Social behavior is conducted in a manner respectful of family privacy, hospitality, and the public separation of genders. Visits with unrelated persons occur outside the house or in designated guest areas separate from the areas regularly used by the family. One does not inquire unnecessarily about another person’s family. Despite this strong sense of family privacy, it is considered rude not to extend hospitality to strangers. Tea, coffee, food, and a cool place to sit should be offered to any visitor. Conversely, it is rude not to accept hospitality. When greeting a member of the opposite sex, it is best to act with reserve, following the Qatari’s lead. Some Qatari women feel comfortable shaking hands with a man, but others refrain. Similarly, men may refrain from extending the hand to women or sitting beside them.
Food in Daily Life
The presence of foreign workers has introduced foods from all over the world. Qatar’s cuisine has been influenced by close links to Iran and India and more recently by the arrival of Arabs from North Africa and the Levant as well as Muslim dietary conventions. Muslims generally refrain from eating pork and drinking alcohol, and neither is served publicly. Foods central to Qatar’s cuisine include the many native varieties of dates and seafood. Other foods grown locally or in Iran are considered local delicacies, including sour apples and fresh almonds. The traditional dish machbous is a richly spiced rice combined with meat and/or seafood and traditionally served from a large communal platter. The main meal is eaten at midday, with lighter meals in the morning and late evening. However, with more Qataris entering the workforce, it is becoming more common to have family meals in the evenings. The midday meal on Friday, after prayers, is the main gathering of the week for many families. During the month of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, elaborate and festive meals are served at night. Coffee is a central feature of the cuisine. Arabian coffee made of a lightly roasted bean that is sweetened and spiced with cardamon is served in small thimble-shaped cups to guests in homes and offices. Most households keep a vacuum jug of coffee and sometimes tea ready for visitors. Another beverage, qahwa helw (sweet coffee), a vivid orange infusion of saffron, cardamon, and sugar, is served on special occasions and by the elite.
Qatari national men wear a thobe, a long white shirt over loose pants. They also wear a loose headdress, called a gutra, in white or red and white cloth, held on with a black rope known as the agal. Qatari national women cover their head with a black headdress called a shayla, their body with a long black dress called an abaya. Some women also cover their face with a niqab.
The majority of the citizens and the ruling family are Sunni Muslims, specifically Wahhabis. There is, however, a large minority of Shi’a Muslims.
The primary axes of social stratification are the nationality and occupation. The practice of hiring foreign workers has created a system in which certain nationalities are concentrated in particular jobs, and salaries differ depending on nationality. The broadest division is between citizens and foreigners, with subdivisions based on region of origin, genealogy, and cultural practices. Despite this inequality, the atmosphere is one of comfortable and tolerant co residence. Foreign workers retain their national dress. Their children can attend school with instruction in their native languages. Markets carry a broad range of international foods, music, and films. Qataris are internally stratified according to factors such as tribal affiliation and historical links to settlement patterns. For example, Qataris with genealogical links to Arabia are likely to identify with Bedouin cultural values, whereas Qataris with genealogical links to the northeastern side of the Gulf are likely to identify with settled townsfolk. Genealogical and geographic subdivisions among citizens correlate with occupational categories.
Social Welfare and Change Programs
After independence, Qatar developed extensive social welfare programs, including free health care, education through university, housing grants, and subsidized utilities. Improvements in utility services, road networks, sewage treatment, and water desalination have resulted in a better quality of life. In recent years, institutions have been established to support low-income families and disabled individuals through educational and job training programs.
Most marriages are arranged. Usually the mother and sisters of the groom make initial inquiries about prospective brides, discuss the possibilities with the young man, and, if he is interested, approach the family of the prospective bride. That woman has the opportunity to accept or refuse the proposal. Marriages often are arranged between families with similar backgrounds, and it is common for several members of two lineages to be married to each other. Marriages between Qataris and other Gulf Arabs are common. Polygamy is religiously and legally sanctioned. While it remains common, the number of polygamous marriages has dropped in recent years. A wife can divorce her husband if he takes another wife, and with more education and economic options, women are more likely to do that now than they were in the past. Another reason for the decrease in polygamy may be the rising cost of maintaining more than one household. Extended, joint, and nuclear households are all found today. The preference is to live with or at least near the members of the husband’s family. This patrilineal proximity is accomplished by means of a single extended household, walled family compounds with separate houses, or simply living in the same neighborhood. “Family” in Qatar refers to a group larger than the domestic unit. Descent is reckoned through the male line, and so one is a member of his or her father’s lineage and maintains close ties to that lineage. After marriage, women remain members of the father’s lineage but are partially integrated into the lineages of their husbands and children. Children of polygynous marriages often identify most closely with siblings from the same mother. As children mature, such groups sometimes establish separate households or compounds.
Child Rearing and Education
Children are important in family life. If a marriage is barren, the couple may resort to medically-assisted conception, polygamy, or divorce. Child care is the province of adult females, although children have close ties to their male relatives as well. The employment of foreign nannies has introduced new child care practices and foreign influences. Public schooling has been available since the 1950s. In 1973, a teacher’s college was opened and in 1977 the colleges of Humanities and Social Sciences, Science, and Sharia and Islamic were added to form the University of Qatar. Subsequently the College of Engineering, College of Administrative Sciences and Economics, and the College of Technology were added to the original four. Qataris can attend kindergarten through university for free. Students who qualify for higher education abroad can obtain scholarships to offset the costs of tuition, travel, and living abroad.
Business and Social Etiquette Tips
Qatar is a traditional country experiencing rapid social changes. It is important to Qatar to maintain its heritage and the modern appearance may mislead people into forgetting that it is still a traditional society with consequential social misunderstandings. The following tips may be useful:
- Foreign visitors are expected to dress in a style that is sensitive to the Islamic culture. Conservative clothing is recommended. Men generally wear long trousers and a shirt in public.
- Women’s attire in public – as opposed to hotels or private clubs – should cover the shoulders, upper arms and knees. Western bathing attire is permitted at hotel and club swimming pools and beaches. Topless sunbathing is strictly forbidden.
- Seek permission before taking photographs of people and be cautious about taking photographs in public. For security reasons Government buildings, military and some industrial sites, including some internal and external parts of the airport or shopping malls, should not be photographed.
- When Arab men meet, they usually shake hands. A man does not generally shake hands with a woman. Male business associates will shake the hand of a female business associate if she extends her hand first. Some Arab men and women will shake hands with a woman. If an Arab person pulls back their hand and holds it against the heart this is a sign of greeting in preference over hand-shaking.
- Bargaining with shopkeepers is common practice especially in the Souk (market). Negotiations may include the buyer requesting the ‘best best price’. Insisting on a discount beyond this best price might be deemed insulting.
- Qatar prohibits the brewing and trafficking of alcohol. Drunken behavior in public or driving under the influence of alcohol is an offence punishable by a period in prison, a fine or both and cancellation of the offender’s driving license. It is also illegal to transport liquor in your vehicle except from the point of sale directly to your home.
- The country also applies a zero tolerance attitude to the use and possession of illegal drugs. The import of pork is prohibited.