9 rules for expats in Qatar
1. No public displays of affection
Kissing, hugging, and some places even holding hands. You might get away with linking arms, but that’s about it. The exception is when greeting: In Qatar, men and women greet friends of the same sex with three kisses on the cheek.
It’s not uncommon for people to call the moral police and dob on anyone seen breaking this rule. The result is jail time.
All media abide by these policies, too. Models in magazines often have clothing drawn on, and any sexy-time scenes in movies are censored, especially if the characters aren’t married. Ever tried to watch The Reader in the Middle East? Yeah, that movie made no sense to me.
2. No shoulders
And no knees either. This one is tricky and has caused a lot of debate recently as public consensus becomes more lax. However, even though you may see the occasional pair of hot pants, expats are expected to dress modestly in all public areas, even in 40°C temperatures.
If you’re found to be scantily clad you could be fined or, at the very least, security will ask you to leave the mall/office/souq you’re in. If you escape these guys, don’t think you’re in the clear. Locals especially don’t take very kindly to women flouting the dress code — expect some very unfriendly stares. As I always say, you don’t make friends with spaghetti straps!
3. No travel abroad without your boss’s permission
Ah, the exit permit. If you want to travel outside the country, you first have to arrange for the company you work for — your “sponsor” — to grant you an exit permit, which you must present at customs with your passport. No permit, no travel.
You also need permission from your employer in the form of a letter if you want to buy a car, take out a loan, or rent an apartment.
4. No booze
Well, kind of. Alcohol is served in hotels of 4 stars and above. We’re allowed to purchase booze for private consumption at home, but you need — you guessed it — a letter from your employer giving you permission to get a license first.
There’s only one store in Qatar that sells alcohol, and once inside you can only spend 10% of your monthly wage. Once the booze is bought, you must travel straight home, do not pass go, and do not distribute it to anyone else. This all sounds pretty strict but, to be honest, we’re lucky we’re allowed to drink at all. Our neighbours in Saudi Arabia aren’t so fortunate.
5. No phones at the gym
I go to a women-only gym. Just to get in the front door, I have to hand over my mobile phone and go through an LAX-style security screening while my body and bag are searched for hidden cameras or phones.
In areas that are for ladies only, women remove their veils and abayas, opting for more activity-appropriate clothing. Can you imagine trying to do a spin class in a floor-length skirt? Ergo, all photo-taking devices must be checked at the door.
6. No nudity in the change rooms
Even when you’re in a women-only changing room (such as at the pool), you’ll undress in a separate private cubicle. Signs state that others around you may find nudity offensive.
7. No sick people
If you want to live here, you have to be healthy. Expats applying for residency in Qatar must first pass a medical test that screens for tuberculosis, hepatitis, and HIV.
You’d think that, in a country where around 80% of the residents are expats, they’d have streamlined this process, but no. The day I went for my medical tests involved being herded into a crowded room, standing in a queue for 3 hours without instruction, and getting yelled at in Arabic. Not the funnest day out.
8. No flipping the bird
Forbidden in Qatar. The most obvious place where this is a problem is on the road, because traffic in Doha is absolutely horrendous. Throw the finger, and you’ll get arrested.
Actually, I’d say no hand signs in general while driving. Most expats have a strict ‘hands on the wheel at all times’ policy, because if you so much as wave a thank you to someone it could be misconstrued as a gesture of disrespect.
9. No complaining
My personal addition. Despite the initial inconveniences of the above rules, once you get used to them they have very little impact on daily life. And life here is good — the weather’s nice, we don’t pay taxes, and the culture seems to have mastered the work/life balance.
If nothing else, it’ll help you kick the booze habit.