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An American in Qatar:

Pros and Cons of Living in the Middle East 

It’s been almost a year since my last update and I’m still living in Qatar.  And yes, I still enjoy it here.  In fact, I love my new lifestyle:  working in Qatar for 11 months, then going back to America for a month of vacation in the summer. 

 

 

Above:  The country of Qatar (highlighted in red) is about the size of Connecticut and borders Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf.

I flew back to America in August for several weeks, as I do each summer, and had a great time there (I've posted photos at the bottom of this page).  It was nice to visit with friends and family again, to feel rain in my face and see white, puffy clouds instead of the constant yellowish haze on the horizon (from the sand) that's so common here in Qatar.  I also loved walking barefoot through real grass because there isn’t much grass here, except the artificial kind.  But for the first time during my annual trips back to America, I also missed Qatar and looked forward to coming back “home" to Doha.

 

When I tell people in America that I’ve moved to the Middle East, their reaction is decidedly mixed.  Some Americans are open-minded, curious and inquisitive.  Others, though, are cautious, suspicious or even fearful, which I think is ridiculous because there’s nothing to fear about living in Qatar.  Indeed, I was more afraid of going back to America, given the endless stream of mass shootings there (despite all the “thoughts and prayers” that politicians convey) than I was about returning here to Qatar, which is one of the safest countries in the world.  

 

But even Americans who are cautious or suspicious become more interested after I mention the higher salaries that are typical here in the Middle East.  Depending on your skills and the demand here for those skills, Americans working in the Persian Gulf can make a lot more than what they earn in the U.S. -- perhaps twice their salary back in America or, given that there are no income taxes in Qatar, maybe even more.  In fact, after I described my positive experience here to my friends in America, some of them started thinking about moving to the Middle East to save up money, just as I did two and a half years ago.

 

I’ve been thinking about those comments from my friends these past few months, so I decided to create this webpage to describe, as someone who has lived here for over two years, the pros and cons of living in Qatar.  My comments apply to most countries in the Persian Gulf area, not just Qatar.  So please read on to learn about the Good, the Bad and even some of the Ugly of living here in the Persian Gulf.

 

   

Above left:  I walk down Doha's corniche (i.e., waterfront) every weekend -- except in the summer, of course, because it's too hot then.

Above right:  Admiring the Doha skyline.

 

       

Above left:  Here's "Harvey," built a few years ago as the mascot for the Asian Games, which were held in Doha.  It's supposed to be an oryx, a desert mammal that's like a deer.  But I call it "Harvey" because it reminds me of the fictional rabbit in Jimmie Stewart's film from 1950.

Above center:  This guy has a lot of balls.

Above right:  Al Dafna Park in Doha is one of the few places in Qatar where you can walk on actual grass.  Little kids love this place.

The Pros:  Benefits of Living in Qatar

Expanding Your World View

Above:  Some of my CPO colleagues at an Egyptian pizza restaurant.  That's Osama, Siva, Indu (in orange), Kishore and Abidh.  Osama is from Egypt and the others are from India or Sri Lanka.

I admit that the main reason I moved to Qatar was for the money.  But after living here for over two years, I would say that the biggest benefit I’ve gained during that time is the experience of working and living in a totally different culture than what I was used to.  I learn so many things every day, just by walking around Doha or by talking to my colleagues who are from India, Egypt, the U.K., Australia or the Philippines about what their lives are like back home.  I also enjoy learning how things are done here in Qatar, as crazy as this country seems sometimes.  The biggest benefit I've gained from moving here, without a doubt, has been expanding my view of the world. 

 

I love living here, in this massive melting pot of the world, and learning about different cultures.  I’ve traveled all over the world these past 15 years, as I’ve described on this website, but living here in Qatar has greatly expanded my perception and understanding of the world more than anything I’ve ever done, by far.  Living here is certainly stressful at times but I think it’s healthy to push yourself outside of your comfort zone once in a while.

Higher Salaries

This is the main reason that most foreigners move to Qatar, or to any Persian Gulf country.  There’s a lot of oil money here and the government doesn’t hesitate to spend it.  I earn a lot more here than I could anywhere in the U.S. for what I do (computer mapping).  In fact, when you add in the fact that salaries here are tax-free, I’m now earning more than twice what I made at my former jobs with Metro or Otak in Portland.

No Taxes

Speaking of that, there are no taxes here for anything thanks to the oil money:  no sales taxes and no income taxes.  It’s strange to look at your monthly paystub and realize that the company didn’t take anything out of your paycheck.  If you earn, say, $5,000 per month, your monthly paycheck will be exactly $5,000 and not something less.  If you’re an American and have a Qatari bank account here (like most Americans do, including me), you have to register with the U.S. government each year on Tax Day, April 15.  However, you don’t have to pay U.S. taxes on your income unless you make an outrageous amount of money.  Unfortunately I don’t have that problem!

Other Financial Perks

There are a few other financial benefits of living in Qatar.  First, many companies provide "expats" (expatriates, or foreign workers like myself) with one paid flight home each year.  Rather than actually paying for your plane ticket, most companies will give you a bonus of about $1,000 each year to cover the cost of your ticket home. 

 

Second, if you work in Qatar for two years or more, the Qatar government will give you a bonus as a percentage of your salary when you leave the country, known as the "Qatar gratuity."  In my case that will be several thousand dollars and I’ll receive it after I leave Qatar for good.  Many countries in the Persian Gulf offer this same bonus, also as a way of saying “thank you” for working here.

Safety

Above:  Doha is one of the safest cities in the world.

Another big advantage of working in Qatar is that it’s very safe here.  The main reaction I get back in the U.S. when I tell people that I moved to the Middle East is concern for my safety.  Many Americans think of the entire Middle East as homogenous and universally dangerous, and they don’t separate in their mind Afghanistan from Iraq from the U.A.E. from Saudi Arabia from Qatar.  In fact, those are very different countries with very different situations.  I would never travel to Afghanistan or Iraq, given the unsafe conditions there.  I don’t think I would even travel to Saudi Arabia, given its extreme conservatism (Saudi is the most conservative and oppressive country among the Gulf States). 

 

But the U.A.E, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman are, in my opinion, totally safe places to live and work.  Women can walk alone in downtown Doha, Qatar, a city of a million people, at midnight and feel totally safe.  That’s partly due to the Muslim culture, which emphasizes peace, but also partly because everyone who works here is privileged to do so and knows that if they break the law, they’ll be sent either to prison or, just as bad for some people, back home.

 

I feel much safer in Qatar than I do anywhere in America, given the ubiquity of guns in the U.S. and, as a logical consequence of that, all the crazy gun violence there.  For some Americans it’s a logical consequence, I should say, while for others apparently it’s not.  When folks back in America say to me, "But it's so violent over there in the Middle East," I usually laugh and reply, "Look around you."

Free Health Care

Health care here is free for all Qataris and most expats, including myself.  My friend, Tom, an American from Seattle, broke his arm last year while riding his bicycle in Doha and went to an emergency room.  After a few hours of treatment and a cast on his arm, he was charged absolutely nothing.  In the U.S., he would’ve been billed hundreds if not thousands of dollars for the same treatment.

 

I described an even more outrageous example of the difference in health care costs in my last update.  As I described, during my trip back to America in the fall of 2013, I went into an emergency room in Dallas, Texas to get treated for pneumonia.  They treated it but then billed me $12,700 (!) for my four-hour stay.  And then to top it off, my insurance company in Qatar agreed to pay only about $5,000, so I had to pay the balance of $7,700.  Yikes!

 

I read the fine print of my international health insurance policy in Qatar and learned that the company pays 100% of my health care costs anywhere in the world “except in the United States,” as it explicitly states.  They’re smart, I guess, because they realize that health care in the U.S. is a rip-off.  If I had been treated in Qatar, my bill would’ve been exactly $0.  I even thought about waiting until I got back to Qatar to have my pneumonia treated, but if I had done that, it could’ve progressed into something more severe.   That’s how my mom died in 1999, from refusing to go to the hospital for a breathing problem that eventually got much worse.

 

That brings up the whole issue of how messed up the American health care system is.  Americans like to brag that, “We have the best health care system in the world.”  No, we don’t.  America has the most EXPENSIVE health care system in the world, but in terms of quality, it’s ranked only about #20 in the world.

 

I learned my lesson from that brief-but-expensive trip to a Dallas hospital.  Now, before I fly back to the U.S., I always buy supplemental health insurance to cover any health costs incurred while I’m visiting the U.S.  If you’re an American living overseas, I advise you to do likewise before you go home to visit America.

 

      

Above left:  I love the large buildings in downtown Doha and can name every one of them.  In the center is the so-called Tornado Tower.  Now dwarfed by its new neighbors, it's perhaps the most iconic building in Qatar.

Above center:  I went to the Sheikh Faisal Museum on a weekend with my American colleague, Tom.  An hour west of Doha, it's one of the few tourist sites in Qatar.  Unlike the UAE, Qatar isn't much of a tourist destination.  There's not a lot to do here unless you work.

Above right:  Inside the impressive Sheikh Faisal Museum.  I'm guessing the Sheikh liked planes and old cars. 

The Cons:  Drawbacks and Hurdles of Living in Qatar

Many of the pros of living in the Persian Gulf involve the financial benefits of living here, and those benefits are significant, as I’ve described.  But the cons of living here can also be significant.

Skills and Salaries

It became apparent to me last summer, when I went back to America, that some of my friends there don’t understand how you find a job in the Middle East or what types of jobs are in demand here.  You can’t just fly to the Middle East and start looking for a job.  You have to be hired by a company before you can come over here.  You can fly to Qatar or the U.A.E. on a tourist visa, of course, but you’ll have to leave after 30 days and you won’t be allowed to look for a job while you’re here. 

 

In addition, I'm afraid you can't just decide to move to the Middle East to make more money, like saying, "Gee, I think I'll go over there and make a lot of money."  It's not up to you; it's up to them.  You’ll only be hired by a company here if you have the specific skills that are in demand.  Many countries in the Persian Gulf area (Qatar, Bahrain, U.A.E., Saudi Arabia) are growing rapidly, so there’s a huge need here for engineers and such, but there's little demand for positions in retail, tourism or manufacturing, especially from Westerners.  I’m lucky because I have computer mapping skills and an engineering background, having worked with engineering consulting firms in the U.S. for over 15 years.  Without trying to sound arrogant, my skills are in demand here and can’t be adequately filled by hiring lower-skilled or less-educated workers from poorer countries in Asia.

 

 

I've called this series "An American in Qatar," which is like the old movie, "An American in Paris."  That reminded me of Joni Mitchell's hit song, "Free Man in Paris."  She had a lesser-known hit called Free Man in Qatar.  Notice how she pronounces "Qatar" correctly.

   

Qatar, like most Gulf countries, imports about 80% of its labor.  Most expats in Qatar are from poorer countries in other Arab countries, like Egypt or Jordan, or from southeast Asia, including India and the Philippines, and they do many of the so-called “menial” tasks, like working as maids, driving taxis or doing basic construction work.  Those types of positions here pay very little by Western standards – but they pay much more than in their home countries.  Only a small percentage of imported workers, mostly those from Western countries, are highly-paid by Western standards.

 

There’s a myth that everyone who works in Gulf countries like Qatar, Saudi Arabia or the U.A.E. makes a lot of money.  It is true that most people here make more money – but only relative to what they would be making back in their home country.  For example, taxi drivers here earn only about $1,000 per month, if that (and that’s only if they work 70-hour weeks).  That’s not much money by Western standards, but it’s a lot more than what they would make back home in Nepal or Pakistan, so they come here to Qatar to work.  A taxi driver in America would be crazy to move here and drive taxis for a living.  Likewise, someone in retail or, say, an office clerk would also be crazy to move here for work.  Assuming they could even get hired, they would make much less money and would have to work much longer hours than they would back in the U.S.

 

When companies in Qatar need to hire a person with low to mid-range skills, such as construction workers, maids, office clerks or even IT technicians, they'll usually hire someone from Asia and will pay low to mid-range wages, say $1,000 to $3,000 per month.  They won't hire Westerners for these lower-skilled positions because Westerners are too expensive and there's a much larger pool of people willing to work for relatively low wages (by Western standards) elsewhere in Asia.  However, when Qatari companies need more senior-level people with specific skills, or if they need managers to supervise other workers, they'll often hire Europeans or Americans and will pay much higher wages, perhaps $8,000 or $12,000 a month.

 

The salary discrepancies here are tremendous, greater than perhaps anywhere in the world.  Unskilled workers, like live-in maids or nannies, grocery store cashiers, taxi drivers or construction workers, might make only $1,000 a month working full-time; some earn much less.  Mid-level white-collar engineers imported from Europe or the U.S. might earn $8,000 or $12,000 a month, while senior-level Qataris might earn over $20,000 a month.  And then there are all the millionaires here who don’t have to work at all (Qatar has the highest percentage of millionaires in the world, per capita).  The difference in salaries and wealth here is absolutely crazy.

Expendable Labor

Another thing to consider before pondering a move to the Middle East is that, for most expats (including myself), there are no guarantees or safety nets here like there are in the U.S.  There’s no Unemployment Insurance, for example, so if you lose your job, you have to leave Qatar within 30 days because they don’t want you here anymore.  Labor here, sad to say, is very expendable. 

 

I read a horrible story about a British engineer who moved to Qatar a few years ago and earned a good salary, over $10,000 per month.  He immediately took out a loan for a $70,000 car and took loans out for some other things, figuring that he’d be here for several years so he’d have plenty of time to repay the loans.  Well, a few months later his position was abruptly terminated so he had to leave Qatar.  But he had accumulated a lot of debt by then and, even after selling back his car, he wasn’t able to pay everything off.  He couldn’t just buy a plane ticket and leave, either, because in Qatar you need an “Exit Visa,” approved by your employer and the financial institutions before you can fly out of the country.  Things here are very much controlled by the government.

 

This engineer asked his friends back in Britain to send him money so he could leave, but he still wasn’t able to scrape up enough.  He was in a nasty Catch-22:  he had to leave the country, but he had accumulated debt so he couldn’t leave the country.  Knowing that his fate was to languish in a Qatari jail cell – not a pleasant place to be – until he could pay off his debt, he committed suicide.  The sad lesson:  If you move here, don’t get into debt.

 

A similar (but more benign) situation happened to me shortly after I’d moved to Qatar.  One afternoon, after I had worked here for about three months, all 150 of us in the Central Planning Office were called downstairs to an all-staff meeting.  The CPO director told everyone that our budget had suddenly been trimmed and that CPO had to lay off about 50 employees, one-third of our staff.  I’d only been here for a few months, so if I had been laid off I would’ve taken a big hit financially, considering all the money I’d spent in getting over here – not to mention that I had quit my job in Portland, rented out my house there and had sold my van. 

 

I wasn’t laid off, fortunately, but I would’ve been in a bind if I had.  One person wasn’t as lucky, though.  He was living in England and had been offered a job at CPO, so he quit his job in London, moved out of his apartment and arrived in Qatar the same day as the all-staff meeting.  CPO sent him a text at the airport telling him, “Sorry, you don’t have a job here anymore.  Go back to England.”  Of course, he no longer had a job or place to live back in England, either.

 

That sort of thing happens a lot in Qatar.  I jumped into this whole situation a bit naively, thinking that no one would ever do something that cruel like that to me, but as I’ve learned, it happens all the time here.  Like I say, labor in Qatar is expendable so be very careful and do your homework before you accept a job offer here.

The Difference in Temperament

You also have to deal with the difference in temperament here.  It’s mostly a cultural thing, but the Arabs who I work and interact with here are much more serious or “intense,” for lack of a better word, than Americans, generally speaking.  I’ve never traveled much in Europe but I’ve heard that people in certain countries in northern Europe, like Germany, are much the same way.  To put it bluntly, you don’t see a lot of laughing Arabs – at least I don’t, and certainly not in the workplace. 

 

The Arabs who I’ve worked with are generally much more serious than Americans or Brits and it’s hard to share a joke with them sometimes, like I do freely with many of my Western colleagues.  I’m not saying the Arabs are more productive or competent, necessarily, just more serious and you have to get used to that intensity, which is pervasive here.  I’ve returned to the U.S. a few times on vacation since I’ve lived here and the difference is like night and day.  Americans are much easier going, open and outwardly friendly than most of the Arabs I’ve dealt with, in general.

 

That’s not a blanket statement though, because I’ve met many friendly, outgoing, inquisitive and helpful Arabs here, as well.  I went to City Center Mall a few months ago on a Thursday night, as I often do at the end of the work week, and was eating dinner in the food court there.  I was the only Caucasian in a sea of Arabs and Asians, and a well-dressed older Qatari fellow who spoke some English approached my table and said, “Do you speak English?  Could you please help me with my writing?”  I invited him to sit down. 

 

He had written a “Letter to the Editor” in English for a local newspaper that he wanted to be published, about the importance of supporting Qatari women in sports.  That topic struck a chord with me because I’m a big supporter of women in sports, so I was totally on board and spent a half-hour reading through his letter while editing his grammar, punctuation and spelling.  He was very friendly and appreciative, even joking with me at times, and I was glad to help him.  But in general, many of the Arabs I’ve dealt with here are pretty serious and humorless.  They’re not uncaring or impolite, mind you, just intense.  Like with everything here, it’s a cultural difference and requires an adjustment.

Getting Around

I decided not to buy a car here because I live in downtown Doha and am within walking distance of just about everything I need.  Although taxis are plentiful here, there’s not much public transit, like buses, in Qatar because, once again, it’s a cultural thing.  There’s an arrogant belief common in many Gulf countries that buses are only for “poor people” and thus, public transportation isn’t a priority here.  After all, if you were important then you would own a car and wouldn’t need to take the bus.  I found that attitude in the U.A.E., as well, when I worked in Abu Dhabi a few years ago.

 

Above:  Riding the bus in Doha.

But I don’t really need a car, like I say.  And if I need to go someplace distant, I’ll take a taxi.  Taxi drivers are cheap here, much cheaper than in the U.S.  Generally speaking, anything made, serviced or produced by “menial” labor here in Qatar is much cheaper than in the U.S., and anything imported (like canned food or electronics) is much more expensive than in the U.S. 

 

I’m glad I don’t have a car because many of the drivers here, especially those from poorer Arab countries or southeast Asia, are frankly, pretty crazy.  If you drive here, you take your life into your own hands because there's a strange mix of drivers on the roads here, including arrogant and wealthy Qataris who drive large, expensive SUVs very fast, wanting to push everyone else off the road.  They're mixed in with poor expats from other Arab countries or southeast Asia who don’t have much driving experience.  The roundabouts here are especially bad, especially at rush hour when everyone’s trying to merge into the circle.  It seems that every time I’ve taken a taxi at rush hour, I’ve come very close to getting into multiple accidents, and usually in roundabouts.

 

My advice is to not drive here unless you have to.  And be careful wherever you walk, by the way, because pedestrians here, unlike in America, don’t have the right-of-way.  Again, it’s a cultural thing:  only poor people walk, the belief goes, while important people have cars, so there’s no need to yield to an unimportant person who’s walking through a crosswalk.

 

Above:  A yield sign in Doha.  Nice garb, huh?

If you’re here on a 30-day tourist visa, you can rent a car and use your home country’s driver’s license, but if you live here and want to drive, you’ll need to get a Qatari driver’s license.  That’s not a problem for Europeans:  you can simply go to the motor vehicle department and show them your home country’s driver’s license and they’ll issue you a Qatari driver’s license on the spot. 

 

But if you’re from America, you’ll need to pass a written test and a driving test before the government will issue you a driver’s license.  Apparently that’s because a few years ago, a high-ranking Qatari official moved to the U.S. and went into the DMV there, expecting to receive a U.S. driver’s license automatically.  But instead, he was asked to take a written test and driving test, which is the standard policy in the U.S. for issuing licenses to foreigners.  He got into a huff about it (as high-ranking Qataris can often do) and, after he moved back to Qatar, he passed a decree ensuring that Americans living in Qatar would have to do the same thing:  sort of a Middle Eastern tit-for-tat.  So that’s how it works here now for Americans.

 

It’s really not that difficult to get a driver’s license.  My friend, Nafez, from Sacramento, passed his Qatar driver’s test on his first try and now commutes to CPO every day, driving from his home several miles south of town.  But it is another hurdle.

Photography

Above:  A family's Saturday stroll on the corniche.  You have to be careful about taking pictures of Qataris.

I’m an avid photo buff and typically shoot dozens if not hundreds of pictures each day when I travel.  But I have to restrain myself here, especially when I’m taking pictures of Qataris, and especially of Qatari women. 

 

You can often tell Qataris on the street because the men typically dress in white robes (called “thobes”) and white headscarves (called “keffiyahs”), while the women dress in black robes.  Arab women here typically cover their heads -- though not with the imposing burka, which resembles a welder’s helmet.  Burkas are only used in more conservative countries, like Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan.  Qatari women typically wear less restrictive head garb, including either a black “chador,” which is a cloth that covers everything but the eyes, or the even less restrictive “hijab,” which is a cloth that covers just the top of the head and neck areas, and is more open.

 

Above:  A selfie in the Sheikh Faisal museum.  This is how I appear to most people in Qatar.

Most Qataris like their privacy and don’t want to be photographed, so you won’t see a lot of photos on my website of Qatari men or women.  I had an uncomfortable encounter a while back in the waiting area of a telecom store at City Center Mall.  I took out my cell phone as I was waiting and took a picture of the counter area, where several Qatari women were talking to customer service reps, but I had forgotten to turn off the camera’s flash. 

 

After I took the picture, one of the Qatari women came over to me with a customer service rep who translated and explained to me that this woman was angry that I’d taken her picture.  The Qatari woman kept saying, in broken English, “No Facebook, No Facebook!”  I spent several minutes apologizing and explaining to the irate woman that, no, I wasn’t going to post her picture on Facebook (heck, I don't even like Facebook).  I honestly thought I might be thrown in jail.

 

Certain facilities and parts of the country are also off-limits to photography for national security reasons, including oil refineries.  Last year when I drove around the country in a single day, we stopped at a town on the northern coast of Qatar and, at the marina there, I saw some armed watercraft, like small Coast Guard boats.  I started taking pictures of the boats but an armed guard nearby called out to me from 30 feet away and motioned “No photography.”  I put away my camera and he gave me a “thumbs up.”

 

You just have to be careful of what (and whom) you take pictures of here.

 

   

Above left:  Here's my favorite picture of Qatar.  Oops, I guess I wasn't supposed to take it.

Above right:  I chuckled when I saw this photo in a local newspaper ad.  "Oh, so THAT'S what Dr. Saleem looks like."

Few Americans

Another drawback of living here, if you’re an American, is that very few Americans live in Qatar.  There are a lot more Brits here than Americans, partly because Qatar used to be a British colony and the British have a much stronger influence here than Americans.  For example, there are two servants on every floor of my CPO office who walk around and do nothing all day but serve the employees tea and coffee.  That's a very British thing, having servants, while the concept of servants would be preposterous in any office in America.

 

But there are also people from all over Europe and not just Britain.  During my first six months, I lived at the Asas apartments in Doha with two roommates who also worked at CPO.  One was a Portuguese fellow, about 35, who had a wife and child back in Portugal whom he missed dearly.  The other fellow was from India.  Then the Portuguese fellow moved out and a British guy, about 40, moved in.  Then he moved out and another guy from India moved in. 

 

After I moved out of Asas and rented my own apartment, at Beverly Hills Tower, I got a roommate, Arul, who's originally from India but has lived in the Bay Area of California for the past many years.  It was nice to talk about "American" things with Arul and share American holidays, like Thanksgiving, and we got along well.  But then Arul moved out last summer when he got a new job on the other side of town.  After he told me that he was moving out, I quickly found another roommate -- quickly, like within 10 minutes of searching on the Internet.  My new roommate, Gerry, is from Ireland and is a funny guy and is easy to get along with.  He visits New York City almost every summer so, even though he's Irish, he's well acquainted with all things American (even more than many Americans I know), so we have a  lot to talk about.

 

And fortunately, I have some co-workers at CPO who are from America.  Tom, a Caucasian from Seattle, moved here with his wife and we get together once in a while.  Nafez, who’s originally from Jordan but grew up in Sacramento, decided to move his family to Qatar for a few years, because they felt more comfortable in a Muslim country.  It’s nice to be able to talk about American things to fellow Americans, whether it be sports, food or politics.  I’m lucky to have some American friends here, but not all Americans here are as fortunate because there are so few of us.

Language and Accents

Speaking of the vast multicultural mix here, one of the most challenging things I’ve had to deal with in Qatar are all the different accents.  Arabic is the official language of Qatar, of course, but English is spoken widely.  If you go into almost any store in the cities, the proprietor will speak at least some English and their signs will usually be in both English and Arabic.  In rural areas, though, the store owners might speak only Arabic.

 

Many Qataris speak only Arabic, although there are many educated Qataris who also speak some English.  Like in many parts of the world, English is the universal language here, so if you speak only English you’ll get by just fine here in the cities.  It is a good idea, though, to learn a few words of Arabic, like “Salam” (a general greeting, meaning “peace”), “Shokran” (“thank you”) and “Inshallah” (“perhaps,” or more accurately, “If God is willing”).

 

But like I say, dealing with all the different accents is one of the most challenging things I deal with because there are people here from literally all over the world.  At work, I deal with British, Scottish, Dutch, Australian, Irish, Indian, Filipino and Arabic accents, and many more.  My friends from India tell me that the hardest accent for them to understand is Scottish (that’s true for me, as well).  It usually takes me a few seconds to lock onto the accent of the person I’m speaking with, but then it becomes easier to understand them.  Dealing with all of these different accents can be challenging at times, constantly switching your mind to interpret one accent or another, but it's also interesting.

 

And sometimes it’s even humorous.  One morning at CPO I received a phone call while I was at my desk.  The woman on the other end spoke with a heavy Arabic accent and told me that she worked for the building’s IT division, then she said that she needed my “security.”  I was a little confused, so I said, “You need my… security?”  “No,” she said.  “I need your security.”  Again I was perplexed, so I said, “I’m sorry, it sounded like you want… my security.”  She laughed and said, “No, not your security.  I need your security – your SECURITY.”  I was flummoxed and didn’t know what to say.  This went on for a few more minutes, then she finally asked, “What floor are you on?”  I told her and she said, “OK, I’ll send someone up there.”

 

A few minutes later, a guy approached my desk and, in an Indian accent, said to me, “I’m here from IT.  I need your Secure ID.”  “Oh,” I said, “You want my computer login name!”  I still laugh about that.  

Dating

I gave up on the dating scene a long time ago, so I wouldn’t know much about dates here (other than the sweet, sticky kind that I buy every year during Ramadan).  But I’ll pass on what others have told me about it.  Qatar imports 80% of its workers, as I’ve said before, and the vast majority are male, such as construction workers, engineers and taxi drivers.  Because of that, Qatar has one of the most unbalanced gender makeups of any country in the world.  So if you’re a single guy here, I wish you luck in dating someone.  Women in Qatar, though, are understandably quite happy with the dating situation.

 

However, and just to balance things out a bit, I read an article in the local newspaper about dating a few months ago written by a woman expat who said that, although there are lots of guys here, “their quality leaves a lot to be desired.”  I’m not sure what she meant by that, but obviously she had never met me (har, har).

No Pork for You

It's wise to learn the cultural norms in Qatar before you arrive.  Otherwise you'll be committing one faux pas after another and your stay here won't be as smooth or enjoyable as it could be.  Here are some tips:

 

Regarding clothing, women foreigners need to make sure their knees and shoulders are covered and men shouldn’t wear shorts that are cut above the knees.  And for both, never wear revealing clothing or swim apparel anywhere except near a swimming pool.  Also, the genders are very much separated here, with men often on one side or in one group and women and children (or "families" as they call it here) in the other.  If you're a male foreigner, do not interact with any Qatari woman unless she approaches you.  And be careful when you ride the elevators.  I made the mistake once of getting into an elevator car that was occupied by a lone, Qatari woman.  I won't do that again.  The general rule-of-thumb is to show respect and kindness.  If you do that, you'll get along fine and your faux pas will mostly be overlooked.

 

Above:  My jovial Irish roommate Gerry enjoys his Corona.  He's cradling a prized bottle of KC Masterpiece barbeque sauce, which I gave him.  He likes that even more.

If you're a Western expat here, you'll have to deal with more restrictions than you're probably used to back home.  There's no such thing as "free speech" in public here but, on the other hand, the government doesn't constantly monitor your every movement, so if you're in a private setting you can pretty much say whatever you want.  In the more than two years that I've been here, I haven't heard of anyone getting into trouble in Qatar for protesting or speaking out in public.  Qatar is much less restrictive than more conservative countries in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia or Iran, when it comes to free speech.  Doha is the home of the Al Jazeera news network, which worldwide is considered to be the leading source of credible news in the Middle East, so that tells you something.  Nevertheless, remember that this is an autocracy and not a democracy.

 

There are also restrictions here on what you can eat and drink.  With Qatar being a Muslim country, you can’t buy alcohol or pork at a grocery store or a market here like you can in America.  There is only one store in Doha, in fact, where you can buy either.  But even to enter that store, you have to purchase an annual pass (about $80) to get in, then you can buy as much alcohol or pork as you want, so it’s sort of like Costco in America.  Beware though, because prices for alcohol and pork are very high here.  One of my American friends in Doha was excited because he had just bought a tiny pork roast for Easter, for which he paid “only” $35. 

 

Along with stocking up at Doha's lone liquor store, you can also purchase and consume alcohol at most Western-oriented hotel bars.  Heck, you might even be able to find some pork ribs at a higher-class Western-oriented restaurant, I imagine.  Personally though, I get my fill of brats and ribs when I go back to the U.S. every year.

 

   

Above left:  The Central Planning Office held a three-year anniversary party one weekend at a posh resort north of Doha.

Above right:  Soaking up the rays, and enjoying a view of The Pearl (a ritzy apartment complex) at CPO's anniversary party.

 

     

Above left:  Atkins must've spent over $20,000 on this six-hour bash.  It was fun but I could think of better ways to spend the money.

Above center:  For those who want their cake and eat it, too.

Above right:  Later in the afternoon, a haboob (a violent sandstorm) suddenly rolled in out of nowhere.  But in a few minutes it was over.

Putting It All Together

Above:  CPO employees were invited by our parent firm, Atkins engineers, to tour the new subway system being built in Doha.  It was quite impressive.

There are a lot of advantages of living in Qatar, but like I say, there are also drawbacks.  The main thing about living here is that you learn to adapt.  You learn to be flexible and that’s one of the greatest benefits of being here:  learning that you can handle most anything that comes your way.  Moving over here has worked out well for me so far, knock on wood, but it doesn’t work for everyone.

 

Qatar can be a crazy place to live and work.  Considering things like the driver's license situation for Americans or the "instant holidays" that I mentioned in my last update, the one phrase that constantly runs through my mind here is, "But that makes no sense."  So yes, living here has been a big challenge for me at times and has definitely pushed me outside of my comfort zone, because I have to learn and adapt to new situations almost every day. 

 

But living here has also been a fascinating cultural experience.  In fact, now that I’ve been here for a while, I feel sorry for my friends back in America who haven’t had the experience, or even the “privilege” of living in Qatar.  It's a challenging environment that is so different from anything I’ve ever experienced.  But that, in itself, is its own reward. 

 

   

Above left:  Making Egyptian-style pizza in Doha.

Above right:  Take-home boxes for the CPO staff after lunch:  Abidh, Siva, Osama, Kishore and Indu.

My 2015 Trip to the U.S.

I'll wrap up this page by posting some pictures of my annual, month-long trip back to America last August.  From Doha I flew to JFK Airport in New York City, then I spent several days visiting my brother Don and his wife Debbie at their home in Connecticut.  From there I flew west to Minneapolis, where I visited my old friend, Mark.  Then I continued onto the west coast and spent about a week driving up and down the Oregon coast, then up to Bellingham, Washington to see my sister, Doti. 

 

It was a great trip, the weather was perfect and, as always, I enjoyed being back home in America.  Here are some photos:

 

       

Above left:  Packing for my trip.

Above center:  At midnight on the way to Doha International Airport.

Above right:  Flying somewhere over the Mediterranean.

 

   

Above left:  The first stop was at my brother Don's house in Connecticut.

Above right:  Kayaking in Long Island Sound.

 

       

Above left:  After spending four days in Connecticut, I got on Interstate 95 and drove to JFK Airport in New York City.

Above center:  Then I flew to Minneapolis, where I visited my old friends, Mark and Jayne.  Boy, that steak dinner was good!

Above right:  Mark having fun with Santa.

 

       

Above left:  From there I flew on to Seattle, and another plane later I was back home in Portland.

Above center:  This was the final appearance of Garrison Keillor, during his Farewell Tour around America of "A Prairie Home Companion."  This is at the Oregon Zoo in Portland.

Above right:  The next night I watched the minor league Hillsboro Hops, the only professional baseball team in Portland.

 

   

Above left:  I took my laptop with me everywhere.

Above right:  Having lunch in downtown Portland with Martin, my Dutch friend.  He and I traveled to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, B.C. in 2010, which I described in an earlier update.  Martin apparently liked the souvenir keffiyah (headdress) I'd brought him from Qatar.

 

       

Above left:  I had a great time watching the Portland Thorns play soccer.  Based on attendance, the Thorns are the most popular women's team in any sport, anywhere in the world.

Above center:  You would think they won, wouldn't you?  Actually it was a tie.  Cough, cough.

Above right:  I watched the other kind of "football," too.  This is at Lewis and Clark College.  Living in Qatar I really miss American college sports, so I had to get my fill while I was back in America.

 

   

Above left:  Then I spent three days camping on the Oregon coast.  This is at Honeyman State Park near Florence.

Above right:  Cleawox Lake, nestled amidst the never-ending Oregon sand dunes.

 

       

Above left:  Cape Blanco lighthouse, one of many that dot the Oregon coast.

Above center:  And here's what it looks like inside.

Above right:  A "Three Dog Night"?  These are some well-trained puppies in Bandon, Oregon.

 

       

Above left:  The beautiful Siuslaw River bridge in Florence, one of many wonderful bridges built on the Oregon coast during the 1930s.

Above center:  Back in Portland, I enjoyed a yummy Mexican dinner with my neighbors, Patty and Rick.  Boy, I sure miss Mexican food!

Above right:  The colorful Saturday Market in downtown Portland.

 

   

Above left:  And I missed watching college volleyball, too.  These are my hometown favorites, the Portland Pilots.

Above right:  Having dinner with my friends, Carl, Lisa and Mark.  Lisa is taking care of my incoming mail while I'm in Qatar.  Thanks Lisa!

 

       

Above left:  My Portland friends, Ron and Heather, enjoying the Qatar Cup that I brought them from Doha.

Above center:  Then I drove up to Bellingham to visit my sister, who's living at my parents' old house.  How I love this house and its wonderful view of Lake Whatcom.

Above right:  My sister Doti enjoyed the many gifts I brought her.  At least I think she did!

 

   

Above left:  Camping at mossy Sol Duc campground in Olympic National Park in Washington, one of my favorite campgrounds.  But then, I have lots of favorite campgrounds.

Above right:  Sol Duc Falls in Olympic National Park, one of my favorite waterfalls.  But then, I have lots of favorite waterfalls.

 

       

Above left:  Enjoying a lunch of smoked salmon and Tillamook cheese from Oregon.  This is at Hoh campground in Olympic National Park.  It's also one of my favorite campgrounds.

Above center:  And here's one of my favorite hikes.  This is the flat and scenic Hoh River Trail.  I only had time to hike a few miles, though.

Above right:  Misty trees at Ruby Beach in Olympic National Park.

 

   

Above left:  After I spent a month in America it was time time to fly back to Doha.  This is changing planes at Heathrow Airport in London.

Above right:  After a 25 hour flight, I returned to Doha.  My apartment felt like Home Sweet Home!

 


 

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