From Milngavie to the Middle East
A Scottish solicitor's personal account of leaving financial services work in Scotland to run a property company in Doha, Qatar – and of the current business scene in that country
After 25 years working in UK financial services with Prudential and Scottish Widows, I left Glasgow in July 2016 to become joint owner and Legal and Finance Director of a relocation and property company in Doha, Qatar. It wasn’t a complete leap in the dark, as I had been a regular visitor the region for 10 years beforehand. However, other than a short period in Mumbai, India, it was the first time I had lived outside Scotland.
The biggest change was not actually living in a different continent (although that was certainly different!) but in running my own business. Whereas I had been used to dealing in millions of pounds in financial services, all of a sudden hundreds of pounds became very important. The importance of checking the business account daily became very clear, very quickly.
So, what was behind the decision to relocate? At this stage in my career I just wanted to do something very different and something that interested me. I have always been a bit of a traveller, so living abroad had always been in the back of my mind.
The opportunity came up to buy into the company, and I thought “Why not?”
The company was formed in 2004, so it is an established business. Like most small businesses here, we operate under the sponsorship of a Qatari. Choosing the right sponsor is an important business consideration. For larger companies, they can set up directly under the Qatar Financial Centre.
There is no personal taxation here, although company profits are generally taxed at 10%.
We are principally a relocation and residential leasing business, although we do some company formation and concierge services. We have contracts with a number of major companies to help their employees settle here. The exciting thing is that most weeks the phone rings with someone suggesting a commercial opportunity. In the last few months we have been involved in proposals for football sponsorship, concierge services associated with airport parking, and training for bank employees. It is seldom dull!
Although my background is in financial services, I started in conveyancing with firms in Inverness and Dumfries so I know the basics of the property market. I little suspected as a trainee in Inverness that I would end up in the Middle East.
The market here in Qatar is principally rental, although occasionally we have clients who want to buy. Many Qataris have built up property portfolios both here and in major European cities like London and Paris. There is also a relatively high turnover in that typically leases are annual. The Western expatriate population, who form the basis of our client base, are fairly transient with most people on contracts so there is always movement. While some people have been here for 30 years or more, others move on after a few years – and then many of those come back.
World Cup effect
Qatar is a new and dynamic business environment and I think the opportunities will increase in the run-up to the football World Cup in 2022. We expect an upturn in our company formation business nearer 2022 as companies move into the country to take up World Cup contracts. (We have just passed the “five years to go” point.)
Qatar is an unusual country in that it has a population of 2.6 million but of those only 300,000 are Qataris. The rest are expatriates from all over the world. There are very large Indian and Filipino communities here. (There is also a Caledonian Society!) Qatar has the third largest natural gas and oil reserves in the world and has the highest per capita income.
The economy is sluggish at the moment with the depressed oil price. Gas and petroleum account for 70% of Government revenues, although moves are being made to increase tourist trade – cruise ships now visit Doha, for example.
Qatar is also investing in state of the art medical facilities including the soon to be opened Sidra Medical Hospital.
There are, however, large construction projects underway including the building of the Doha metro and the construction of the stadia which will be used for the World Cup. One of the first things a visitor to Doha will notice is the amount of construction which is taking place, with both residential and commercial property being built. There is also what is, in effect, a new city called Lusail being built on the outskirts of Doha and this is where the World Cup Final will be held.
The other factor impacting the economy is the diplomatic crisis which started in June 2017, when several countries including Saudi Arabia (Qatar is a peninsula, its only land border being with Saudi Arabia) and the United Arab Emirates instituted trade and travel bans.
This has led to Qatar looking to become self-sufficient in some key areas. For example, 4,000 dairy cows have been imported and dairy farms established with the goal of becoming self-sufficient in dairy products by April 2018. New suppliers, particularly from Turkey, have entered the market to fill the gaps. We see Tesco products here now!
The business environment is an interesting mix of traditional Arabic customs and Western practices. English is the business language and is widely spoken. Often documents are written in both Arabic and English. One of the things I like is that typically business is conducted in a very courteous fashion.
From a legal perspective, Qatar has established the Qatar International Court and Dispute Resolution Centre and hired a number of judges from various locations to hear cases. This is part of the aspiration to diversify the economy and in particular to make Qatar “a world class international financial centre”. It is a modern specialist civil and commercial court designed to hear cases quickly and economically. This approach will be particularly helpful to ensure that construction disputes are resolved quickly and that there are no undue delays in building the World Cup infrastructure.
One of the attractions of living in the Middle East (apart from the climate – it is hot or very hot for nine months of the year) is that it is a great location from which to explore other countries. I have visited Lebanon, Armenia, Bangladesh, Jordan and UAE since I came here. Jordan was a particular highlight with Petra being just as good as I hoped it would be. All of these places are relatively short flights away.
Doha also hosts a range of top sporting events. There is the annual tennis tournament which featured both Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic this year, a golf tournament, motorbike racing and last year we had the World Cycling Road Race Championships. The 2019 World Athletic Championships are coming to Doha and will be held in the restructured Khalifa Stadium. It is part of a sports complex which includes a world class sports injury clinic. A number of stars from a range of sports have been treated there.
Overall, then, Qatar is a dynamic, exciting and expanding business environment underpinned by oil and gas. There is year-round sunshine and a low tax environment.
If you want to know any more about the country or doing business here you can contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
Gordon Graham is Legal and Finance Director with PRER Group, Doha, Qatar