Qatar has long been a draw for westerners seeking a handsome tax-free salary and guaranteed sunshine, but the glamorous Gulf expat lifestyle may require certain trade-offs
The 2022 Fifa World Cup, due to kick off at the end of November, has put Qatar in the international spotlight. The controversy surrounding its bid to host the tournament and the treatment of foreign labourers building its stadiums has not been the PR triumph the emirate had hoped for. It serves to remind anyone interested in the opportunities this country has to offer that they need to manage their expectations.
What to know before you go
Qataris are a minority in their own country, comprising barely 15% of the 2.7 million people living here. Migrants from India, Nepal and the Philippines – many of whom work in construction, retail and domestic service – account for just over half of the population.
Well-paid job opportunities exist for professionals in a range of industries, especially oil and gas, finance, construction, hospitality and the media. Before accepting a position, be sure to read the contract carefully to ensure that it’s offering a comprehensive package. Housing allowance is important, for instance, because renting property here is expensive.
Although expats can use Qatar’s public health facilities for a fee, it is worth applying for a Hamad health card to reduce these costs. Taking out private health insurance is recommended. Some employers will include such cover in their benefits packages.
All foreigners seeking employment in Qatar require a work visa. Once you have your residence permit, you can bring your spouses and children over. Your employer will have to renew this permit annually.
Your professional qualifications must be notarised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Educational degrees need to be attested by the Qatari embassy in your home country. Letters from professional bodies and/or universities to confirm your qualifications may also be required. Learning some Arabic is useful, but not essential, as English is the essential language in most professional jobs.
Most people in Qatar live in Doha, the capital, but there are also opportunities in cities such as Al Khor, Al Rayyan and Dukhan. Al Rayyan, for instance, is fast becoming a technology hub.
Popular leisure activities in this small country (which covers an area roughly the size of Yorkshire) include watersports, off-roading in the sand dunes and exploring nature reserves.
“Several years ago, Lonely Planet described Qatar as one of the most boring places on Earth, but that’s not the case now – there are plenty of activities,” says Anil John, who spent 25 years as sports editor for the Gulf Times before leaving the job last year. “It’s a very compact place – within a few kilometres, you can access everything you want. With the World Cup coming, there have been many new developments, including malls. The traffic system is going to improve, with the metro connecting the major parts of the country.”
Between April and October, the weather is extremely hot, with temperatures often topping 40C in the height of summer. This obliges most people to take sanctuary indoors for most activities, as air-conditioning is the norm in Qatari buildings. But conditions for socialising outside become more pleasant between November and March, especially in the evenings.
Qatar is not an LGBTQ-tolerant country. Male homosexuality is illegal, with a maximum penalty of five years’ imprisonment. There is no legal recognition of same-sex relationships, no legal right to change gender and no laws against discrimination on the grounds of sexuality or gender identity. Even heterosexual cohabitation is illegal. The death penalty is on the statute books as a punishment for sexual activities between Muslims outside wedlock, although there is no evidence to show that it’s been applied.
Overt public displays of affection are considered unacceptable, regardless of the couple’s sexual orientation.
“People have asked if gay and lesbian people will be allowed into Qatar for the World Cup, but your passport doesn’t say if you’re gay or straight, so it’s not like they’re going to question you at the airport,” John says. “If you are gay or lesbian in a hotel room, no one will be checking what you’re going to do in there.”
What to expect at work
The Qatari working week runs from Sunday to Thursday, with the weekend falling on Friday (the Islamic holy day) and Saturday. The statutory maximum working week is 48 hours, comprising eight hours a day over six days. If you are being paid overtime, that can go up to 60 hours, comprising 10 hours a day over six days.
During the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, in which the faithful are expected to fast during daylight hours, the maximum working week for Muslim employees falls to six hours a day over six days. Many shops will shut just after sunset during Ramadan, so that their staff can break their fast, and then reopen until late at night.
Government offices tend to work between 6am and 2pm, while times for private companies vary. Banks are generally open between 7.30am and 1pm, although some are open in the evenings. Most malls are open from 10am to 10pm, although many stores will close on Fridays.
Qatari labour law specifies that all workers are entitled to 10 paid days off a year. That breaks down to three each on the Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha holidays, one on 18 December to celebrate Qatar’s National Day and three further days that the employer can specify. After one year of service, employees are entitled to three weeks’ paid leave. After five years with an employer, this increases to at least four weeks.
For labourers and other outdoor workers, new rules came into force last year stipulating that they must not work outside between 10am and 3.30pm from 1 June until 15 September. In addition, all work must stop if the wet-bulb globe temperature rises beyond 32.1° in any workplace.
How far an expat salary goes
“The best thing about working in Qatar is the tax-free salary,” John says.
Professionals working here can expect to earn between 30,000 and 60,000 Qatari rials every month. This equates to an annual salary ranging from £81,600 to £163,200.
Some costs, such as rent and groceries, can come as a shock to foreigners. For most expats, a comfortable apartment for a couple will cost about QR15,000 a month to rent, while a family can typically expect to pay more than double that amount for a villa.
Because Qatar does not have the food production capacity to be self-sufficient, most groceries are imported, which tends to make their prices higher than what many expats are used to paying in their home countries. Dining out can also be expensive.
On the bright side, petrol is exceedingly cheap, while water and energy bills are generally subsidised.
Looking at the other end of the spectrum, Qatar operates a statutory minimum wage of QR1,000 a month, which came into effect in 2020. Accommodation is often provided for the lowest-paid workers, particularly in construction and hospitality. While they don’t have to pay exorbitant private rents just to live in a small apartment with several other people, many may still be living in crowded conditions.
Qatari business culture
It’s important to respect Qatari social norms concerning interactions between men and women in a business setting. Handshakes between men and non-Muslim women are acceptable. When you’re meeting a Muslim woman, it is considered polite to wait for her to extend her hand if she chooses to greet you with a handshake. Arab men may greet each other with an embrace or kiss on the cheek, nose or forehead, but this is not expected of expats. It is considered inappropriate for men and women to greet each other this way in a professional environment.
Exchanging business cards is common. It’s often appreciated if yours are printed in both English and Arabic, even if everyone at the meeting speaks perfect English.
The Qatari approach to meetings is more informal than most westerners are used to. They may not start promptly and there won’t necessarily be an agenda. It’s considered perfectly acceptable to spend time on small talk before getting down to business. Hospitality is usually important, with tea, coffee and snacks such as dates and cakes popular choices for sustenance, especially if no one seems to be in any hurry to get through proceedings.
It can take some time to obtain written confirmation of anything that may have been settled verbally during a meeting. Following up with a swift email can be useful for clarifying what was agreed. During any negotiation, you may receive plenty of positive-sounding communications, but that won’t necessarily mean you’ll get the result you’re seeking, as it’s rare for Qataris to bluntly say ‘no’ in business.
Everyone is expected to dress modestly, although dress codes tend to be more relaxed in hotels and private clubs. It’s considered good manners to keep your shoulders, upper arms and knees covered. Female expats aren’t expected to cover their hair with a hijab.
Family is very important in Qatari society, so this is a safe topic of conversation. But avoid asking a Qatari man directly about any female relative unless he mentions her first or you know him and his family well. Discussing religion, politics or sex is best avoided.
Non-Muslims are allowed to eat, drink and smoke in the daytime during Ramadan, but they should refrain from doing so in public. Some hotels will discreetly keep some food outlets open to non-Muslims, while workplaces may provide a private area for them to eat lunch and take coffee breaks.
The mealtime after sunset during Ramadan, known as iftar, is considered special, with work stopping to let people break their fast and pray. It’s an honour for non-Muslims to be invited to iftar meals, so it is advisable to accept any such invitation. They are usually lively, sociable occasions. Many hotels and restaurants offer iftar buffets, which can be a great opportunity to sample Arabic food.
Qatar’s culinary scene has become more sophisticated and cosmopolitan over the past two decades. There are thriving restaurants attached to the country’s many fine hotels and there are some great places to eat in areas of Doha such as Souq Waqif and the Pearl-Qatar, a residential, retail and entertainment development on a manmade island. But be prepared for high prices.
For more affordable fare, it’s worth moving away from these shiny developments and seeking out smaller cafés and restaurants, especially if you’re keen to try the local cuisine. The national dish is known as machboos or kabsa, which is slow-cooked lamb or chicken served with vegetables on a bed of spiced rice.
Alcohol is available in Qatar, but it’s important to know the liquor laws. The minimum drinking age is 21 and there is no pub scene. Alcohol is served only at licensed bars and restaurants. It is generally expensive, although there are some more affordable bars in some of the less pricey hotels. Expats can obtain a permit to buy alcohol from official warehouses, but purchases must be taken straight home. Public drunkenness is a criminal offence. Merely carrying alcohol in public can get you into trouble with the law.
How safe is Qatar?
Of all 137 territories ranked in this year’s World Crime Index, Qatar is the most law-abiding. Its homicide rate is 0.4 per 100,000 people, compared with 1.2 in the UK.
But the standard of driving here can be startlingly bad. Many drivers have no regard for the rules of the road. Although the country’s age-adjusted death rate for traffic accidents is relatively low, non-fatal collisions are common. There is zero tolerance for drink-driving, which is punishable by a prison term of up to three years and a fine of between QR10,000 and QR50,000. Foreign offenders also face deportation.
While Qatar offers many opportunities to work in the media and the arts, people employed in these fields do face limitations.
The country has improved its lowly rating this year in Reporters Without Borders’ annual World Press Freedom Index. In 2021, Qatar ranked 128th out of 180 territories, but it has moved up to 119. Most media outlets self-censor to avoid penalties, such as jail time for defamation, the publication of fake news or so-called biased broadcasting, which was made an offence in 2020.
Social media users can face criminal charges for posting politically sensitive material, especially if it’s critical of the ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and/or his family and government.
Although popular social networks and messaging services including Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, FaceTime, Skype and WhatsApp are accessible in Qatar, the government has blocked a range of online content. This includes political criticism of Qatar and neighbouring states, pornography, LGBTQ-focused material, dating services and information about sexual health.