Doing Business in Qatar
With a population mainly consisting of expats, the protocols for doing business in Qatar often depend on who is being dealt with.
Expats will mostly be working with other foreigners, but their senior associates are more likely to come from Qatar and other Gulf states.
Qatar ranks at 50th out of 189 countries in The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business survey for 2015. The emirate is rated as the easiest country in the world to pay taxes in, an honour it shares with the UAE, and it does well when it comes to dealing with construction permits (23rd) and getting electricity (40th). Conversely, getting credit (131st) can be difficult and minority investors could be better protected (122nd).
There are many opportunities in Qatar, but expats need to be properly prepared to succeed in a country where businesses either soar like skyscrapers or disappear into the desert.
By familiarising themselves with Arabic business culture, Western expatriates give themselves a better chance at succeeding with sensitivity in a foreign business environment.
Business culture in Qatar
The business culture of Qatar is typically Arabic, in that a lot of emphasis is placed on personal relationships between associates. Qatari businessmen prefer to do business with people they are familiar with, and who they feel they can trust. For this reason, expats may need help from a local agent (or sponsor) who can provide them with important introductions and recommendations.
Being patient during the first dealings with potential Qatari business partners is important too – a lot of time is devoted to 'getting to know each other' before any actual business is discussed. Meetings should also be confirmed ahead of time, as business schedules can quickly change.
Management styles in Qatar are usually hierarchical and staff are expected to follow orders to the letter. Note, however, that locals rarely say ‘no’ directly, which can affect communication across different levels of business.
Business etiquette in Qatar reflects the close distance between personal and professional life that many Qataris maintain. Handshakes are the accepted greeting between men and the most senior person present should be greeted first. Arabic titles, such as Haji and Sheikh, should be used where appropriate to show respect. At the same time, personal discussions are common, especially in the beginning.
Qatari business people are often more interested in whether they get along with their prospective partners than in corporate expertise or qualifications. Business meetings can be long, subject to numerous personal digressions and even unexpected visitors. Even if a meeting's agenda becomes abandoned, expats should not resort to hard-sell tactics, which may be interpreted as unnecessary aggression. Publicly criticising or undermining associates is also frowned upon– if it has to be done, it's usually done in private.
Exchanging business cards when meeting associates for the first time is common. The reverse side of business cards should be printed in Arabic, and expats must spend some time examining someone else's card before putting it away.
Business dress is smart, formal and conservative – especially for women, who should not to wear anything too revealing. Although most buildings are air-conditioned, expats should wear lightweight clothes – the heat in Qatar cannot be underestimated.
While some things might seem strange for expats from elsewhere, resisting the urge to get impatient is important. Long-term, personal business relationships in Qatar can certainly be worth the time and energy.
Attitude to foreigners in Qatar
Doing business in Qatar: Fast facts
Business language: The official language of Qatar is Arabic, although English is widely spoken and widely understood
Hours of business: Usually 7.30am to 12pm and 3.30pm to 7pm, from Sunday to Thursday. Friday and Saturday are weekend days but this varies between businesses.
Dress: Smart and conservative – especially for women.
Gifts: Exchange gifts when meeting Qatari business associates for the first time is customary. Gifts should be wrapped and of high quality – traditional perfume is a popular choice. Never give alcohol or anything made of pigskin.
Gender equality: Qatar is an Islamic state, but it is one of the most progressive Gulf countries with regards to attitudes toward women in the workplace. Foreign women, especially, are respected and valued in Qatar – although they might need to dress and behave more conservatively than they would back home. It is also worth bearing in mind that major shifts in the Qatari corporate world will take time – and that the vast majority of senior positions will be filled by men for the foreseeable future.
Dos and don'ts of doing business in Qatar
- DO be respectful and observant of Islamic culture and traditions.
- DO look to cement long-term, personal relationships with your Qatari business associates.
- DO make an effort to engage with the culture – learn some Arabic words, and educate yourself about the religion.
- DON'T be impatient, rude, or aggressive – this kind of behaviour will alienate you from the corporate culture in Qatar.