With hundreds of expats flooding into Qatar every day, British journalist Victoria Scott gives the lowdown on what to expect
Doha Airport’s arrivals terminal is not somewhere I like to linger for long. An estimated 500 new expats walk through its doors every day, making it a stage for intense public drama – both long-awaited reunions and the dawning of years of separation from loved ones.
My first week in Qatar is a permanent fixture in my memory, ineffectually filed under “try to forget”. Emerging from the airport into an oppressively sticky Doha night, I was at the centre of an emotional storm: overjoyed to be reunited with my husband, from whom I’d been separated for several months, but also desperately homesick and disorientated. I cried every day, at least once.
I was woefully underprepared. We only had a week to decide whether my husband should take the job offer – a not uncommon expat scenario. What little I did know about everyday life in Qatar, I had gleaned from the internet. Unfortunately, my forays into web forums and blogs produced fragmented information that baffled or worried me, sometimes both at the same time.
Luckily, a friend had moved out here a year before, and she filled in the yawning gaps. But not everyone is so lucky, a fact reinforced by the number of prospective expats who find my articles online and get in touch, all armed with the same basic but vital questions.
So, I thought I’d put together a list of some common areas of concern, and provide what answers I can. This information is provided with two caveats: firstly, that limited space means I can’t include everything; and secondly, that because administrative procedures alter constantly here, the information below will not hold forever.
Firstly, not all expats are allowed to bring their families with them to Qatar. Only those earning more than 10,000 QR (£1,775) a month are able to do so, and recent rule changes mean that some women employed by private companies are finding that their applications to sponsor their families are being rejected. If this happens, you can ask your company to appeal.
Couples must be married to live together in Qatar, and you will not be able to bring your children to live with you if you are not married to your partner. Successfully sponsored spouses and children are brought into Qatar on a special entry visa, and are then required to begin the residence permit process within one week, which involves fingerprinting and medical tests for tuberculosis, hepatitis and HIV. Your sponsoring company should guide you through the process.
Some companies will only process family visas when an employee has been in Qatar for six months, meaning that families are either separated for this period, or forced to do “visa runs” to neighbouring countries. Check with your company whether this will apply to you.
Qatar’s enormous expansion plans ensure a steady stream of professionals moving to Qatar every week, usually bringing young children with them. The country’s schools are full, and the best ones have long waiting lists. The headmaster of a prominent British school, DESS, tells me that many companies are now struggling to recruit professionals from overseas because there simply aren’t enough school places for their children.
If you’re lucky and have time to plan your move, apply for a place as soon as you can. Many schools only accept applications for a short period each year, typically in January. If you apply outside this window, your child is likely to be put on a waiting list. Almost all schools hold formal assessments for children of all ages (my son was recently assessed for pre-school – he was two at the time). Some families fly children into Qatar specifically for assessments, which can be worth it if you can afford to do so.
One piece of good news is that given the constantly shifting nature of the expat population in Qatar, school places regularly become free throughout the year. It’s a waiting game. Some families choose to home school while they wait for a place.
Many companies include a school fee allowance in their expat packages, so it’s worth clarifying whether this will cover fees before you accept any job offer. Fees for British curriculum schools in Qatar range from around 30,000 QR (£5,285) to 51,000 QR (£8,985) per child per year, but you can usually add at least QR 2000 (£350) for one-off registration fees, and most schools make a separate charge for applications and assessments, which is not returned if your child fails to secure a place.
Qatar has a well-resourced state health care system, Hamad Medical Corporation, which offers free emergency treatment to everyone who registers – expats included. It is increasingly under strain, however, with long waits for treatment now commonplace. This means that many expats opt for private health care, which can be expensive, particularly for maternity care and complex operations.
So, check whether your offer includes health insurance for you and your dependants and if so, what exclusions it has. It should be noted that the Qatari government is in the process of introducing a universal health insurance system, meaning that every company will have to provide insurance for their employees.
Imagine dodgems, but with real cars, petrol and no rubber bumpers, and you’re imagining Doha in rush hour. Driving here can be a huge challenge, but it’s a necessity, as taxis are under pressure, the bus system limited, and the city’s ambitious plan for a metro system is years from becoming a reality.
Drivers who hold valid licenses from any country can drive a rented car in Doha for a maximum of a week. After that, you will need to have an International Driver’s License (IDL). This will keep you legal for up to six months. Beware, however – as soon as you receive your residence permit, your IDL will be void, and you have to apply for your Qatari driving licence immediately.
If you didn’t manage to get an International Driver’s Licence before leaving the UK, you can apply for a temporary licence in Qatar. This however is also only valid until your residence permit is processed. Conversion to a Qatari licence is straightforward for British licence holders (you just need to do an eye test) but some other nationalities, including US citizens, have to take a Qatari driving test before taking to the roads.
As an aside – if you’re frightened at the prospect of driving on Doha’s roads (most of us are) I wholeheartedly recommend taking defensive driving lessons.
Qatar uses the Kafala (sponsorship) system. This means that every expat employee brought into the country is linked to a single employer. In practice, this means that they decide when you are allowed to leave the country, even for emergency visits home.
How this is handled depends on the employer. Some allow high-ranking employees to apply for annual “multi-exit permits”, meaning that they are free to come and go whenever they please. Other companies, however, insist on individual applications for each trip. In some cases, this is handled well, with a 24-hour emergency service in place. Other employees are not so lucky. I’ve heard of people not being able to attend family funerals because their sponsor was on holiday when they needed permission to leave. For this reason, I recommend that you ask your prospective employer what procedures they have in place for emergency exit permits.
To answer the two most commonly posed questions first: yes, I can drive, and no, I don’t have to wear an abaya (the full length black gown usually worn by Qatari women). I do however have to dress modestly, which, according to a grassroots campaign recently adopted by the Qatari Tourism Authority, means covering my shoulders, cleavage, midriff and knees. I have heard recently that government buildings have now introduced a stricter dress code requiring both men and women to cover up to their wrists and ankles, but this is not the norm.
Women under their husband’s sponsorship can enter and leave the country whenever they please, without the need for an exit permit. They are also able to work under their husband’s sponsorship, providing they register as a working woman with the authorities.
The cliché of an expat knocking around in a cavernous villa big enough for a football team is certainly a true one, but you’ll have to be prepared to pay for it. These days, an average four bedroom villa goes for at least 13,000 QR (£2,291) a month, with those in sought-after compounds renting for up to 18,000 QR (£3,172). Meanwhile, a two bedroom apartment in a glistening high-rise in West Bay or the Pearl, Qatar’s man-made island, will cost at least 12,000 QR (£2,115) a month. Unless your employer gives you a generous housing allowance, this sort of rental will eat into even the most appealing tax-free salary.
Cost of living
While we’re on the subject of that impressive salary – remember that you’ve got to live on it as well as save it. Aside from incredibly cheap petrol, many everyday goods are more expensive in Qatar than in the UK. Ninety per cent of the country’s food is imported, meaning that even basic foodstuffs can be pricey. And enjoying yourself in your free time can add up, too – the cost of entertainment and cultural pursuits rose a whopping 8.7 per cent last year alone. Also consider your annual travel costs. Although most employees are given a free return flight home every year, the cost of any additional flights will quickly start to bite. For example, one return economy flight to Heathrow with Qatar Airways costs around 4,000QR (£705) this June.
Although you won’t find booze as widely available here as in, say, Dubai, it’s still on offer if you know where to look. Most five star hotels have licenses, and they host several restaurants and bars apiece. There are also a number of members-only clubs, such as the rugby and golf clubs, which serve alcohol. Drinking at home is possible too. With their employer’s permission, residents can apply for an alcohol permit which allows them to shop in the country’s only off-licence, QDC. You can only spend 10 per cent of your basic salary on alcohol each month (which in practice is far more than we’ve ever needed). It’s worth noting too that Qatar has a zero-tolerance approach to drink driving.
Lastly, a footnote about pork. There’s an increasing range on offer, but it’s strictly for home use only – you won’t find it served up by any restaurant in Qatar.
So there you have it, my rough guide to moving to Qatar. Wherever you are in your decision making process, I hope it helped a little.
Or, you could always take my friend Vani’s advice. A veteran of Qatar expat life, she reckons it’s best to land with your eyes wide open and your notebook empty. “Come here not knowing anything, like we did,” she says. “Have an open mind and no expectations. It’s a great ride.”