In February 2020, just weeks before COVID-19 grounded flights and nations shuttered their borders, I traveled to Doha, Qatar as part of a short-term cultural exchange and study visit with the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations (NCUSAR). As an International Affairs major and Arabic minor, studying abroad in the Middle East has always been on my agenda. First-hand cultural insight can’t be gained in a classroom — no matter how much we study — and it was important to me that I try to challenge my American-centric viewpoints through an immersive experience abroad.
NCUSAR offered an incredibly unique way to do that: Instead of studying in a classroom abroad, our small group would learn about Qatar’s politics and culture through a series of meetings with government ministries and Qatari businesses, as well as visits to local cultural institutions. This was an ideal program, allowing me to develop cross-cultural professional skills to use in my future career while learning about regional culture and political issues relevant to my academic interests. During the trip, I learned how to bridge cultural divides personally and professionally, developing skills and amazing memories that will stay with me for years to come.
Confronting the Cultural Divide
The Middle East as a whole is victim to a variety of harmful stereotypes in the West: everywhere is a desert warzone, the culture is hostile to women, the people hate Americans, etc. The reality is that the Middle East is an extremely diverse region that cannot be generalized. It has its positive and negatives just like anywhere else.
Qatar is a small nation on a tiny peninsula in the Persian Gulf; its neighbors include Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Iran. The Gulf is a particularly fascinating region of the Middle East, known primarily for its significant oil and natural gas reserves. Gulf nations are experts at mixing tradition with modernity; under the futuristic city skylines you'll find traditional, conservative societies. In traveling to Qatar, I knew I’d be facing a cultural divide in a country that seemed very different from my own.
I quickly learned that in order to confront this divide, I'd have to accept that modernity and tradition are not polar opposites, but rather two dynamics that define Qatar’s society equally. One experience that helped me reconcile Qatar’s tradition with its modernity was our visit to the National Museum of Qatar. Housed in a stunning, futuristic building you find the story of Qatar’s journey from small fishing town to bustling metropolis, told through a series of immersive exhibits. Some exhibits showed how modern art in Qatar still reflects traditional Islamic styles, and a particularly fascinating exhibit about coffee showed ancient coffee pots alongside descriptions of how Arabic coffee remains important in Qatar today. The exterior of the building looked futuristic, but its interior courtyards featured traditional Islamic architecture. This experience helped me understand that while the Qataris hold their history close, this doesn’t stop them from looking to the future. Understanding this aspect of Qatari culture was a big step for me in bridging the cultural divide.
As a woman, I did wonder how my experience would be in a region where women are often denied political and social equality. Ultimately, my interactions with Qatari women helped me bridge the gap. Throughout my visit I met countless Qatari women who were highly educated, successful, and didn’t feel anywhere near as oppressed as western media outlets make them out to be. They spoke openly about their education and career goals, as well as progress they’d still like to see for women in the region.
The highlight of our visit to Qatar was a meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where we engaged with several Qatari college students (half of them women) and were briefed by a senior official (also a woman). She made a comment about having to work hard to earn her position, which I unfortunately found profoundly relatable. Through this it felt that she and I weren’t two people from vastly different cultures on opposite sides of the world, but rather two women sharing the experience of forging a career in a patriarchal society. The experience reminded me to always reflect on my own society before evaluating another. Qatar is not a paradise of gender equality, but neither is the United States. Confronting a cultural divide requires finding common ground, and you can’t find common ground unless you’re honest about your own experiences and are open to changing your preconceptions, both about your host culture and your own.
Defining Professionalism Abroad
As a student, navigating the professional world can be intimidating — even more so when you’re halfway around the world and terrified of accidently offending your hosts. My visit to Qatar with NCUSAR was a true exercise in cross-cultural professionalism, as we entered highly formal settings such as government ministries and financial centers. Ultimately, I returned home more confident in my ability to handle professional situations abroad.
First and foremost, I learned the value of appropriate professional dress. While appearance isn’t everything, making a sincere effort to accommodate your host’s cultural norms is a sign of respect that is essential in professional settings. On days when we had official meetings scheduled, I made sure to pick out high necklines, long sleeves and close-toed shoes. These simple style choices demonstrated that I recognized and respected their cultural norms. I also had the opportunity to see how a range of Qataris approached professional dress. Most men wore a thobe and ghutra, but some wore suits; most women wore an abaya with a shayla. As I sat in my blazer and loafers, I reflected on how professionalism can appear differently in every culture.
Professionalism can also look different when it comes to practices inside a meeting room. In the U.S., the question “Can I get you something to drink?”, which often comes at the opening of a meeting, is usually just a formality. At every meeting we had in Qatar, coffee and tea were offered immediately. The first few times, I politely declined, thinking it would be unprofessional to focus on refreshment instead of what our hosts were saying. However, I quickly realized that offering beverages is a sincere gesture and an important expression of Arab hospitality. Even in professional settings, making guests feel welcome is a priority in Qatar. Experiences like these taught me to put aside my pre-existing ideas about what’s professional and simply learn through observation.
Another professional challenge I faced was asking questions about delicate social and political issues. As students who had come to learn about Qatar, it was expected that we were always prepared with relevant, considered questions for our hosts. The difficulty came with trying to inquire about sensitive issues — such as Qatar’s feud with its Gulf neighbors, its restrictive labor system, and its relations with Iran — without coming off as accusatory or disrespectful. What I found was that it was essential to put my American perspective on the backburner and ask questions based purely on facts rather than opinion. When I had the opportunity to ask about Iran at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, I posed a frank question about the foundations of the Qatari-Iranian relationship, without letting the ongoing tensions between Iran and the U.S. influence my point. I believe that asking questions is the best way to learn and strengthen cross-cultural communication. By taking care to formulate appropriate, professional questions, I received frank and honest responses that contributed to my understanding of Qatar.
Professional experiences abroad can be intimidating, but basic principles of respect go a long way. Making an effort to adopt a new culture’s customs and standards for dress shows your respect for your host. Using polite and unbiased language will help your conversations — even if they are on sensitive subjects — to proceed smoothly. Above all, it’s important to let go of your own country’s professional culture and focus instead on adapting to your host culture.
Reflecting and Looking Forward
Looking back on my experience, what made it a success was a willingness to change my perspective. I arrived with a lot of ideas about how things would go, how the people would be, and how I would act; ultimately, all of these ideas were challenged at some point. Being able to put aside my preconceptions and instead focus on what I learned from the many wonderful Qataris I met allowed me to grow personally and professionally. If I could give one piece of advice to someone who’s planning a visit to Qatar, or even to any new place, it would be to do a little research beforehand. Before my study visit, NCUSAR provided us with a variety of articles on Qatari politics, culture, and economics. Before we left for the airport in D.C., we also had the opportunity to engage with some wonderful speakers who had lived and worked in Qatar. Sure, nobody was going to stop me on the street and question me about Qatari trade relationships but having basic background knowledge about the central pillars of the country you’re visiting makes all the difference. When we arrived in the country and hit the ground running with a full schedule of meetings, I felt confident in my ability to engage with my hosts and ask informed questions.
Qatar was my first abroad experience abroad, and I’m eager to pursue further study abroad opportunities. When it’s safe to travel again, I hope to have a longer, immersive study abroad experience during which I can strengthen my Arabic skills. One of the most important lessons I learned from my visit to Qatar was the importance of communication, and I’m eager to be able to communicate with people in Arabic-speaking countries, in Arabic. I’d like to return to the Persian Gulf one day, but I’d also like to study in the Levant or in North Africa, in order to gain a full appreciation for the diversity in language, culture, and society that exists in what we call “the Arab World.” Ultimately, my goal is to continue to cultivate my cross-cultural knowledge and professionalism so that one day I can one day live and work abroad. The experiences I had in Qatar, meeting Americans and Qataris working in politics, strengthened my desire to pursue a career in public service. I hope to eventually join the U.S. Foreign Service, and ideally be stationed in the Middle East where I could use the language and cultural skills I developed during my trip to the region.
Julia’s outstanding essay demonstrates an ideal approach to any immersive cross-cultural encounter. Her genuine respect for Qatari culture, and willingness to respectfully adapt while remaining inquisitive should serve as a great example for any student or young professional abroad. We also commend her for diving into a culture that contrasts significantly with her home culture, and aiming to see the similarities and connections. It’s this global mindset that creates the foundations for true progress in international relations and world issues. She is clearly on the path to international career success! Bravo!
We support Julia’s plan to spend more time in a variety of locations in the Middle East to deepen her knowledge of the region, begin networking professionally and expand her mindset. To take her international perspective even further, Julia might also consider taking time to visit a completely different region, such as East Asia or Latin America, in order to further enrich her understanding of global cultural contrasts. We wish her luck and every success as she pursues her international career goals.
For those hoping to follow in Julia’s footsteps, start with the articles below: