Status and wealth are very important in Qatari culture, with senior managers commanding a high level of authority and respect. This is reflected in the typically hierarchical structure of Qatari-owned businesses, where decision making is usually top down. However, some international businesses operating in Qatar may operate a flatter organisational structure.
Management in Qatar can appear quite dictatorial because of the tendency to defer to senior people. Although they may be asked to contribute an opinion or idea, once a decision is made employees are given clear instructions and expected to follow them to the letter. The pace of decision making may sometimes be slower than in other countries, but efficiency is valued amongst the workforce.
Qataris can be quite formal, so you will probably be addressed by title before moving to a first name basis. Some visitors find the use of given names, ancestral names and family names confusing to begin with, so if in doubt ask what the person prefers to be known as. With high-profile contacts, it may be appropriate to use their Arabic titles such as ‘Sheikh’ or ‘Hajji’. If you are offered a business card, show your respect by looking at it carefully then either keeping hold of it or placing it on the table in front of you rather than putting it away.
Strong relationships are central to Qatari business culture, so take the time to get to know the people you meet. Don’t expect to talk business at the first meeting – initial contacts often feel more like a social occasion than a business event, but the purpose will be relationship development. Be open and friendly, and keep the conversation neutral – steer clear of religion and politics. Family is a good topic to discuss, but avoid asking about female family members as this is considered disrespectful.
While some business people in Qatar wear traditional Arab business dress, the high proportion of international businesses operating there means most wear western clothing. However, it is important for both men and women to dress conservatively in respect of Islamic custom. Women should select modest blouses and suits that cover their knees and elbows, and men should wear either a business suit or long-sleeved shirt and lightweight trousers.
Enthusiastic greetings are important to Qataris, so take the time to make a good impression. Greet the most senior person first, and always use your right hand to shake hands. Handshakes can last longer than usual as Qataris are generally quite tactile. Don’t be surprised to see men holding hands as this is common in the Middle East and does not carry the same connotations as elsewhere in the world. When greeting women, wait to see if you are offered a handshake rather than initiating physical contact yourself.
Qataris are quite relaxed on punctuality, so while it’s best to turn up on time for meetings, don’t necessarily expect the same from your contacts. It is not always necessary to book meetings in advance, but if you do and someone arrives late it should not be taken as a sign of disrespect or disinterest as it will not be intended as such. Note that many meetings take place in the evening in Qatar, so be flexible enough to accommodate this.
Meetings can appear quite chaotic, with no fixed agenda and numerous digressions. Don’t be surprised if you are interrupted by phone calls, requests for signatures or other points of urgent business. Often, meetings are lengthy, but if you remain patient they can be very productive. Avoid being pushy or aggressive when selling but expect to negotiate extensively. Be careful not to use the word ‘no’ or any other directly negative terms as a more indirect communication style is preferred in Qatar. Finally, make sure you can deliver on anything you promise as verbal agreements are taken very seriously.
Qatar is fairly liberal compared with other countries in the Middle East, but you should still be respectful of local culture and beliefs. Be aware of your body language as pointing with your finger and showing the soles of your shoes can both be considered rude. Although alcohol is available in hotel bars and restaurants, most Muslims do not drink so it may be best to stick to soft drinks when meeting your Qatari colleagues over dinner.
Arabic is the main language of Qatar but English is widely spoken as the international language of Qatar’s cosmopolitan business community. When doing business it is useful to have your documentation printed in both Arabic and English, and learning a few phrases of Arabic always gives a good impression even if your contacts speak impeccable English.