Open letter to a professional considering a move to Qatar

Dear Professional Expatriate,

Congratulations! You are a Western mid-career or senior professional who has been offered a job in Qatar. As someone who has reached a high position for a non-Qatari in a Qatari company, I can offer you some advice to help you consider whether the life is for you.

1. Business values are not like what you are used to

Qatar society does not believe in the “golden rule.”  In America, you can assume that most people in business believe in integrity and fair play.  Of course there are exceptions, but, in general, business in the Western, especially Anglo-Saxon, world is based on shared values of mutual respect, egalitarianism, and a dedication to foundational ethics.  This is simply not true in the Gulf Arab countries.  Society is inherently opaque and corrupt (more on that later).  You will see this in the workplace every day.

Qatari society, like other eastern cultures, is insular, collectivist, and conformist.  You can see it in superficial ways, such as the way people dress and the cars that they drive, but these values will also manifest themselves in the workplace.  Whereas back home, your boss appreciates it if you challenge his conclusions or get him to think in new ways, this is not the norm in Qatar.  The concept of “face,” as in east Asian cultures, is paramount.

The society has difficulty in abstract thinking—expect blank stares when you present your proposed strategy or long-term business plan, but expect a lot of feedback once the product is produced and the owner demands changes that should have been addressed in the design phase.

2. The economy is driven by the state

Qatar practices a form of state capitalism, with the corresponding healthy dose of red tape.  Almost all economic activity falls into three realms.  In both extraction of petroleum and construction of infrastructure, the state joins with foreign companies and takes royalties and creates jobs for locals.  The third pillar is the service sector, characterized by highly uncompetitive companies with low productivity sapping up state-originated cash and credit to try to diversify the economy.  You will see that the economy basically consists of oil-and-gas money sloshing around on vanity projects, with healthy cuts taken by Qataris at every step in the value chain (such as it is).

There is almost no foreign direct investment in Qatar outside the petroleum industry, and Qatari companies hardly produce any other products or services that can be competitively exported.  However, to a greater extent than any Gulf country, Qatar’s petroleum reserves are practically unlimited, so there is a vast pool of money to be invested domestically.

This “investment” is probably why you were offered the job.  The elite class is smart enough to know that it needs foreign help, to a degree.  You will enter with some measure of respect from your bosses, but they will invariably remind you on occasion (implicitly and explicitly) that they are the bosses and that you are a guest in their country.  (Perhaps the West could learn from Qatar in how to manage immigration.)  Foreigners operate on the so-called sponsorship system, under which their sponsor (employer) must give permission to change employers, open a bank account, import personal effects, get a driving license or buy a car, or, most importantly, travel outside the country.  Your job will likely be “Qatarized” eventually, perhaps in abrupt manner.  All companies are mandated to hire Qataris, who will generally be unproductive because they are not held accountable for anything.

Due to all of these dynamics, one of the most important pieces of advice that I can give you is to not invest any of your own money in the country.  You will have no rights if you invest in a property or a commercial venture.  The stock market is completely rigged.  In fact, you should transfer most of your cash flow to a bank outside the country.  Cases of expatriates’ bank accounts being frozen, for accused malfeasance (which are often spuriously initiated by their bosses to distract from their own malfeasance, or to express their frustration at some other perceived grievance) or for no reason at all, are numerous and predictable.

3. Social ethics are not like what you are used to

You will also experience surprising cultural norms outside the workplace.  Experiencing how other cultures live should be one of the benefits of taking a job abroad, and you will find this one of the more intriguing parts of your experience should you move.  Qatar society is defined by Qatari culture, of course, though because Qataris make up only around 15% of the population, there are other influences too—imported largely from Iran, the Levant, and the Indian subcontinent.  There are many benefits of this cultural milieu, but unfortunately there are also many facets that will frustrate you as an American.  The social structure is crudely hierarchical; Qataris are at the top, naturally, though there is a hierarchy there, too, with a few elite families at the very top, followed by the middle which gets fewer privileges, and then Qataris with Iranian or African heritage, which is discernible from their names or skin color, often looked down upon and bestowed with fewer privileges from the government.  Next are Americans and other Westerners, who inherently benefit from positive prejudice in the job market as well as the marketplace for goods and services.  Arabs from Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan (though not if they are Shiites) enjoy high status economically and socially; many of your upscale business colleagues will be from there.  Egyptians followed by other North African Arabs tend to get fewer opportunities.  Filipinos are ubiquitous in retail and hospitality, but rarely in white-collar jobs.  Indians are a wild card—they can be CEOs or laborers or anything in between.  (In fact, Qatar culture is tied closely to that of India; Qatar used the Indian rupee as its currency until the 1960s.)  Most other South and Southeast Asians are represented much lower on the job scale.

Even worse is the social discrimination.  Friday is “family day” at the mall, which nominally means that no unaccompanied men are allowed.  In practice, this means “no Indians”—as an American, you will waltz right in.  You will encounter Nepali and other South Asian “security guards” all over—at office buildings, residential compounds, and parking lots, as well as by the door to the mall on Fridays.  Don’t worry, as an American you will just tell them that you are passing and then do so.

When people ask me to describe the culture in Qatar, the best word I can think of is “coarse.”  Qataris, as well as the rest of the culture, are generally impatient, aggressive, and discourteous.  They have a reputation for hospitality, which is well-deserved, but this is usually superficial and only prevalent on their turf.  In public, you will be shocked at the lack of respect that most people in Qatar show toward others—this is especially true when driving or parking, or standing in line at the ministry or the market.  If you stay in Qatar long enough, you, too, will become more impatient and aggressive.

This region, like all Arab Islamic cultures, does not value the pursuit of knowledge, the challenge of conventional thinking, or self-reflection in general.  You won’t find any bookstores like back home.  The annual book fair mostly features Korans.  The media, through self-censorship and strict regulation, only parrots the government line.  The internet is heavily filtered. I suggest that you bring your Kindle with you to Qatar.

4. There is no rule of law

You read the news, about the progress that Qatar seems to be making to develop its economy and please the world.  You have probably been offered a professional-looking employment contract.  Make no mistake—your chances of ever enforcing that contract in a court are nil.  The chances are even less if your adversary (employer) is a particularly influential Qatari.  There are entities to which you can turn—the Human Rights committee, Labor department, police—but engaging them will inevitably lead you to a black hole that will do you more professional harm than benefit.  The country is sensitive to its reputation these days, with all of the media reports about worker abuse leading up to the World Cup, but, fairly or not, a low-level laborer is more likely to get a remedy than a professional Westerner.  In any event, the legal system is not predictable at all.

Qatar is a corrupt country.  Most private wealth is generated by nepotism, inside dealing with the state, which basically controls all economic activity, or outright theft.  Every project takes much longer and costs much more than it should, or never gets completed at all.  You will be frustrated at your lack of ability to get things done in your job.  You can expect your Qatari boss to hire and give contracts to family and friends, or people connected with influential Qataris whom he wants to cultivate.  You can expect him to receive kickbacks from suppliers large and small; in some cases he will even force you to choose suppliers that he owns.  You may have the opportunity to reap such “benefits” yourself; I would of course discourage acceptance.

In dealing with the government, too, you will see corruption, though hopefully not directly, as your company will have a “fixer” to take care of the myriad licenses, permits, approvals, and inspections that your company must endure in order to operate.  There are no set rules behind any of these regulations, at least that are enforced uniformly.  Your company’s fixer will have a trunk full of prepaid phone cards, iPads, TVs, and smart phones to dole out to government functionaries—as if the generously overpaid Qatari at the ministry counter needs another one.  I think that they demand such gratuities as much to demonstrate their power as to enrich themselves.

5. It’s their money

Remember, it’s their money, so they can do whatever they want.  An owner of a private company has the prerogative to run the company any way he wants.  Indeed, I wish that our governments back home would impose fewer regulations on the conduct of a private organization toward its employees.  If an owner wants to operate in an unethical or non-commercial way, running the company for his short-term private benefit to the detriment of the enterprise, it’s his right.  (It gets murkier in a publicly-traded, widely-held, or state-owned enterprise, but not in Qatar.)

You can choose to take the job or not.  If you come to Qatar expecting to really make a difference with highly fulfilling work in a vigorous capitalist system, you will likely be disappointed.  If you want to earn a good salary and contribute a little bit to at least sleep at night knowing that you’re not cheating your employer, then there is a moderate chance that you will find such a situation.

Best of luck.  Please let me know if you decide to go!


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