In the often troubled Middle East, Qatar stands out as one of the more peaceful countries. Its rapid economic growth has been driven by current ruler Emir Sheikh Hamad Al-Thani, who came to power in 1995, and his ambitious and educated team of ministers and advisors. Attracted by boom-time Qatar, the population has rocketed and is currently estimated at some 1.6 million residents, of which barely a quarter are nationals.
Officials remain confident that Qatar can ride out the current global financial downturn. The country’s economy is strong, with GDP growth of 16.8 percent forecast for 2008, rising to 21.4 percent in 2009. Current research from the Qatar Finance Centre projects that the economy will reach the $100 billion mark by 2013. Although escalating rents, owing to housing shortages, have contributed to Qatar’s double-digit inflation in recent years, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) believes that this is caused mainly by supply bottlenecks and should ease as the supply of housing catches up with demand and the country’s infrastructure improves.
Qatar is eager to attract companies—there are various incentives to attract foreign capital, including tax breaks and exemptions from customs duties—and there are significant export opportunities in education, franchising, safety and security, infrastructure development, healthcare and IT.
“Qatar has a strong relationship with Washington based on energy and security ties,” says Dao Le, the commercial attaché at the U.S. embassy in Doha. “The U.S. became Qatar’s top export partner in 2007, with bilateral trade jumping from $723 million in 2003 to $3.2 billion last year. The U.S. is a major supplier of oil and gas equipment to Qatar.” He adds that anyone exploring business opportunities in Qatar should look at the embassy’s Department of Commerce Web site (buyusa.gov/qatar) for the most up-to-date information.
According to the most recent World Bank Ease of Doing Business Index, Qatar is ranked 57 out of 181 countries. Robert Hager, managing partner at the law firm Batton Boggs LLP, which has had a Doha office since 2003, advises anyone looking to set up in business in Qatar: “Don’t have an ambitious time schedule. You need a lot of time to get your documents in order and then get the various government departments to process them.” Overseas companies are required to have a local partner as a 51 percent shareholder, but that does not necessarily mean that the partner takes 51 percent of any profits. A management structure can be set up to protect investment made by the company. Recently, some Qatari companies have chosen to allow 49 percent foreign shareholding of their businesses—for example, by United Development Company, which is behind the massive Pearl real estate development.
“Qatar is attractive to companies seeking to set up here because it’s a smaller market and not as oversold as, say, Dubai,” comments Hager. “Before starting out, you need to talk to accountants and lawyers and put a business plan together with your local partner. If things aren’t looking good at that stage, it’s probably better not to proceed.”
“Qatar is undertaking a radical overhaul of its financial services markets,” explains international law firm Clyde and Co. partner David Salt, “by creating a single unitary regulatory body for both Qatari institutions and those registered in the Qatar Financial Centre, which has its own legal regime. It is anticipated that this move will play a significant role in establishing Qatar as a key player in the world’s financial markets.”
For businesses used to the Western way of doing business, setting up in Doha can seem slow—partly as a result of local bureaucracy, although the reforms referenced above should make things easier once they come into play. Anyone seeking to do business in Doha should bear in mind that Qataris are experienced traders, and therefore tough negotiators who will ask for discounts. Decision-making may be slow and often takes place at the final stage of delivery and implementation.
There are frequent changes in the scope of work that may vary from the original contract. Qataris are likely to expect these variations to be complimentary, rather than remunerated separately.
“Doing business in Qatar is much easier if you’re supplying a specialized product,” says Bob Thompson, president of Thompsons’ Specialties Middle East, a company established in 2002 that imports firefighting equipment. He advises that finding a good local partner is important: “Above all, learn the rules and go by the rules. People who come here and think they can side-step or ignore the complex regulations run into trouble.”
Language and dress codes
The official language in Qatar is Arabic, although English is widely spoken. Six prominent American university campuses in Education City, a vast complex west of Doha, ensure that thousands of young Qataris are receiving their higher education in English.
When in Qatar, all Qatari males wear a thobe, a loose, white cotton robe with a white headcloth called a gutra that’s held in place by an agal, a thick black ringed cord. Outside the home, all local women wear an abaya, a loose black robe, over their clothing, and they cover their heads; some conceal their faces behind a mask or veil. Dress codes for foreign businesspeople are similar to those in Western countries, with jackets and ties for men. Western businesswomen should dress conservatively, bearing in mind that Qatar follows a strict form of Islam that’s shared with Saudi Arabia.
Qataris are courteous people, so good manners are important. A business meeting with a Qatari almost always starts with a friendly conversation and enquiries about the well-being of your family, and these courtesies are more protracted than in the west. Generally, a Westerner should allow the Qatari to introduce the main reason for the meeting. Often, several meetings are required before any decision is made.
Government offices are open from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., and banks from 7.30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Hours for private businesses vary, but the general rule is 7:30 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 3 to 7 p.m.
FRANCES GILLESPIE is a freelance journalist who has lived in Qatar for more than 20 years.