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Culture and customs

If there’s one thing the expat lifestyle can guarantee in the Middle East, it’s a work-life balance.

Go home when everyone else does and enjoy your afternoons/evenings and weekends fully. The usual holiday allowance for Gulf expats is six weeks. Many families escape the summer heat entirely once schools break up, so this leave allowance can quickly get eaten up. However, if you can get used to the heat and find a great club to join with lots of activities, then those six weeks can accommodate several breaks throughout the year instead.

Things to avoid

Qataris are open, welcoming, and friendly especially to those who are behaving considerately by Muslim standards. What are the things you should avoid doing to ensure your continued enjoyment of your life in the sun?

  • Avoid public displays of affection as this can cause offence. 
  • Avoid being or appearing drunk or inebriated — it is illegal.
  • Be polite about the ruling family, religion, and prominent members of society.  Keep negative opinions to yourself.
  • Avoid large gatherings and demonstrations due to the risk of terrorist attacks

Diplomatic ties with Qatar

In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, and flights between these countries and Qatar have been suspended. This has also led to the closure of land borders between Qatar and Saudi Arabi, as well as closures of air and sea routes between Qatar and these countries.

Expected dress code

One of the most obvious differences between Qataris and expats is their dress code. In Middle Eastern Muslim cultures, both men and women dress modestly — women wear an abaya (long black robe) over their day clothes and cover their head with a hijab (scarf to cover the head and neck but not the face).  Some add the niqab, covering their face and leaving only their eyes showing, but this isn’t the norm in Qatar. Abayas are typically black and worn loose in order to avoid showing any body shape.

Men wear the thaub, a long white robe over white trousers and an undershirt, and cover their heads with the gutra (white head scarf draped over the head). This is held in place by the agal (a cord-like circle which fits neatly to the top of the head).

Non-Arabs are expected to dress modestly, but there is some tolerance for the different standards of westerners. Qatar is a little more conservative than the UAE, but not as restrictive as Saudi Arabia.  Short-sleeved dresses for women are acceptable but having no sleeve at all is considered indecent.  Shorts and skirts above the knee are considered risqué. For women, especially in professional settings, make sure your knees are covered, especially when you sit down. Long or Capri trousers (fitted but not tight) are an appropriate option for women, and linen trousers are a blessing in the heat. It is often a good idea to keep a light shawl nearby in case you feel the need to cover up for social reasons or the unexpected blast of icy air-conditioning.

In professional offices, men dress in business suits, but will find lightweight fabrics a necessity. Trousers and a shirt without the jacket are usual as day-to-day wear in business environments. When meeting someone senior, being dressed slightly too formally or conservatively creates a much better impression than being overly casual.

If you go swimming, cover up when leaving the water, and never walk around in swimwear or transparent clothing. Men should not go anywhere topless (your buttons should be done up). Nothing too revealing is recommended. Neither sex should go out in public in gym gear.

Some government buildings and private companies may have even stricter requirements, so it’s worth doing your research before a visit to ensure your dress doesn’t cause offence.

Food, drink and religious material

Other differences affecting how you live in the Middle East are related to food and drink.  Alcohol is not freely available and permanent/long-term expatriates who wish to drink alcohol at home need to apply for a licence to purchase it at the Qatar Distribution Company. The application process requires a letter of permission from your employer.  Alcohol is served in hotel bars and restaurants, but must be consumed on the premises.  If you get a licence to buy alcohol, drive it straight home after purchasing.  Do not carry it around with you as it will complicate matters if you are in an accident, for example.  There is zero tolerance for driving after drinking — the blood alcohol limit in Qatar is zero.  Penalties are severe for those caught with alcohol in their system. 

Pork is not acceptable for food or any other purpose like leather. You will find pork offered at the Qatar Distribution Company, which is where you can also buy alcohol, but bear in mind that it is forbidden to import pork products.

Qatar may be restrictive in that it bans the import of bibles and other religious material, but it is tolerant of other religions.  There are Christian and other churches you can attend, so it is not religion itself that is objected to. Proselytising is illegal, but church attendance is not.

A new lifestyle offers the chance to improve your health in tiny ways each day that seem natural with the change in environment. When it’s 45 degrees Celsius outside you might find you’re eating lighter and less. This might be supplemented by an increased opportunity to swim, play tennis, or work off some energy in the cool of the gym. Talk to one of our expert advisors about how healthier habits will affect your health care needs.

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