You stare out of the plane window at the country you will now call home.
On the approach to landing, you flew over aqua waters so bright you would be forgiven for thinking they had been photoshopped, and you took in the semi-circles of high-rise apartments that make up The Pearl-Qatar. On the ground, though, the landscape is completely flat, your surroundings are mostly beige, and the horizon is blurry from the dust in the air. As the plane taxis towards the terminal, you can make out the shadowy skyline of West Bay in Doha. Mixed with the excitement of moving are other feelings: anxiety, fear, and nerves.
Over the plane’s PA system, the pilot welcomes you to Qatar. What they don’t know—but most expats do—is that you are wondering what on earth you have done.
Cold feet just before, during, or right after relocating to start a new life is completely normal—especially if it’s halfway across the world. In fact, it is probably less typical to not have second thoughts. It is easy, however, to get lost in that feeling for weeks and months—the perfect way to guarantee you will have a bad experience. To avoid that, here are our top tips for managing a smooth transition to life in Qatar.
DO: Your Paperwork
Mission number one and the most vital (logistically, anyway) for staying in a country long term is to get your paperwork in order. Your work permit should have been approved before you entered the country but, once you arrive, there are certain things you need to organise. These include getting a medical exam and doing biometrics (including fingerprints) to secure your Residency Permit (RP). Once you have that, you can start getting any dependents their own RPs. Armed with your RP, you can also do things such as getting a bank account, setting up utility bills, and getting connected with a mobile phone. Getting these things sorted and out of the way quickly will free you up to do more fun things!
DON’T: Think Qatar = Doha
Doha is by far the biggest city in Qatar, but that doesn’t mean it is the only place in Qatar. For a small peninsula, there is a lot to do outside of Doha’s city limits, including exploring the country’s pristine beaches, sweeping sand dunes, and historical forts. Exploring the country can be on foot or a bike, in a car, or on a boat. Not only that, but the cultural makeup of the population is such that you can transport yourself to any number of countries just by visiting (there’s more on this here!)
DO: Come with an Open Mind
Many people have preconceptions about what living in Qatar is like. These ideas are often a by-product of what they know about neighbouring countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia or what they have been told by mainstream Western media. It is so important to put aside stereotypes and to learn first-hand about the country’s geography, history, politics, and culture.
Coming to live here with an open mind offers many more opportunities for creating a fantastic life.
DON’T: Ignore Local Customs
This is surely one of the most critical things to know about before moving to any new country, but it is a step that many forget! Knowing to dress conservatively is just one part of the dynamic. It is also important to understand cultural norms like the concept of wasta (who you know). Pay attention, and you will also learn how to direct people using now-defunct landmarks (such as “TV Roundabout”) and appreciate that certain physical gestures are offensive to local people. For example, the Westernised hand sign for “perfect” can also be read as the sign for the evil eye.
DO: Make It Home
Settling in quickly goes a long way in determining how much a new person will enjoy expat life in Qatar or anywhere else in the world. Unpack as soon as possible, hang pictures up on the walls, and put rugs down on the floors. Get to know your neighbourhood and learn how to get to work or school without using the GPS. Finding your feet and getting the logistics of moving country out of the way will make more space in your life for exciting adventures in your new town. Coming home to your safe space at the end of each day will also lower your stress levels which, in turn, will improve how you feel about living here.
DON’T: Surround Yourself with Negative People
It might be Expat 101, but everyone needs reminding of this from time to time. There are negative people in every city, and they will do nothing to improve anyone’s experience. For newbies who might be feeling a little lost and insecure, negative people will have an even greater impact. We’ve all been that new person who asks a new acquaintance how they find living here, only to get a vague answer from the other party as they avoid eye contact. Limiting interactions with these sorts of people will do wonders for your mental health. Conversely, if you can find upbeat, positive people who are enjoying their lives in Qatar, it will dramatically improve how you view things.
DO: Make Local Contacts
This might be a bit tricky since such a small fraction of Qatar’s population are Qataris. Still, if you can make friends with locals, it will give you an incredibly rich perspective of life here. Making local contacts goes beyond befriending citizens, however. Becoming friends with people from all walks of life is incredibly enriching. The longer you live in Qatar, the more amazing contacts you will make. This includes having friends who know the back routes to the Inland Sea, getting the details of a man who will change your car battery in your driveway with 12 hours’ notice, and discovering who makes the best Qatari cuisine in the souq.
Don’t: Stay at Home (Forever)
Moving to a new country is overwhelming. This can sometimes paralyse people into doing nothing. They might be too scared to brave unfamiliar roads and malls, too shy to go out and meet new people, or just not sure what to explore first. When you are new, literally anything you can do to get out of the house, whether it is to meet people or go exploring, is the best thing you can do to have a great time living here. And that’s not just a tip for newbies!
Now, in a Covid world, this is much easier said than done, particularly when tight controls are in place to restrict people’s movements, meeting in groups, and even getting outside. So, of course, when you are able, you should do this safely and carefully, taking care to follow the rules.
DO: Pay It Forward
The expat community in Qatar is a tight-knit one. Because there are so many people constantly arriving and leaving, people are often faster to welcome new folks to their building, compound, school, or place of work than in other cities around the world. You yourself might have been the recipient of some home-baked cookies from a neighbour or an invitation to tea from a complete stranger you met on social media.
When it’s your turn, go ahead and welcome newbies with a warm smile and your top tips. Perhaps you can also pass along the details of that car battery guy and tell them where your favourite restaurants are. You never know whose expat experience you are about to change.