Through its former emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Qatar has become renowned for liberal policies that include women’s suffrage, redrafting the constitution, and even allowing the launch of leading English and Arabic news source, Al Jazeera. Expats will, nonetheless, probably have to make some initial adjustments to overcome culture shock in Qatar.
Given that nearly 90 percent of the population is made up of foreigners, however, expats may not find adjusting to Qatar as difficult as they might other Middle Eastern countries. As the oddly outnumbered minority, Qataris have had to become generally open-minded and tolerant.
Still, the sand-shrouded peninsula is a step behind what many Qataris consider the debauchery of Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Although women have freedom of movement and expats can purchase alcohol in certain places, the country is far from what Westerners might consider liberal.
Religion in Qatar
As is the case with other Arab nations, local culture is linked to the tenets of Islam. Although non-Muslim foreigners aren’t expected to adhere to Islamic law, they are expected to be aware of it and respect its principles.
Most residents in Qatar follow Islam, but expats are free to practise their religions and there is a small community of residents who follow Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism. There are churches and Hindu temples in Doha, but all must be respectful of local culture and the freedom of worship is a debated topic: disseminating non-Muslim religious material and displaying non-Muslim religious symbols are prohibited.
New arrivals can connect with expats of the same religion through social media platforms or seek information from institutions, such as the Indian Cultural Centre in Doha.
Meeting and greeting in Qatar
Greeting in Qatar is less simple than a handshake, but not as complicated as an Asian introduction. The rule of thumb for meeting and greeting in Qatar is to temper one's action according to the gender of the person present.
Men greeting men and women greeting women typically do so with a handshake or a kiss on the cheek. On the other hand, Islamic law dictates that unmarried men and women should not touch. As a result, men in Qatar will often avoid extending their hand to women out of respect. Similarly, if a woman extends her hand, a man may prefer to put his hand on his chest or to nod, also out of respect.
In all cases, though, eye contact should be maintained during the meeting process, and greetings of ‘good morning’, ‘good afternoon’ or ‘as-salamu alaykum’ should be exchanged.
Dress in Qatar
While non-Muslim expats are not bound by the same dress code as Muslims, they should still be sensitive to Qatari ideas of decency.
Women do not need to cover their heads, faces or wear a hijab or abaya, but they are expected to dress modestly so as not to offend the local community. Skirts, dresses and loose-fitting pants should be knee-length, and tank-tops and shirts should cover the midriff and shoulder areas. Sheer clothing should be left at home.
Men do not need to dress in the flowing white robes common among locals or wear headpieces, but they also need to keep their wardrobe tasteful. Shorts should be knee-length and cut-off t-shirts should be avoided.
Similarly, bathing suits and sportswear should only be worn in appropriate venues. Both men and women should be especially vigilant about dressing appropriately during the holy month of Ramadan.
Language barrier in Qatar
Although the official language is Arabic, most people can speak and understand English, which is quickly becoming the language of business in Qatar.
That said, expats should keep in mind that the ever-expanding foreign community is culturally diverse and some people will be more proficient in English than others, which may require a fair amount of patience.
Time in Qatar
Things tend to happen at a slower pace in the emirate, and it won’t be long before expats realise that the concept of time in Qatar is somewhat more flexible than what they may be used to, especially when it comes to doing business. Long lunches are normal, and the progress of business negotiations can be painstakingly slow as relationships are cultivated between client and service provider.
Furthermore, lateness is not nearly as offensive as it is in Western cultures; rather, it’s considered inordinately rude to hurry someone, or for people to look at their watch throughout an engagement.
Cultural dos and don’ts in Qatar
Do save Western bathing attire for pools at hotels or private beaches only
Do use the right hand when shaking hands and eating; this is traditional even for left-handed people
Don't expect to receive any alcohol at a Qatari-hosted function and don't offer it to Muslims at their events as alcohol is forbidden for Muslims
Do treat religious discussions gently. Proselytising is illegal, and attempting to convert someone of a different faith (especially a Qatari) is punishable.