The thing you really remember about Hamad International Aiport in Doha is the giant yellow teddy bear in the grand foyer.
I caught my first glimpse of the 7m (23 foot) high creature as I descended the escalator to find my luggage. The “Lamp Bear” was created around 2005 by famous Swiss sculpture Urs Fischer and having been originally displayed in front of the Segram building on New York’s Park Avenue was purchased at auction for $6.8million by a member of the Qatar royal family. For me it’s the perfect “Welcome to Qatar” memory that aptly sums up my feelings about the country. Whether you love it or loath it, expect things to be larger than life, memorable and certainly unexpected!
The aim of this blog entry is to give you a sense of what to expect as an expat worker arriving in Doha for the first time. For those like me coming to work at Aspire Academy, it will be almost a step-by-step guide to negotiating your first few weeks of the job. For everyone else the general principles should still ring true. However, one thing we should clear up before getting started is the fluid nature of life in Qatar.
Be water my friend…
Most westerners expect bureaucracies to be static and unchanging. So it can come as quite a shock to discover things are far more fluid in the Middle East. While at home they are accustomed to reading through pages of small print, in Qatar they need to be prepared for a place where policies and procedures change regularly and are rarely documented in a definitive fashion.
Here it is not uncommon for you to be told (or read on the internet) that the procedure you are undertaking will be X, only to turn up at the designated place and find that it has been amended to Y! So be prepared for this and build the time necessary to negotiate changes into your schedule. If you expect a certain procedure to take 2 hours don’t book a meeting into your diary immediately afterwards. Instead, give yourself a few hours leeway just in case something has changed.
So for the duration of your time in the Middle East, take a page out of Bruce Lee’s playbook and be like water – flexible and adaptable to the environment into which you venture.
Making immigration easy…
As an expat worker landing in Doha, your first experience of the bureaucracy that will consume most of your free time over the coming weeks begins at passport control. Here the officials will check your visa and ensure you complete all the required immigration paperwork before allowing you into the country.
By all accounts this is laborious on a good day and can take an hour or two on a bad one. I say “on all accounts” because I have yet to experience it myself and neither should you as for around 325 Qatari Riyal (QAR), or $90 / £72 you can bypass the queues by using Al Maha Services. Al Maha should be booked online before you fly and can be located at the far right hand side of the immigration control area before you line up to show your passport. You can choose from either the Gold or Platinum Arrivals service. I’ve always gone with Gold because the only real difference with Platinum is that they come and find you as soon as you leave the plane and it really isn’t hard to find the Lounge as you make your way through the airport.
When you walk into the Al Maha lounge all you need to do is hand over your passport and baggage tags to the lady at the desk and they take care of all the immigration documents on your behalf. They also go and find your luggage at the same time, which leaves you free to sit and enjoy any of the free drinks or refreshments until everything is done.
Once your bags and paperwork are complete, an Al Maha assistant will then show you through the airport to arrivals. From here it should just be a simple matter of looking out for your driver (if one has been booked for you) or following the signs outside to get a taxi.
Like most places, taxis are readily available in Doha and come in three flavors – green “Karwa”, white “Limousine” and Uber/Careem ride hailing services.
The green Karwa taxis are usually branded up Toyota Corollas. Their distinctive design makes them easy to spot and you can hail them on the street or via their very own (at as of 2017 still flawed) Karwa app (iPhone / Android). The quality of a Karwa driver varies massively depending on their time in the country. If you are lucky they will be exactly what you’d expect from a taxi driver. However, on the whole they will typically have no idea where your destination is unless it is a major mall or the airport. Therefore, you must be prepared to direct them via Google Maps! On the plus side, Karwa rides are very cheap with the exact fare dictated by a meter inside the car, which also acts as a GPS navigation system. To give you an idea of cost a 45min journey across town for around 8 miles will only set you back about QAR 50 ($14 / £12).
The white “Limousine” cars are typically brand new white Honda Accords. You will see them everywhere and if a driver sees you standing by the curb they’ll often try and get your attention by tooting their horn at you. Beware, these cars do not have meters and so the fare should be negotiated BEFORE you get into the car. On the whole prices tend to be more expensive than Karwa with some drivers trying to charge you twice as much for the exact same journey. However, you can usually get them to accept a discounted rate if you haggle a little. I usually just ask them “How much will it cost?” and then take about 15-20% off the price they originally suggest. On the plus side most limousine drivers seem to know Doha better and tend to be safer drivers, although this is not always the case.
Finally ride hailing apps such as Uber or Careem are becoming increasingly popular in Doha. They offer the convenience of you being able to put in your destination so the driver will not get lost and their superior navigation systems mean they usually avoid taking you through the centre of the city at rush hour! Prices are fairly competitive depending on the time of day. The only real negative is that you can’t always find Uber drivers near by.
During my first month in Doha, I would typically use Karwa drivers wherever possible because they helped to keep down costs. I rarely used Uber because payment is made by card and until you get a local credit card this means paying foreign exchange fees and other bank charges.
UPDATE July 2017: After completing my first month in Doha I was able to get a credit card. I then began dabbling with using Uber. Now 5 months in I can honestly say that Uber is by far the best way to travel by Taxi. Because the drivers get feedback they are typically much safer than Karwa or Limousine. Also the prices are very reasonable and the GPS makes it far more likely the driver will know where they are going. In the last 5 months I’ve used Uber at least twice every day and only had 2 bad experiences out of maybe 250-300 rides. My advice now is to just download the app and use it today.
Probably the first things you’ll want to do after arriving in Doha will be to get a pay-as-you-go phone SIM. You’ll need this not only to stay in contact with people but also to open a bank account and probably a few other things besides. Getting a SIM to fit inside your existing mobile phone is easy. All you need to do is take your passport to one of the two mobile phone operators that operate in Qatar and pay around QAR 20 ($6 / £5). I went with Ooredoo on the recommendation of a colleague at work but Vodafone also seems to be very popular.
Ooredeoo and Vodaphone have their own outlets all over the place but you can also get SIMs and phone credit at most major supermarkets including Carrefour supermarket, which is located inside the Villaggio Mall adjacent to the Torch Hotel for anyone beginning work for Aspire.
In the future, you may decide you want a post-paid phone contact but that will only be possible once you have your residency permit. However, the pay-as-you-go prices in Qatar are very reasonable so I have yet to make the switch. In my first month I only spent QAR160 on my mobile which included 6GB of data for QAR100 and QAR60 on local phone calls.