Expats will probably have to make some initial adjustments to adapt to the local culture in Qatar, which remains culturally and socially distinct from its neighbours like Dubai and Abu Dhabi. Qatar preserves a conservative stance, although it has expanded certain liberties like women's autonomy and allowing the controlled sale of alcohol to expats in designated areas.

Under the leadership of its former Emir, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Qatar has gained recognition for pioneering progressive policies. This includes granting women the right to vote, revising the constitution and launching leading news source Al Jazeera in both English and Arabic.

The significant expat community in Qatar makes adjusting to life in the country less daunting compared to many other countries. A minority in their own country, Qataris are generally open-minded and tolerant.

Religion in Qatar

As with other Arabic 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. Although there are non-Muslim churches and temples in Qatar, it’s imperative to be respectful of the Muslim majority, and the freedom of religion in Qatar does have its limits: disseminating non-Muslim religious material and displaying non-Muslim religious symbols are prohibited.

Meeting and greeting in Qatar

Greetings in Qatar are less straightforward 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 actions according to the gender of the other greeter.

Men greeting men and women greeting women typically do so with a handshake or a kiss on the cheek. On the other hand, Muslim men and women who aren’t married or related should not touch. As a result, if a woman extends her hand, a Muslim man may prefer to put his hand over his heart and nod. Men in Qatar will often avoid extending their hand to women, either greeting them with the above gesture or a smile.

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 appropriateness.

Women do not need to cover their heads or faces or wear a hijab or abaya, but they are expected to dress modestly to avoid offending the local community. Skirts, dresses and loose-fitting trousers should be below the knee, and tops should cover the midriff and shoulders. 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 cover the knees, 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 Qatar's business language.

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. Learning a few key Arabic phrases is helpful and will definitely score points with the locals.

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. This is especially the case when it comes to doing business. Long lunches are normal, and 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; instead, 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 only 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 events
  • Do treat religious discussions gently. Proselytising is illegal, and attempting to convert someone of a different faith (especially a Qatari) is punishable. 

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