Business culture in Qatar is evolving as the country develops, and understanding it is essential if you want to capitalize on opportunities in this vibrant Gulf nation. This guide provides all the information you need.
With one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Qatar is in the midst of a massive development push. It also has an increasingly diverse workforce, and business etiquette reflects this. This detailed guide offers a head start on all things related to business culture in Qatar.
It includes the following sections:
- Business in Qatar
- Business culture in Qatar
- Working hours and conditions in Qatar
- Local business etiquette in Qatar
- Organizational structure and hierarchy in Qatar
- Business strategy, planning, and decision-making in Qatar
- Meetings and negotiations in Qatar
- Professional networking in Qatar
- Business socializing in Qatar
- Women in business in Qatar
- Businesses in the community in Qatar
- Social provision through businesses in Qatar
- Business corruption and fraud in Qatar
Business in Qatar
Turbo-charged by massive gas riches and a development frenzy ahead of the 2022 World Cup football tournament, Qatar has been booming for a decade. Economic growth might be cooling; a diplomatic and trade embargo imposed on Doha by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE since 2017 doesn’t help. However, the country remains undeniably wealthy, and Qatari citizens remain the world’s richest per head.
Qatar is undeniably open for business too, boasting one of the world’s freest economies and relaxed foreign investment rules. Furthermore, a new law in 2019 enables foreigners to own local businesses outright.
Emerging from relentless construction, the capital city of Doha boasts a surging population, a shiny new metro system, huge football stadia, and infectious optimism. There is opportunity in spades, too – and not just in traditional economic sectors; Qatar is the world’s top liquefied natural gas exporter, a major oil producer, and growing financial services and tourism hotspot. Today, it has more foreign-owned businesses than ever.
Business culture in Qatar is adapting to the economic revolution. Labor and business practices have been under intense scrutiny since 2010 when the country won the bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The government has implemented reforms in response. Furthermore, a new development blueprint, called Qatar National Vision 2030 (QNV2030), is also changing the way companies operate. In these fast-paced times, understanding business etiquette in Qatar has never been more essential for foreigners.
Business culture in Qatar
Because expats make up 85% of the population, there is no single business culture in Qatar. The way business is conducted varies depending on the person, and culture, of the organization you are dealing with. This could be the government, private sector, start-up, family-run business, or multinational. Therefore, as an expat doing business in Qatar, you will need to be flexible, adaptable, and open-minded.
You will likely deal with Qataris, too, as many are in decision-making roles. Understanding local business culture is therefore essential. While this business culture will feel familiar to anyone who has done business elsewhere in the Gulf, there are local nuances. Who you are, and who you know, are important here. Family ties and allegiances run deep and are part of daily business life. As a result, the concept of wasta – the use of connections to gain favors – is central to the business world.
Positive changes in place
Thanks to QNV2030, companies in Qatar are now more accountable, transparent, ethical, and better governed. Many now publish Codes of Conduct outlining the way they do business, and what they expect of their customers and vendors.
Qatar may not, on the surface, be as ‘business-friendly’ as nearby Dubai or Bahrain, but it is becoming ‘friendlier’. Expats and foreign investors will find business culture in Qatar welcoming and, above all, full of opportunity – if they are prepared to invest the time.
Working hours and conditions in Qatar
Qatar law states a maximum work week of 48 hours (eight hours per day for six days), or 60 hours per week (10 hours per day for six days) if overtime is paid. During the holy month of Ramadan, the working week for Muslims is 36 hours maximum or six hours per day for six days.
Working hours/shifts depend on the company and sector. Most public and private sector offices work Sunday to Thursday. Government offices tend to open from 6 am to 2 pm, and private companies normally operate from 8 am to 6 pm.
Work-life balance is improving in Qatar, although just how much will inevitably depend on the culture of the employer. The concept of flexible hours or remote working has yet to take root here; this is perhaps a remnant of the attitude that expat staff is a ‘possession’ of the employer. QNV2030, however, places emphasis on society and welfare. As such, more companies are investing in their people, and their health.
Expat workers’ rights
While expat workers’ rights are, in theory, protected in law (they cannot join labor unions, however), there have been high profile cases where this has not been so. In August 2019, hundreds of migrant workers in Qatar went on strike to protest what they said were poor working conditions and unpaid and delayed wages.
Despite introducing some labor reforms over the past year, the kafala sponsorship system remains in place. This ties an expat worker’s visa to their employer, making it difficult for them to change employers. In addition, workers’ passports are routinely held by the employer in Qatar, even though it is against the law.
Changes to labor laws and practices
Since 2017, the government committed to bringing its labor laws and practices in line with international standards. The following reforms are already in place:
- Setting a temporary minimum wage;
- Introducing a law for domestic workers;
- Setting up new dispute resolution committees;
- Mandating collective bargaining committees at companies with more than 30 workers;
- Establishing a workers’ support and insurance fund;
- Scrapping the need for many workers to arrange an exit visa through their employer to leave the country.
In some organizations, an ‘us and them’ culture exists between locals and expats. Qataris are prioritized for promotions, and training budgets will be weighed in favor of nationals. These tie in with the government’s broader Qatarisation policy, where companies must recruit and develop local talent over expats.
In the office itself, you can expect differences regarding the treatment of expats, according to their nationality. Western expats typically command higher salaries than Asian colleagues, for example.
Annual leave is, by law, a minimum of three weeks (for employees who have worked at the company for less than five years) or four weeks for longer service. There are 14 days of paid public holidays in Qatar.
Local business etiquette in Qatar
Greeting men and women
As an expat (man or woman), a handshake is the normal greeting, regardless of who you are meeting. The exception is if you are meeting a Muslim woman, in which case, you should wait for her to extend her hand.
Qatari (or other Arab) men may embrace another man, or kiss on the cheek, nose, or forehead as a sign of deference and respect, even in a business setting. Expat men are not expected to follow suit, and a woman should never embrace or kiss a man in public. They can, however, embrace a woman.
Meetings and office environments
Meetings and office environments in Qatar tend to be fairly informal and cordial. As a result, don’t be surprised if a meeting has no agenda, or that no one takes minutes. It might not start on time, but don’t take this as a sign of disrespect – and be prepared for interruptions. If you are meeting the big boss, expect a steady flow of wellwishers, phone calls, and other disruptions. As frustrating as it might be, you can watch all this unfold with a cup of tea or coffee; if you’re lucky this might be traditional Arabic coffee which comes in an ornate jug, along with dates.
Communication and taboos
Arabs often enjoy a good natter – they are great storytellers! Small talk is absolutely normal before getting down to business; families, business, football, and life are all up for discussion. Local politics, religion, or the royal family are ‘no-nos’ unless you are invited to comment. On the other hand, it helps to be generous with your opinions on Qatari culture, history, and achievements. Being able to say a few greetings in Arabic will always be greatly appreciated; even if almost everyone you meet is a competent English speaker.
Faux pas to avoid
Qatar may be a conservative country, but locals are used to dealing with expats. You are unlikely to cause offense if it is clearly unintended. However, there are faux pas to be avoided. For instance, never show the soles of your feet, don’t openly argue a sensitive point with your host (especially in the presence of others), and never raise your voice.
Managing your expectations
Arabs are notoriously difficult to read when it comes to business negotiation and deal-making. Positive ‘noises’ do not necessarily mean you’ve got the gig. Your host will rarely give you a flat ‘no’ to your face. Furthermore, Arab business culture, in general, is verbal, therefore don’t take offense if you receive little or no response when you email someone after a day-long meeting.
Dress to impress. Offices and meetings demand formal attire; suit and tie for expat men, conservative dress or trouser suit for women, and national dress for Qataris. Some companies may have ‘dress down’ days, which are normally on a Thursday.
Gift giving to a business contact is not recommended for expats. It might make a host uncomfortable unless it’s a well-known contact. If you must give a gift, make it modest, and never give alcohol. On the other hand, an expat may well be the recipient of a gift from a Qatari, who are generous hosts.
It is normal at the start of a meeting to exchange business cards. It is never a bad idea to get some made up in both English and Arabic.
Organizational structure and hierarchy in Qatar
Qatari society is hierarchical, and that’s how many businesses are structured, too. A local company will typically have a chairman, board of directors, and a CEO responsible for day-to-day decisions. Authority figures receive considerable deference in Qatar, and their decisions and opinions are rarely, if ever, questioned openly. Generally, employees are not encouraged – or empowered – to have inputs beyond their immediate job. Many choose – by default or design – subordination over proactivity.
Lastly, reporting lines can be blurred in family businesses, which tend to have centralized management.
Business strategy, planning, and decision-making in Qatar
Many companies in Qatar take their strategic cues from QNV2030, which influences their approach to Qatari society, community, environment, and the economy. Multinationals or overseas joint ventures operating in Qatar will tend to take their strategic decisions from head office. Family businesses in Qatar tend to be slower to adapt, plan, and take decisions. Decisions tend to be taken higher up the food chain. Depending on the company, line managers might not have input on strategic decisions.
Annual business reviews, while not ubiquitous, are becoming more common.
Meetings and negotiations in Qatar
Business meetings in Qatar usually take place in offices, hotel lobbies, or perhaps over lunch. If the meeting is in an office, allow plenty of time. Remember, they don’t always start on time, and there might be lots of small talk before the main event.
Most Qataris speak excellent English and have studied overseas. They are, therefore, aware of international business etiquette. Meetings will normally be conducted in English, even if you are the only non-Arabic speaker in attendance. Don’t be offended, however, if a meeting reverts to Arabic when delicate issues need to be addressed.
After the meeting, sending a follow-up e-mail to summarise discussions and confirm any verbal agreements is highly recommended.
If you are selling a product or service, haggling on price is normal. But don’t be pushy – or hasty. Be polite, and never lose your temper. Success in the Arab world is about building relationships, therefore invest your time, spend time on the ground in Qatar, and establish trust.
Professional networking in Qatar
Doha is a business-minded city, and a lot of networking happens there. Luxury hotel lobbies are awash with suited businesspeople chatting over a cup of qahwa. Conferences and exhibitions are great places to establish new contacts or reconnect with old acquaintances.
Professional business associations are also good places to make contacts. The Qatari Businessmen Association hosts trade delegations and business lunches, as does the American Chamber of Commerce in Qatar and the Qatar Chamber. The Rotary Club in Doha supports local causes and provides another great networking opportunity.
Business socializing in Qatar
The lines between business and pleasure are often blurred in the Qatar expat community. For instance, entertaining might extend to a round of golf, a Friday brunch, a bar, or a social club.
Qataris are not big on entertaining, although you might be invited for lunch. Note that a local will rarely accept a lunch/dinner invitation from an expat. In this situation, don’t start eating until invited to, or your host starts eating, and don’t offer to pay.
Companies in Qatar might organize team-building exercises outside the office which offer opportunities to socialize.
Women in business in Qatar
Women make up 51% of the workforce in Qatar; this is higher than the world average, and the highest in the Arab world. Their role is a focus area of QNV2030. Although 80% of working Qatari women are employed in government, they are making their mark in other traditionally male-dominated industries, and at management level. For example, at Texas A&M University’s Doha campus, women account for about half of the total student body, and all are pursuing engineering degrees; compared to 20% at the main campus in Texas. Meanwhile, 40% of the leadership positions at the 5,000-strong Qatar Foundation are filled by women.
Despite this, there is still a long way to go before women achieve parity with their male counterparts. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2018, women in Qatar are paid 25 to 50% less than men. In 2016, 6% of women in Qatar owned companies, which is more than any other Gulf country.
The Qatar Women Business Association is an active group that exists to ‘empower business and professional women and unlock the potential of future generations in support of Qatar National Vision 2030.’ Qatar Professional Women’s Network says it is ‘inspiring women to engage in a professional, diverse, and supportive network while expanding their skills and knowledge base’.
Businesses in the community in Qatar
QNV2030 provides a focal point for community endeavors and ethical practices, and most Qatari companies run active corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs supporting local social, community, and environmental causes. Support is provided in the form of cash donations, volunteer work (e.g., for beach clean-ups) and mentoring programs.
QatarCSR showcases many of the projects undertaken by companies in the country.
Social provision through businesses in Qatar
Expats are not eligible for state pensions in Qatar. Instead, they receive an end-of-service gratuity if they have served more than one year of up to one month’s salary for every year served. Some companies offer corporate pension plans.
Business corruption and fraud in Qatar
Qatar has the lowest levels of corruption in the Middle East and North Africa. However, wasta – the use of connections to influence business deals – is part of everyday business culture in Qatar. Anti-corruption laws are effectively enforced, and facilitation payments are illegal.