I haven't traveled to many places in this world, but from what I hear and from personal experience, I think Qatar is a very unique country. It is a place where you can bump up against a wide variety of cultures, literally, as in the unpleasant traffic kind of way, and figuratively, as in the beautiful smile and head wag of the Indian woman who rang up my groceries today. Qatar is populated primarily by expats. Everywhere you look you will see Sri Lankans, Indians, Pakistanis, Australians, Americans, Filipinos, and the list could go on and on. There are more than 1.7 million people in this tiny country but only a small fraction are full-fledged citizens. Yes, there are Qataris but they make up only 20% of the population.
1. As you drive around Doha you will notice that there are thousands of new cars, at least that's what they seem to be because the plastic from the car factory is still on the seats. Well, let's just say that the owners of these cars like to hang on to that "new car smell" as long as possible and leave the factory plastic in place until it is in shreds. They also like to leave the factory identification papers on the windows too. You will also notice that when the factory plastic wears off, many Land Cruiser owners will have custom plastic put on the seats. I haven't been able to understand the logic behind it, but it is quite puzzling. I have heard that Qatar has more new cars sold per capita than other countries, but I don't have access to that research to back up that rumor.
2. Qatar is all about how things look. There is a lot of effort put into making the city look like a paradise in this harsh desert. Thousands of workers make sure the roundabouts are immaculately in bloom and splendor with everything watered and manicured. There are even spots in the city where, instead of bothersome grass, there is astroturf and workers are often seen vacuuming said astroturf to keep it looking as much like fake grass as possible. And if you happen to be walking around the Aspire Zone you might hear the music of sweet birds singing, only there are no trees and no visible birdlife in the area. So where is the birdsong coming from? Well, the sound system, of course!
3. And speaking of parks and walking areas, if you go to Aspire Park, be prepared to have security officers following you around and asking your children not to run in certain areas, throw balls in certain areas, and be too loud. They are very strict about the kind of fun families can have at the park. But the ironic thing is that they don't care if children ride their bikes down a very steep hill at full speed and crash at the bottom on the paved walking area. And if you are single, forget about hanging out at the park.
4. When we became expats in Qatar in 2008 obtaining a driver's license involved getting a passport photo taken (I blinked the first time and caused some frustration to the not-so-patient Arabic photographer), going to a filthy government office where there were lots of smoking men, having an eye exam with instructions in Arabic, and then watching as our company liaison officer Mohammad Ali convinced the smoking men that I had great eye sight and they should issue my driver's license.
The very next year things changed for Americans. The rumor said that there was a member of the Qatari royal family who was denied an American driver's license, so as retribution, all Americans, after that, were put through the rigorous paces of a written exam and then a driving exam. I've heard that the driving exam is horrible and no matter how well you do you automatically fail the first time, and then on the second try, you must execute driving maneuvers without any English instructions. Also, if you have teenagers, they must wait until age 18 to take the driving exam and they are especially tough on American teenagers. I know one young man who took the test three or four times, failing each time even though he is a very good driver with a U.S. license.
5. In Qatar the rules do not apply to everyone. For example, we went to the Cat Stevens concert last weekend and as we were going through security they wanted us to leave our very expensive camera with them and claim it after the concert. I saw a pile of camera bags in the grass behind the security table. I asked if they were confiscating all cameras and phones. The security woman said, "Well, no, only big cameras." "So people can take pictures with small cameras and phones?!" was my next question. She said, "Yes, of course."
We asked for a receipt but they did not have any such system in place for this. We refused to leave the camera and asked to talk to someone in charge. Another couple was waiting for the same reason. When a western-looking man came over to talk to us he told us that Yusef Islam (Cat Stevens) had requested that no close photographs be taken and if we were caught using our camera, we would be asked to leave. So we didn't get any inside photos or recordings of the great music, but at least we got to enjoy being around everyone else who was zooming in on Yusef Islam's beard and getting those great shots for their blogs.
6. There are A LOT of men in Qatar. Most of them are expat workers who wear blue jumpsuits and travel around in buses from building site to first class accommodations - NOT (Qatar is on the International Human Rights Watch List). While these men are working and traveling in their buses, they are usually staring at ANY women or girls who come into their view, especially if those women or girls have blonde hair and light skin. It is unnerving, to say the least. The first year we were here Abbey would bring a shayla in the car and practically make a tent for herself so she wouldn't have to see the staring faces. At first I told her to ignore them, then I told her to stare back, then I just gave in to the shayla. I still get uncomfortable with the staring, but I have learned to stare back and try to communicate non-verbally that what they are doing is impolite.
7. There is a Film City, Qatar, and yes, part of one of the Transformers movies was filmed there. At least that is the rumor. You tell me if you think it is true.
8. Whatever you do, don't eat raw cookie dough. You don't want to fight the salmonella monster like we did in 2009.
9. The other day I saw a photo on Facebook of a Qatar road sign that said, "Beware of Road Surprises" and the photographer had captioned it with, "Only in Qatar does this sign make perfect sense." Yes, if you move here you must be prepared for road surprises by the hundreds EVERY SINGLE DAY. Those would include the road construction (it is called ROAD WORKS here), terrible drivers, huge cement trucks monopolizing the road, and plenty of Grand Canyon-like pot holes that all of a sudden get filled and then are blocked off with cinder blocks and boards - you know instead of those silly orange cone-shaped things.
And speaking of surprises on the road:
10. When you buy produce at the local Carrefour, Giant Store, or LuLu make sure and get it weighed and priced in the produce area. It took me quite awhile to get used to standing in line in the produce area to have my apples put on the scale and given a bar coded sticker before heading to the cashier at the front of the store. There were plenty of oranges and potatoes that I just left behind at the cashier when they were held up for ridicule when found without the appropriate price sticker. Again, in Qatar I have learned to let my shopping list and my to-do list go unchecked many times.
Other posts on moving to Qatar