or How not to lose your job in the first week
Below we’ve compiled a list of cultural pointers – things we’ve come across from our own experience, rather than gleaned from a book .
Of course it’s dangerous to generalize, especially in Qatar, which is a huge cultural melting pot - Qataris themselves only form 20% of the population. Never-the-less, we have noticed some points that seem to be shared both by Qataris and by many of the Muslim residents from countries around Qatar.
Before reading these, it’s worth mentioning that this is not Saudi Arabia and that most minor slip ups are tolerated. In fact, until you get a feel for the culture, you are bound to make a few mistakes. I certainly have, and have always been gently informed as to my error. However, major transgressions could have more serious consequences.
Men and women
Women’s rights in Qatar have advanced considerably in recent years. Women can drive, with the permission of the men in their family, and often hold positions of responsibility. Nevertheless, women in general just aren’t considered to be as important as men. In Islam, a man’s judgement is considered to be superior to that of women, and therefore a women should obey the men in her family. Honour is also important for men, and they have a duty to prevent women from bringing shame upon their families.
1. If you are a man don’t ask men about their wives, unless they mention them first. Don’t ask their names, don’t ask how they are. I have made this mistake before and been gently told off. You can get around this by the polite “How is your family?” Asking about their children, on the other hand, is fine.
2. Do not ask a member of the opposite sex to meet you in a closed room. At the very least keep the door open and make sure you are clearly visible through the open door. Men, do not object if a woman brings along a close relative to a private meeting. Try to meet in semi-public places like a library.
3. Men should allow women to keep their distance. Avoid all physical contact – although a handshake can be returned if it initiated by the women. If you are a woman and you do not keep your distance from a man, the man might assume you have a sexual interest in them. (Not all men, I’d like emphasize, just some.)
4. Depending on where you work, do not ask a women to remove her neqab (face covering). I know a person who was fired for requesting this – and she was a woman. However, in some institutions, such as the Supreme Education Council, women are discouraged from covering their faces.
Greetings and physical contact
While contact between unmarried men and women is anathema, it recently seems to have become acceptable for married couples to hold hands in public. Even Qarari couples (married, of course) can now be seen holding hands in malls and shops.
However, it is quite common for men (unmarried!) to hold hands. The standard greeting between men is also a kiss, usually repeated, on the cheeks. (Bedouins may prefer to touch noses). Unfortunately, I have one Arab friend who always insists on giving me a big bearded kiss, usually accompanied with the words, “Come on John, you’re in the Gulf now” as I veer away from him. Thankfully, most Arab men seem happy with a handshake.
When I first came to Qatar and asked for something, I wondered why some people in authority would say “No, khalas, finished,” to a request. Surely a simple no would do. After a while I realised that the matter rarely was finished. Rather than accepting a no from a person in authority, many people will carry on complaining and fighting – and, as often as not, getting their own way in the end.
Qatari men can be quite quiet and thoughtful. However, many other Gulf residents seem to be uncomfortable with silence. Situations like exams seem to place a real strain on them. On the other hand, interrupting and simultaneous talking are both normal and acceptable, and should not be taken as deliberate rudeness.
Eye contact during conversations is important, although you should avoid staring at women.
Family is immensely important, certainly more important than any business meeting you might have. So if a person has a family problem, expect meetings to be delayed or cancelled. Men also feel they have a duty to protect the honour of the female members of their family.
Unless your point of view is similar to the general consensus here, it’s probably best to steer clear of politics. Israel and Palestine are particularly touchy subjects.
Islam is the most important part of most Qatar residents’ lives, and ranks above friends, country and even family.
1. Discussing religion - Again, unless you are a fellow Muslim, it’s just not worth talking about this to people. If you try to convert someone you will be breaking the law, and could be deported. If you want to discuss religion, try Qatar Blah Blah or Qatar Living, where you can do so safely and anonymously.
2. Mohammed – Do not criticize him. Following the recent cartoons in newspapers in Europe, this is a particularly sensitive subject at the moment.
3. The Koran – Always treat the Koran with utmost respect. Muslims believe that Allah handed down the Koran to Mohammed. As Mohammed was said to be illiterate, this is considered to be a miracle. Challenging this or treating the Koran without the utmost respect is deemed to be heresy. Some Muslims here even object to the Koran being placed under other books. In one extreme case I know of, a British man threw a CD containing recordings from the Koran out of a colleague’s car. The man was not only physically ejected from the car; he was fired from his job the next day.
4. Fatalism – Devout Muslims believe everything that happens is ordained by God. Hence, the common use of the phrase God willing – something can only happen if God is willing. Fatalism can discourage planning for the future. An example of this occurred when a friend asked me why I only had two children, and I mentioned the cost of university, and overpopulation. “John,” my friend chided me, “God will take care of that.”
Obviously, fatalism can also discourage safety precautions. Take road safety, for example. People often question why they should wear seatbelts and drive safely when their death and the manner of it is determined by God. However, the government is doing its best to persuade people to take road safety more seriously.
Safe topics of conversation
So what can you talk about? Not sex, for sure. People are often interested in telling you about their food. (In fact, the next day you may find them bringing a sample for you to try). Football is also very popular with many men. Family, is an instant winner. Try carrying pictures of your kids around to show people. Which leads onto...
People adore kids here. Many can’t understand why we would limit ourselves to two children when we could have six or more. Expect sweets to be offered to children (a white lie is useful here – I tell people my child is gets hyperactive if she has sugar). Disciplining your children in public can lead to a negative reaction, so get the little buggers somewhere private before telling them off.
Show you care.
Life is more personal here. It’s important to care about each other. If an Arab mentions a problem to you and you deal with it too peripherally you may be regarded as uncaring and unhuman. So if someone has a problem, show your personal interest, even if your clock is ticking away. Which leads onto:
Don’t be direct
Don’t get straight down to business – take your time to exchange prolonged greetings.
Wrong: “Hi Mustafa. How are you? Okay, about this business with...”
Right: “How are you Mustafa? Have you recovered from that flu you had? You still look a little pale...” and so on with lengthy replies on both sides.
Criticisms should also be applied indirectly. For example, if a you accuse someone of blatantly plagiarizing some work, you will probably receive an outright denial. However, a more gentle, “I think you had some help with this,” is more likely to receive an admission of guilt.
If you are invited to do something you don’t want to do, don’t say no, say Inshallah, which means God Willing and is about the most useful phrase around. Repeat this as many times as necessary. Ditto for anything else that you want. (This can annoy even the locals. One Jordanian man once told me: “Don’t Inshallah me, John!”)
Insults are taken more personally than in the West. In the case of accidentally insulting someone, explain very carefully that it was not intentional, and a result of a cultural misunderstanding.
People here don’t have the same sense of time Westerners do, so don’t rush things – they may be insulted if you do. Just to illustrate this, when I was at a recent lecture, all the Westerners turned up on time, or apologized if they were five minutes late. Locals arrived and left throughout the lecture, including one who came three minutes before the end. Lateness does not usually require an apology. What is rude is glancing at your watch during a meeting or while talking with a local.
Agreeing time can also be problematic, and agreeing an appointment a long time in advance may be a waste of time.
Locals find it difficult not to answer the phones – in fact when you drive round Qatar, every second driver seems to have a cellular appendage extruding from the side of his or her head. Expect conversations and meetings to be punctuated by calls to the other person.
Shake hands, give and receive and eat food with the right hand. Left hands are for bottoms! Which leads onto...
Food and drink
Always politely refuse the first offer of food. Don’t worry, your host will vigorously persuade you to partake. However, even if you don’t want anything to eat, it is probably best to eat a small amount. At the very least you will be expected to have a drink. Leave a small amount of food behind.
Food is often eaten by hand, and hands and arms should be washed before eating.
As you probably know, pork and alcohol are Haram (forbidden). Pork is actually illegal, and will be taken off you if you enter the country. Alcohol can be purchased by expats with permits – but in reality, enter a hotel bar and there is a fair chance you’ll see some Qatari men drinking.
Be careful when talking about dogs. Many Muslims feel they are dirty animals, although some Bedouin love their hunting dogs. Avoid any metaphor or reference which could possibly be misinterpreted as comparing people to dogs. A Muslim women I knew almost divorced her British husband because of the proverb “Why keep a dog and bark yourself.”
Some locals –not the majority – also object to the use of even the word pork and pig. Indeed, if you buy Winnie the Pooh books in Jarir bookshop, which is admittedly a Saudi business, you will find every Piglet picture has been scrubbed out with a black marker pen. (The picture here is by Camper - see original post.) .Finally...
It can sometimes be easy to offend locals, who are not always shy to complain about you. On the other hand, at least in my experience, when you win the friendship of the people here, they are fiercely loyal and can not do enough to help you.
Also see: Life in Qatar
Qatar Visitor e-store (U.S.)
Qatar Visitor E-store (U.K.)
Find the best deal, compare prices and read what other travellers have to say about Qatar
Qatar Doha Middle East culture tips