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Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Living in Qatar: Myths and realities


If you see yourself dressed in mysterious black, face covered, as you glide across the floor, that’s fine. However, Qatar is a tolerant country, and you can wear pretty much what you want.

There are limits of course. Bathers who were completely uncovered would be arrested pretty quickly. Covering arms and legs would probably be appropriate in the work place, but otherwise unnecessary. Bikinis and skimpy bathing costumes are fine in the right place – i.e. in a hotel swimming pool. You don’t need to cover your head if you don’t want to, and nor do many (non-Qatari) Muslims.

Many travel guides advise long sleeves, and some still state that shorts are forbidden (this was changed years ago, and, frankly, trousers are just too hot half of the year). In reality you see many people wearing summery clothes with skin showing, and I have yet to hear of anyone getting into trouble for it. (HSBC’s female investment advisors wear skin tight jeans, presumably to soften us before their pitch. (It works!))


“Johnny’s grandparents are very worried about him ... they think he might get involved with terrorism”. This was an email I received about a journalist friend coming to Qatar to cover the Asian games.

While you can never rule out terrorism, the fact of the matter is you are far more likely to die in a car accident than in any other way. There has been one terrorist incident here, committed by a lone man who was probably mentally ill. The crime rate is exceedingly low here, and personally I would feel quite happy walking through a dark alley at three o’clock in the morning.


Sensitivity is needed when men are talking with men about women. While general remarks and jokes about women seem to be acceptable with the vast majority of people, asking or talking about specific (female) members of the family is not. I have been gently chided several times for asking a wife’s name. It is instead customary to ask the general “Keif a leila?” or “How’s your family?”

It is acceptable for men to talk to Qatari women in the correct situation i.e. at work. Men are unlikely to meet a Qatari woman in a social situation.


Sex outside marriage is illegal and can be punished. In reality though, a blind eye is turned towards relationships that are pursued with discretion and in privacy. On the other hand, those caught in flagrant violation will end up both in court and the local newspaper.

Holding hands

This wasn’t acceptable until a few years ago, but the tide definitely seems to have turned. Kissing in public, on the other hand, is out of the question – unless it’s same sex. That’s fine (for them. I hate it when an Arab friend grabs me and gives me a big bearded kiss on each cheek!)

Massage parlours

Here’s news for you – that dodgy looking Thai Massage Parlour is in fact not dodgy at all. The massage and beauty parlours outside the hotels are single sex only.


Polygamy is legal, and theoretically sanctioned by Islam. That is, the Quran states that it is acceptable to have more than one wife so long as the husband can treat those wives equally. It goes on to say that it is virtually impossible to treat wives equally. Polygamy is decreasing in Qatar, and a wife may divorce her husband if he decides to take another wife.


According to the laws of Islam, a Muslim man may marry a Christian woman. However, a Muslim woman may not marry a Christian man unless he converts. In practice, while there are Qatari men who have Western wives, it is very difficult and unusual for a foreigner to marry a Qatari woman, whether Muslim or Christian.


Alcohol is legal. You can buy it in a hotel bar, or from an alcohol shop if when you have obtained your liquor permit. Muslims (not Qataris) are also allowed to purchase alcohol. However, it is illegal to be drunk in a public place. See Buying Alcohol in Qatar.

Islamic law

Islamic law is followed for Muslims. Hence, a Muslim drink driving will receive a whipping, a Christian might get a fine. Execution is extremely rare – in most cases the sentence is commuted by the Emir.

Freedom of speech

There is political freedom, although respect towards the Emir should be maintained. You should also respect Islam. This doesn’t mean that you can’t discuss it. Islam itself encourages this. However, a basic respect should be maintained, especially towards their prophet Mohammed. Freedom of worship is practised, and many Christians attend a church service on Sundays . There aren't churches on every street corner, of course. However, a church is being built on land donated by the Qatari government – a gesture you really appreciate when you live next to a country like Saudi Arabia.


Not everyone is earning a fortune in Qatar. There are plenty of people living in labour camps on 600 Riyals (around $175) a month (when they get paid). Wages among expats vary enormously. Accommodation costs can dig into the best wage.

Also see:

Life in Qatar

Qatar surprise

Car theft

Qatar Visitor Friends

Qatar Jobs

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