Culture Shock in Qatar

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Muslim culture in Qatar - mosque
Through its former monarch, 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.

As is the case with other Arab nations, local culture is linked to the tenets of the Muslim religion. Although non-Muslim foreigners aren’t expected to adhere to Islamic law, they are expected to be aware of it and respect its principles.  

Expats may not find adjusting to Qatar as difficult as they might in other Middle Eastern countries, however, because nearly 85 percent of the population is made up of foreigners. As the oddly outnumbered minority, Qataris have had to become generally open-minded and tolerant as a survival mechanism.

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 a far cry from liberal.  

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 sex of the person present.

Men typically greet men, and women typically greet women 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 a ‘Good Morning’, ‘Good Afternoon’ or ‘As-salamu alaykum’ should be exchanged.

Dress in Qatar

Expats are not bound by the same dress code as Muslims in Qatar, but it’s still important to be sensitive to Qatari ideas of decency.
Arab Woman in Orange Head Scarf
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 (swimming costumes) and sportswear should only be worn in appropriate venues. Both men and women should be especially vigilant about dressing appropriately during they holy month of Ramadan.

Language barrier in Qatar

Although the official language in Qatar is Arabic, most people can speak and understand English, which is quickly becoming the lingua franca of the business world – much to the dismay of some Qataris.

That said, expats should keep in mind that the ever-expanding foreign community is a diverse cultural entity, and some people will be more proficient in the language than others, which can require a fair amount of patience.

Time in Qatar

Things tend to unravel 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

  • Western bathing attire should only be worn at hotels or private beaches
  • When seated with a Qatari, avoid showing the sole of your shoe
  • Traditionally, the right hand is used for shaking hands and eating – even for left-handed people
  • As alcohol is forbidden for Muslims, expats should not expect to receive any at a Qatari-hosted function, and should not offer it to Muslims at their own events
  • During the month of Ramadan, eating, drinking, smoking and chewing gum in public is prohibited, and it is considered extremely taboo to do so
  • Religious discussions should be treated gently. Proselytising is illegal, and attempting to convert someone of a different faith (especially a Qatari) can be punishable by deportation or even arrest

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