My latest article for The Telegraph is up. In it, I give tips on ways to settle in to expat life in Qatar. It’s never an easy transition, but I argue that the more you put in, the more you get out of the experience.
I’ve known many people who’ve refused to give Qatar a chance, and they’ve been miserable as a result. If you’re about to move to Qatar, or have just moved – make sure that isn’t you!
You can read the article on the Telegraph site here, or for your convenience, the full text of the article is below.
Last year, a fellow British expat left Qatar after a brief spell. He’d hated it. He’d tell anyone who’d listen about his time in a country with “nothing to do”, an alien culture, terribly congested roads, and even more terrible driving.
When questioned, however, it became apparent that he’d essentially spent two years on holiday. He hadn’t travelled outside of Doha’s city boundaries, nipped back to the UK whenever he could, and spent his weekends at expensive brunches at five-star hotels, bemoaning the lack of other activities on offer.
All expats in Qatar know several of these people, and dodging their negativity is one of the primary skills of life out here. Meanwhile, the rest of us know that although life in Qatar is often challenging, a little effort made to settle in reaps huge rewards.
Settling in, it must be said, is not the same as feeling at home. Qatar’s restrictive sponsorship laws mean that no expat can ever gain permanent residency, and many expat adventures draw to a close with the ending of an employment contract.
With that in mind, here are some ways to make the most of your time in Qatar, however long or short it might be.
A “life” in Qatar will not come to you – you need to go out and find it. Fill your free time with activities, and you have vital momentum when you have a “Doha Day”, when the city’s frustrations seem insurmountable.
Whether your idea of fun is yoga, amateur dramatics, kite surfing or silk painting, there’s a class or group for most tastes and abilities. Time Out Doha (timeoutdoha.com) has useful listings.
Also, make sure you spend time being a tourist – there’s much more to life than your office and your nearest mall. Visit Doha’s museums, watch the Qatar Philharmonic play, hire a dhow, have dinner in Souq Waqif, visit a hotel beach for the day or go dune bashing.
Soak up the atmosphere over dinner in Souq Waqif, Doha, with its myriad of little streets containing shops, restaurants and cafés (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Qatar also hosts many high-profile sporting and artistic events year-round which are often relatively easy to get tickets to, and fairly cheap – keep an eye on local papers and news website Doha News (dohanews.co) for information.
Finally, if you’re moving to Doha with your spouse, and you haven’t got a job lined up, don’t shelve the idea entirely. Not working can be a pleasant change for a while, but most long-term Qatar expats find that a job – be it casual, full-time, or simply volunteering – is a great way to enrich their experience, make new friends, and, crucially, give them purpose.
Make new friends
One of the nicest aspects of expat life is that people are generally open to meeting up.
“Abandon your British reserve,” advises Katy Monvid, who’s been in Doha for four years.
“You don’t have to meet someone three times before you ask them round for a coffee.”
Although not every acquaintance will turn into a lifelong friend, there are lots of ways to boost the chances of finding someone you connect with. Online groups can are very helpful – take a look at Internations (internations.org) and Meetup (meetup.com) where you can find a group called Qatar Expats.
If you have children, Doha Mums (dohamums.com) is also a valuable resource for advice and activities, with regular coffee mornings and dinners planned every month. There is also a myriad of specialist interest groups on Facebook, which turn up in a simple search.
Dealing with homesickness
We all suffer from homesickness sometimes. For an instant Doha pick-me-up, seek out British comfort food in the form of a traditional roast at Garvey’s, fish and chips from the L’wzaar stall at Katara Cultural Village (katara.net), or wander around the Megamart supermarket and the Marks & Spencer food section picking up imported treats. Or, for a longer-term effect, go against your instinct, and stay in Qatar more, advises Danish expat Rene Juncker.
“The common factor for many people who never really settle in is that they all jump on a plane back to their home country at any given opportunity. I call them The Inbetweeners,” he says.
Connect with local culture
If you never chat with a Qatari during your time in Qatar (and trust me, I’ve met people who haven’t), you’re denying yourself the opportunity to learn more about your surroundings; a vital part of settling in.
Many expats say they struggle to make local friends, but it doesn’t take much to break the ice, says author Christine Gerber Rutt, who’s currently writing a guide to settling into expat life. “I made a Qatari friend in a coffee shop,” she says. “That was about two months ago, and we see each other about once a week now.”
Meanwhile, I was invited to a Qatari wedding by a bride I was sitting next to in a beauty salon – we just got chatting, and suddenly she was handing me a wedding invite. I had a great time.
Hopping into an SUV to do a bit of dune bashing can help with the frustrations of expat life (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
If you’re shy, take to Twitter – there’s a community of Qataris on there who are very welcoming. One of them, Alanood Al-Thani (@al_anood), has this advice: “As a local, I would say, don’t be afraid to ask, and above all don’t assume. If something’s weird, question it and find out why it’s like that.”
And for a fun perspective, check out the iLoveQatar YouTube channel, #QTips (youtube.com/user/iluvqatar) where friendly locals Hamad and Khalifa guide you through various aspects of Qatari life.
Find your favourite places
Finally, there’s tremendous satisfaction in finding a corner of Qatar you like, and calling it your own. For ideas, take a look at community portal JustHere’s Make It Home section, which includes a great guide to public parks (justhere.qa).
Whether you pick the dunes, an open green space, a beach or the camel racetrack, having an open-air bolthole is a great way to make peace with your new life – which, despite its frustrations, will pay back your efforts twice over if you give it half a chance.