The year I decided I would finally follow the path of many Antipodeans (a term in the UK used to describe a person from Australia or New Zealand) before me and make the move to London, life threw a curveball at me.
I was offered the chance to spend three months living and working as an expat in the Middle East – specifically in the city of Doha in Qatar.
The decision-making process lasted about five seconds, with me responding emphatically in the affirmative. I thought I was signing up for the adventure of a lifetime.
In this regard, I was not wrong.
What followed were three of the most confronting and ultimately, rewarding months of my time on Earth so far. Life in the Middle East was not exactly what I had expected, but the time I spent there was an experience I will treasure, always.
Whether you're entertaining the thought to move or even just visit a country like Qatar, here are some points to consider.
1. The Middle East is Hotter than Hades
I realize it may seem like I’m pointing out the glaringly obvious here, but bear with me. I hail from Australia and like to think I am therefore equipped to deal with extreme heat. I was so, so wrong.
My three-month stint was in the middle of summer, with temperatures ranging around the low hundreds Fahrenheit/mid-forties Celsius. One memorable day was recorded as having a high of 118°F/48°C!
Interestingly, I found it wasn’t the heat that got to me… it was the humidity. In July the humidity can reach 100%. I would leave my home and within thirty seconds, be drenched in my own sweat. Hot look, right there.
To combat the extreme heat, all buildings everywhere are heavily air-conditioned. This can be quite discombobulating as you move from outside to inside… and provides the perfect environment to catch a chill, if you’re not careful.
2. For the Ladies – Stick to the Dress Code
Qatar advises that non-Muslim tourists and expats should dress modestly.
Men are asked not to wear shorts and tank tops. Women in turn, are asked to avoid miniskirts, tight clothes or short sleeve shirts and dresses in public.
While I was there, people on the streets could be seen handing out leaflets declaring that “Leggings are not pants” – an argument up for debate across most Western countries as well.
Out in the desert and within my accommodation, I wore shorts, bikinis, and tank tops.
In the city, I observed the rules. My wardrobe consisted of baggy pants, flowing skirts, t-shirts, sunglasses and a large sun hat. I also carried around a beautiful cashmere shawl that I could throw around my shoulders when I felt the need to cover up.
You will get a lot of attention from men passing by – particularly if you’re blonde. While I found it rather disconcerting at first, after a few weeks it just became a normal part of my everyday life.
3. Take Every Opportunity to Eat at a Souq
Doha’s local marketplace, the Souq Waqif, sold almost everything you can imagine – from trinkets, to clothing, pet animals and the most delicious food.
If you were in a hurry, you could pick something cheap and tasty from a street vendor. I, however, tried to make the time to eat at any of the local restaurants.
I managed to sample a whole range of foods while I was there… camel at a Moroccan restaurant, pigeon within an Egyptian setting, and I ate my body weight in eggplant purée at a particularly beloved Iranian restaurant.
4. You’ll Hone Your Haggling Skills
I hadn’t had the opportunity to haggle much before living in Qatar, simply accepting the often upsetting prices of goods in the Western world. Living in Doha did wonders for my assertiveness.
Haggling is the most common and accepted form of negotiation within the souq – one I was terrified to take part in at first.
With the patient encouragement of a fellow colleague, I learned the subtle nuances involved in the process of bartering for goods, which did wonders for my confidence as well.
5. Negotiate Your Taxi Price Before Getting in the Car
Doha has minimal public transport, in the form of one free bus that does a loop around the city. Most expats bought or rented cars, had private drivers, or used cabs.
Taxis were the cheapest options, but you had to be both wily and organized. If you wanted a cab at a specific place and time, you had to call up the company and book a day in advance. If you were running late, they would sometimes leave without you.
I never really had any issues flagging one off the side of the road, but I found I had to keep my wits about me.
Taxi meters in Doha calculated the fare by the distance driven, but many drivers refused to use theirs, in order to charge as they pleased. I would either negotiate a price in advance, or ask them to switch the meters on. If they refused, I told them I was no longer in need of their service and waited for another taxi.
For safety’s sake, be sure to only travel with a clearly marked taxi, or a driver that has been vouched for. And although it is not required or enforced, always wear a seatbelt!
6. Living in the Middle East Will Force You To Travel
Although I didn't stay long enough to experience this myself, many other expats tend to get cabin feverish after around three months.
You need to get out and see some of the world, make a return trip to your country of origin, chill in London or New York… whatever it may be, in order to rebalance yourself and clear your head.
On top of that, many companies offer both accommodation and flights in and out of the country, in exchange for working for them. Tax-free pay also equals ample opportunities to save for travel, if that is indeed your goal.
The only glitch is if you’re on a working visa in Qatar, you need an exit visa to leave the country. These can be easily organized by your company, as long as you allow plenty of time in advance for the process to take place.
7. Everyone Drinks Bottled Water and Recycling Doesn’t Exist
There is a public perception that the water in Qatar is easily contaminated and not safe to drink. As a result, everyone drinks bottled water, going through stacks of the stuff in a day.
I had my bottle with me and would fill it from the filter at work, but I still drank my fair share of bottled water.
I hadn’t done my research and found out that this was an issue, nor was I aware that items such as the Steripen existed. It hurts my heart to think about how many bottles went to waste, particularly as there was no form of recycling within my hotel.
8. You Can Buy Alcohol and Pork (in Some Countries), but You’ll Need a License
There is a common misconception that alcohol is illegal in Muslim countries.
This isn’t entirely true. Most of the hotels, bars and clubs have liquor licenses and are able to sell alcohol to non-Muslims. You will need to show your passport to get into these establishments and some require membership, which you can pay for at the door.
Alcohol is not cheap – although I found the prices to be comparable to those in both England and Australia.
The local authorities frown upon drunken activity. If you go hard on the sauce, keep your antics within the confines of your apartment or hotel room.
Pork and alcohol can be bought from the Qatar Distribution Company, but you have to apply for a license. To do so, you need to submit an application form, along with a no-objection letter from a sponsor and a letter from your company.
There is always a rush to buy these wares shortly before Ramadan, when the shop and hotel bars close for the month.
If you don’t have a license, nor have any friends who have one, I guess you’re going to have to get used to the taste of turkey bacon.
9. The Deserts Miss the Rain and So Will You
I was in the desert for three months and it did not rain once. It’s not something I thought I would miss, but after that length of time, the heat and dryness really gets to you.
In Qatar, it only rains a couple of times a year. I am told the entire city comes to a standstill. People rush outside, gaping openly at the sky and road traffic is maniacal.
When I flew back to Australia after my contract ended, it rained all week. I was overjoyed. Then, I moved to London, where it was also raining and didn’t stop for several days.
It was enough to make me miss the desert.
10. Don’t Date in Public
I was single while I lived in Doha. As a result, I went on a series of very strange dates, with expats from all over the globe.
We’d meet for meals, where we wouldn't be able to touch, and instead had stilted conversations and shook hands at the end of the night.
The two short relationships I did have were intense (as were all relations and friendships between expats in the Middle East).
Being in this cultural setting, so different from my own, made everything feel extra concentrated. An affair of a few weeks seemed like the equivalent of a six-month relationship out in the “real world.”
Within the confines of hotels and friends' apartments, we were able to hold hands, cuddle, and finally feel at ease.
One of the best dates I had while living in the Middle East consisted of playing monopoly and eating cheese in my hotel room. It was a relief to be able to relax, be myself, and not worry that someone was going to throw me in jail for some sort of indecent behavior.
My three months in Doha was unlike anything I had experienced before. It inspired an interest in this endlessly fascinating corner of the globe that is nowhere near being satiated.
If you ever have the opportunity to live and work in the Middle East… Go. It was an adventure that I will never regret and I wish the same for you.
Have you lived in the Middle East as an expat? Tell us what it was like in the comments below.