Qatar Expat Health Insurance Guide
Qatar is one of the world’s most popular expat destinations, where foreign workers make up 1.5 million of the total 1.8 million population. As a result foreign faces are part of everyday life for native Qatari’s and you should expect to integrate with ease. Additionally, as a former British Protectorate, English is widely spoken so few language barriers should be expected.
Most Qatari’s pile into the major urban areas, with over 80% of Qatar’s population residing in the capital city of Doha. Unsurprisingly, for a country with the highest per capita income in the world these major urbanizations offer an exceptional standard of living, with reliable public services and a safe, family-friendly environment.
Outside of these areas you will encounter ancient desert wilderness which has barely changed over the centuries, with ancient monuments and tourist sites aplenty. It is fair to say, therefore, that no matter what you seek from an expat destination Qatar has much to offer.
While Qatar is well-known for its desert landscape it is far from arid. Indeed, while precipitation may be low, humidity in the state can be surprisingly high. Humidity of 90% or more is not unheard of in the summer months.
Combine this humidity with temperatures that can reach 50’C and becomes immediately clear that outdoor activities in summer can be severely restricted.
That said, coastal areas are typically more moderate in both temperature and humidity. Winters, also, provide some respite and are generally mild and dry. This makes the winter months the ideal time to visit.
As a measure of the country’s aridity the wettest month of the year is typically February – which experiences an average of just two days rain.
Like so many other Middle Eastern nations much of Qatari culture is based upon Islamic teachings. While visitors are not expected to follow Muslim rulings it is important to treat the local culture with the respect that it deserves.
While increasingly considered more liberal than some more staunch neighbours, visitors to Qatar should aim to dress conservatively in public. Ladies should aim to keep shoulders and midriffs covered. Bathing suits and other revealing items of clothing should be reserved for the swimming pool or private beaches.
Another consideration when visiting Qatar is that Muslim law prevents unmarried couples from making physical contact. Public displays of affection can lead to arrest while some Qatari men will avoid even shaking hands with members of the opposite sex out of respect. Note that this is a cultural phenomenon rather than anything personal and if in doubt it is best to allow your Qatari friends and business acquaintances to lead in this respect. A respectful alternative to shaking hands is touching your chest.
In Muslim culture it is considered impolite to reveal the soles of the feet. Doing so suggests that you believe your companion to be “dirt”. As a result, while it can take some self-discipline to begin with, try to sit in public with your feet flat on the ground rather than with your legs crossed.
While there is a risk that these cultural differences sound oppressive the reality is that most Qataris are almost painfully polite. Manners are considered a core tenet of Qatari culture and this creates a respectful, family-friendly environment. Even ill manners while driving can result in fines or arrests.
The primary language in Qatar is Arabic, though in practise a large proportion of the population speaks fluent English as a second language.
As always, an attempt to learn a few basic words of Arabic is generally greatly appreciated and can be useful for bonding with new acquaintances.
Driving accidents are the number one source of fatalities in Qatar. The roads can be dangerous and the standards of driving may be lower than you are used to.
Therefore whilst it is possible to hire a car, in reality very few expats take the chance. If you opt for your own vehicle it is important to understand the licensing laws clearly. UK driving license holders are permitted to drive for up to seven days on their home license, while an international driving license facilitates six months of driving.
Beyond this period of time drivers will need to exchange their home driving license for the Qatari equivalent. Note that a residency permit is required before a Qatari driving license is granted.
Public transport in Qatar is provided by the State-owned provider Mowasalat. Whilst there are no passenger trains in Qatar, buses and taxis may represent suitable alternatives to driving. Fares can either be paid in cash, or using the recently-introduced smartcard system.
Note that a quirk of Qatar is that many buildings do not use building numbers or even road names in their address. Directions may therefore be given based on other local landmarks. If in doubt seek advice from locals who will be able to help you locate your destination.
Qatar offers high levels of healthcare to both visitors and residents alike. In order to receive this subsidized care you will need to be in receipt of a national health card, which can be obtained from post offices or approved medical centres in the country.
Even with these government subsidies however you will still be expected to pay nominal charges for your healthcare. The reality is that medical care in Qatar is expensive so even these fees can add up.
For this reason expat health insurance should be considered a necessity.
Outside of the public service there are also a number of private hospitals where waiting lists can be shorter and standards of healthcare can be even higher. Whilst many expats opt for private care it is important to understand that health cards are rarely accepted by such institutions. As a result you should check with your insurer whether the policy you are considering covers private healthcare facilities.
As in the UK, the emergency services can be reached by dialling 999. Qatar’s ambulance service has improved immeasurably in recent decades and rapid transportation to hospital can be expected now in case of emergencies.
The official currency in Qatar is the Qatari riyal. There are many ATMs dotted around larger cities so gaining access to funds is seldom a problem. Credit cards are widely accepted.
Note that many visitors have had problems exchanging travellers cheques in Qatar and the fees can be exorbitant so it is best to rely on plastic for accessing funds while in the country.
Be aware that as with many other Middle Eastern countries bounced cheques and unpaid bills are considered a crime and you may be prevented from leaving the country until outstanding bills have been settled. Therefore while in Qatar be careful to keep an eye on your current account at all times to ensure you have suitable funds for any payments made.
As in so many other parts of the world expat parents in Qatar can select either from a state-funded public school or a private international school for their children. Many expats choose the latter option as they can be certain their children will be schooled in their native tongue and that they will be studying for qualifications that will be recognized in their home country.
Either way educational standards in Qatar are considered excellent, though the biggest problem parents can face is the admission process. Waiting lists for the better schools can be long, and many schools will only accept applications for a short period of time each year.
As an added difficulty international schooling in Qatar can be expensive so expats should examine finances carefully before making a decision.
It is becoming increasingly normal to ask employers to cover these school fees, and to make admission into a suitable school an essential step in the relocation process. Some expats have gone as far as to refuse to sign a formal relocation agreement until their school admission has been approved.
An increasingly popular alternative is home-schooling and a number of expat groups may be found in Doha advising on the rules and regulations surrounding home-schooling of your children if such an idea appeals.
Food & Drink
As evidenced by the forthcoming 2022 World Cup Qatar is now fully established as a major international player. With over 90% of the population being foreign workers it is relatively simple to find foods from all around the world here. As a result no matter what your personal tastes may be you are certain to eat well.
Classic Qatari menus feature food items that can be easily sourced or produced such as seafood, dates and lamb. These are often combined with carbohydrates like flatbreads or rice into a seemingly limitless range of possibilities. Many visitors to Qatar have commented on quite how delicious this hearty cuisine really is to Western taste-buds.
A classic Qatari dish is known as “mathrooba” and consists of slow-simmered chicken, beans and vegetables until they reach a “porridge-like” texture. While the appearance of this dish looks less than appealing many visitors find it one of the highlights of their visit.
An alternative experience is “wareq enab” – essentially vine leaves stuffed with a mouth-watering combination of freshly-cooked lamb and spiced rice.
Possibly the best-loved traditional beverage is Arabian coffee which has been spiced with cardamom.
Note that as a Muslim country both pork and alcohol are off-limits for native Qataris. Attempting to import either is illegal in Qatar. That said, foreigners may purchase both items under permit from within the country to consume at home. The necessary paperwork can only be issued by your employer so expats are advised to stay in their good graces.
Note that offering either alcohol or pork to Qatari friends of business acquaintances is considered very rude so you should endeavour to keep that bottle of Scotch as your own little secret.
Qatar is considered very safe and family-friendly and few issues arise. The Foreign Office reports that some female visitors have received unwanted attention from men in the country though due to Islamic law this is unlikely to become physical. Lone females are advised to take extra care at night.
Arguably the biggest potential problem in Qatar comes in the form of heat exhaustion. In the hotter months it is advisable to make use of air conditioning and to avoid going outdoors whenever possible. Stay hydrated and report to a medical facility if you suffer from symptoms such as dizziness, nausea or muscle cramps.
Places to Visit
Whilst tourism in the height of the summer can be problematic, as the year pushes on and temperatures drop sightseeing becomes a far more pleasant experience. As you might expect from such a wealthy and historic nation there is much to see in Qatar. Here are a few of the top sites worth visiting on your trip:
Arguably Qatar’s best-known market (“souk”) the building has been trading over a century. Today it represents prime shopping territory where one can browse through the dozens of stalls selling everything from traditional garments to food. It’s also a great place to eat with a multitude of restaurants in attendance.
Museum of Islamic Art
To appreciate the wonders that Islamic craftsmen have created over the centuries there can be few better locations than the MIA. The works of art on display span over a millennium of gifted work originating from three different continents. A full day out for all the family prepare to be immersed and amazed at the wealth of beauty to be found here.
For residents of Doha there can be few things more pleasant than a stroll along this extensive sea-front promenade. This 7km long pedestrianized area is a great way to get about, enjoy the views and gain access the city. It is lined with restaurants and hotels so can also be a perfect place to enjoy a meal with views of the bay.
Khor Al Udeid
In many ways Khol Al Udeid is Qatar’s premier seaside resort where white sand dunes nestle against the clear blue sea. It’s a perfect place to unwind and relax. For the more adventurous swimming, taking a camel ride or whizzing around in a sand buggy are all options. It is even possible to stay at one of the many camp sites here for a memorable late-night barbeque.
For more information on moving abroad visit www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo.
Of course, if you’re planning on travelling to Qatar please ensure you have adequate expat travel insurance.