However, contract lengths are usually negotiable. More often than not, rent doesn’t cover utilities. On a side note, expats should enquire about air conditioning as the sweltering heat can become unpleasant.
Expats usually enroll their children at one of the many international schools in Qatar, as state institutions, called independent schools, only take in Arabic-speaking students. These international schools are mostly found in Doha and are free to choose the curriculum of their home country, such as the American, British, French, German, and Indian curriculum. Also available is the International Baccalaureate.
While public education is free, tuition at international schools is generally very high. There can also be long waiting lists so parents should plan well in advance.
Weather in Qatar is characterized by extreme heat, so much so that it will come across as quite a shock for newcomers. Temperatures can soar to 122°F (50°C) during the summer months, while the winter is relatively mild.
Small and flat, Qatar’s desert climate is consistent throughout. Rainfall is scarce, regardless of season, and travellers should be wary of sunstroke and heat exhaustion, unfortunate side effects of the warmth and humidity.
Qatari culture is very conservative and adheres strictly to the Islamic faith. Expats should show respect and be considerate to these beliefs, not least because offensive behavior can lead to serious trouble with the law.
There’s a large focus on family in Qatari culture, and it’s welcome to enquire about those of friends and colleagues. Both men and women should dress modestly, but women are not forced to wear a hijab.
The official language is Arabic and the local dialect is Qatari Arabic. English is widely spoken as a second language and is often used in business relations, becoming more important due to the ever-growing expatriate community. It is also taught as a second language in schools. Other minor languages spoken include Urdu, Balochi, Malayalam, Pashto, Hindi, Telugu, Tagalog, Tamil, Sinhalese, Nepali and Bengali.
Naturally, the dominant cuisine in Qatar is Arabic, with seafood and dates making up a large portion of the diet, as well as lamb, rice and vegetables. But those who want a taste of home will be happy to know there’s a wide range of international restaurants.
Indian and Pakistani food is popular throughout Doha, while venturing into a souk, a traditional marketplace, will see expats experience authentic Qatari dishes. It’s forbidden to bring pork across the border because of Qatar’s identity as an Islamic country and it won’t be found in supermarkets and restaurants. It’s only available at the Qatar Distribution Company.
Respecting Qatari culture is vital, not least during the holy fasting month of Ramadan. During this time, it’s expected that people will not drink or eat in public, as it’s insensitive and rude. The feast of Eid al-Fitr marks the end of Ramadan. As mentioned, if eating with Qataris, never eat or take food with the right hand.
It’s illegal to bring alcohol into Qatar. But it isn’t illegal to drink or buy in the country, even though consumption and sale is heavily monitored. Expats will need a permit to purchase alcohol from the sole retail distributor, Qatar Distribution Company, or else drink in licensed hotels and restaurants. Muslims are prohibited from acquiring this license, and it isn’t courteous to offer them a drink or offer to buy them one.
As an Islamic state, most public holidays in Qatar are faith-based and occur according to the lunar calendar. Ramadan is an observation of the fast during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. At its conclusion, Muslims enjoy Eid al-Fitr, with families gathering for feasts and celebrations. National Day honors Sheikh Jassem bin Mohamed bin Thani, considered the founder of Qatar, while Eid al-Adha is another feast which occurs 70 days after Eid al-Fitr.
Sport Day – February
Eid al-Fitr – June
Eid al-Adha – August or September
National Day – 18 December
Communicating in Qatar isn’t difficult, with its telecommunications sector being widely developed. Internet access remains efficient so it’s easy for expats to keep in touch with friends and loved ones. Acquiring a mobile phone or landline is also quick and painless.
Mobile phones are affordable and the main providers are Ooredoo and Vodafone. Both offer prepaid packages and contracts. To acquire a contract, expats will need a letter from their sponsor, while buying a prepaid SIM card requires a residence permit. Ooredoo is also the main installer of landlines, offering additional services such as internet, broadband and TV packages.
Internet connectivity has grown rapidly since the early 2000s, from 3.8% in 2001 to 97.4% in 2016. Much of internet access is censored, however, with violators of a cybercrime law signed in 2014 subject to fines and prison sentences. The main internet service providers are Vodafone Qatar and the state-owned Ooredoo.
Q-Post is the main postal company in Qatar, providing domestic and international delivery services, express mail service, health card renewals, driving license renewals and storage facilities. Deliveries are made to both home addresses and post office boxes, which up until recently was the only place to collect post.
Post offices are usually open from 7am until 8pm, Monday to Thursday, but this can change depending on the branch. They are also open on Saturdays. Plans are in place for a home delivery service while Connected is Q-Post’s ecommerce service, which offers international shipping options. A great help for those who love to shop online.
Expats wanting to work in Qatar need to have a Work Residence Permit, normally organized by their employer. Due to the upcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup, and developments and preparations for the event, there is a need for workers in construction, engineering and real estate, and expats with experience in these areas are likely to find work. Salary packages are normally very good, but at the expense of long working hours. The petrochemical industry remains Qatar’s biggest drawcard for expat workers, as does a growing tourism industry.
There is a large expat community in Qatar because of the habit of hiring foreign employees. This is despite the fact that the government is attempting to solve local unemployment through various programs and reforms. For example, the government is committing to a five-year plan, targeting online employment and training portals to increase local job percentage in the private sector to 15%.
There is no income tax in Qatar, but expats should research whether they are liable to pay tax in their home country. However, expats will pay income tax if they operate a business within Qatar.
Only the extremely wealthy retire to Qatar, owing to its high costs of living. Expats aren’t eligible for state pension and must renew their work permit every year.
It’s wise to research business culture in Qatar, particularly if coming from a Western country. While there’s a large expat population, most senior figures are native Qataris. English is widely spoken, but it’s respectable to learn at least a few phrases of Arabic. All documents given should either be in Arabic or have an Arabic translation.
Business structures are hierarchical, with those at the top having all power in decision making. Expats should be prepared for a slower pace of business, a result of negotiations and information being passed up and down through different levels.
There’s also a great emphasis on trust, with Qatari businesspeople keen on getting to know their associates. This means lots of informal chats, enquiries after the well-being of family and a preference for not immediately going into business discussions.
Shaking hands is the usual form of greeting. One should always shake the hand of the most senior figures in the room first, with a nod the most common address towards women. If unsure, always wait to see what the woman does first. Don’t forget the personal titles such as Haj or Sheikh, as these are important. The dress code is modest, so men and women should make sure they are decently covered.
Gift giving, especially during initial business meetings, is commonplace. As Qatar is an Islamic country, one should be mindful not to present alcohol, pork or anything made from pig skin. Traditional perfume is an appreciated alternative.
Getting around in Qatar can be quite manic at times, with the government constantly developing its transport infrastructure in preparation for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Regulations are strictly enforced, such as everyone in the vehicle having to wear a seatbelt, maintaining a large amount of speed traps and sticking to speed limits, which range from 60 to 100km/h on city streets.
Driving still remains risky and aggressive, and accidents are common. Because it’s such a fast-growing country, bilingual road signs can be confusing as new roads and areas are constantly being built up.
Doha’s bus system is cheap if one has a redeemable smart card, purchasable at the main station in Old Ghanim or at several grocery shops. While taxis are expensive, they are more direct, as many of the bus routes have changeover stops and subsequently take longer. Expats normally use their own cars or hire a driver.
Those who wish to convert their driving license for use in Qatar will need a residence permit and complete a driving test, dependent on their home country. Ride-hailing apps like Uber and Careem are also popular.
The official currency is the Qatari riyal (QAR), which is divided into 100 dirhams.
Money is available in the following denominations:
Most banks operate both in English and Arabic, so expats don’t have to fear a language barrier. Local banks include Ahli Bank, the Commercial Bank of Qatar, Doha Bank, Qatar International Islamic Bank, Qatar Islamic Bank, International Bank of Qatar and the Qatar National Bank. The presence of large international banks, like Standard Chartered and HSBC, proves especially convenient for those with accounts already open in their home countries.
Operating hours normally run from Sunday to Thursday, with doors opening from 7.30am until 1pm. Some might open in the afternoon or on Sunday mornings.
Opening an account is easy, provided expats have the correct documentation. They will require a letter from their bank confirming their employer may make payments into the account.
According to Mercer, the capital Doha comes in at a respectable 81st out of 209 countries in its 2017 Cost of Living survey, making it more affordable than nearby Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
As can be expected, accommodation will be the biggest burden on the wallet, with rental prices increasing as one gets closer to the city center. A housing allowance by employers is a welcome and common addition to a contract. An unusual thing to factor in will be the increased usage of air conditioning during the very hot weather.
Because many expats send their children to private international schools, tuition fees would be another issue to be aware of. These institutions, while offering great standards of education, can be extremely expensive.
Groceries also might put a dent in the bank account, as Qatar imports an incredible 90% of its food. 
In terms of public healthcare, expats will receive subsidized rates as long as they have acquired a health card. But most foreigners opt for the private healthcare, to make use of the best private hospitals, professionals and experts.
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