“Actually, we won’t be around next year, we’re going to teach in Qatar.”
“Doha, the capital city of Qatar. Think Dubai, but slightly smaller, slightly slower-paced, and a few years behind – but quickly catching up – in terms of infrastructure and eye-catching skylines. Oh – and they’re hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2022!”
“Ok… um, so you’re leaving your coveted permanent Canadian teaching job to teach at a school in Doha, Qatar that you have never seen.”
“Yes! Isn’t that cool? Here’s a picture.”
“Yeah… uh… cool – you have fun with that!”
This is a composite of conversations that have occurred often over the last few months as my wife and I have filled people in on the adventure that we’re about to embark on.
Basically, the short story is that my wife and I are both teachers. When we became aware of this whole world of international teaching (roughly a year ago) we decided that we were sick of just watching House Hunters International, and that we wanted to make our own expat leap story.
Truthfully, we have learned a ton about different regions and cultures over the last year, as we contemplated moving to Western Europe, Eastern Europe, all over Asia, and even Bermuda at one point before finally settling on Qatar. I’ll write more in-depth about the teacher job hunt another day, but the crazy thing is that I only learned about the whole concept of international schools a year ago. It had never occurred to us that teachers could make MORE money, while living in new places, and teaching fewer hours per year than we do here in Canada. Once we confirmed that too-good-to-be-true was in fact, very possible with the right research and preparations, we ran with it.
Taking the International Expat Leap in 2020
So, we didn’t know the world was about to change when we signed our international teaching contract back in February. That said, while we were initially pretty concerned about how our new country was going to handle the pandemic, we have been very pleased to read about the excellent healthcare available to expats throughout much of the Middle East.
Qatar specifically has had an excellent response to Covid by any measure. While many migrant labourers tend to live in barracks-style housing (thus leading to considerable spread of the virus amongst specific populations) the overall ability of the healthcare system in Doha to treat large amounts of people and respond with effective medical treatment, has been a real testament to the considerable amount of resources that they have dedicated to healthcare. Furthermore, our school generously provides us with a really solid international health insurance plan (I think their HR team was oddly pleased to get such detailed questions from a personal finance geek) which allows us to access some pretty phenomenal private healthcare options throughout the world.
On the Covid front, due to the relatively young population (again, thanks to the large number of migrant workers) and their world class healthcare, Qatar has battled with Singapore for the lowest fatality rate in the world. They were amongst the first countries to create laws making it illegal to appear in public without a mask, and have rolled out a contact-tracing app that should only get better as time goes on. We feel slightly safer there than we would in much of Canada, and certainly safer than residents in the vast majority the world. I know that some folks worry about privacy when it comes to these contact-tracing apps, but if you seriously don’t think that your cell phone signal, purchase history, security camera footage, and app permissions that you’ve already signed off on – don’t already provide a more detailed version of the same data that any contact-tracing app takes in – then I think you might want to do a bit more reading on the topic, or move to the wilderness.
Why Teach at an International School in Doha, Qatar?
A year ago, my wife and I thought that “teaching overseas” basically consisted of teaching English in China, Thailand, or a similar country. We had seen the ads over the years for teaching English abroad, and while there are certainly many excellent opportunities to have an adventure and save money if you have a TESL certificate or a non-education diploma/degree, this just wasn’t something that we wanted to pursue. We thought that maybe one day (perhaps in semi-retirement) we might explore that type of opportunity.
What we had no idea about was this incredible world of international teaching. See, I had never really thought about it before, but there is obviously a demand for a unique school experience in cities all around the world where expats gather in large numbers. This is especially true for English-speaking expats who want their children to be able to seamlessly transition to their native school systems when they move back home. Consequently, the idea of the international school started to spring up around the world – often near a British or American embassy. The evolution of what international schools have become today is different in each country, but what has gradually occurred throughout the world, is that in addition to this ever-growing pool of expat kids who needed an education in something other than the local language, increasing numbers of “well off” local residents decided that they wanted their children educated in English, alongside expat kids.
Most international schools in the Middle East and around the world generally fall into three categories: American curricula, British curricula, or International Baccalaureate (IB) curricula. With so many schools popping up year after year (and likely a few closing down in the current economic crunch) it’s important to understand that the term “international school” has now come to cover a massive range of schools that might teach a blend of curricula, involve more local students than expat kids, might be a for-profit business, or a non-profit entity that is managed by a parent board. Some schools are huge 4,000+ student conglomerates, while others are much smaller, local affairs.
The vast majority of the teachers employed by these schools come from the USA, Great Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, with a sprinkling of many other nationalities mixed in. We can’t wait to meet our colleagues from all over the planet! To make the whole experience a little easier for my wife and I, “teacher couples” are kind of a sought-after commodity, as we are “two for the price of one” when it comes to housing costs.
We’ll talk more about the international teacher world in another episode, but when we were offered a job in Qatar, this is the pros/cons list that we made for our specific situation.
Adventure: Not only do we get to live in a new country, but the Doha airport has direct flights to so many cool places! For two prairie Canucks, it doesn’t get much better than this. Want to see Greece or go on an Africa Safari? That’s only a 3hr flight away!
Change in Scenery: We love many things about humble rural Canadian life, but it doesn’t exactly scream diversity and new experiences.
Saving Money w/ 0% Tax and FREE Housing: It’s tough to beat this combination and we’ll go into more depth on our financial plan in an upcoming article, but suffice it to say, Qatar expat salaries and compensation packages are a major draw. I don’t want to reveal the specific school that we’re teaching at, as I don’t want to step on any toes before we arrive, but I can say that our compensation package is very comparable to this publically-available one at the American School of Doha (one of the biggest international schools in Qatar).
Excellent Work-Life Balance: Make no mistake, teaching is not a “9-to-5” profession anywhere in the world. When school is on, you’d better be on, and with the expectations that these elite international schools have, you’re likely to be earning your salary with detailed lessons plans, extensive assessment strategies, and a commitment to extracurricular activities like coaching sports or facilitating the Model United Nations Club. But the schedule at our new school gives us much more prep time built into our day than our current schools in Canada, and the school year allows for several 9-day breaks, plus the extended time at Christmas (aka “winter break”) and Summer. I LOVE the school calendar versus what we have here in Canada.
2022 FIFA World Cup: Being in the same city as the world’s second largest sporting event is a sprinkle on top of the rest of the expat sundae – but man, what a sprinkle!
Ability to Transition to Other Countries: Once you get your foot in the international teaching door, there is really nothing stopping you from living in much of the world. Our new school is fully accredited in the IB curriculum, and consequently, we’ll have very attractive resumes IF we ever want to see what another part of the world has to offer.
HEAT: If you can’t stand it… find the air conditioned mall! My wife loves the idea of all-year summer. I personally enjoy fall and winter. I am currently researching survival strategies.
Family and Friends: There is no denying the reality that Zoom can only replace so much of the in-person connection. Missing weddings, birthdays, and other important events for a few years is not a small consideration. We’re hoping that coming home in the summers helps alleviate some of this sense of loss.
Job Security: Most international schools operate on one- or two-year contracts. Canadian teachers have unparalleled job security as our unions are quite strong. All the same, I’m confident in our ability to excel in our new roles and prove our worth (and will enjoy not paying $3,500+ in annual union dues).
Don’t Worry This Won’t Become a “Teaching in Qatar” Blog
Look – we know that moving to the desert isn’t for everyone!
Million Dollar Journey will always be about Canadian investing and personal finance, and Frugal Trader (FT) is always going to be the main voice. I simply thought that bringing an expat perspective over a few posts here and there would be kind of a unique addition. I’ve already fielded several email questions from other Canadian expats in regards to residency, taxes, investment options, and wealth-building strategies, so we’ll start from there and see if there is an audience for a more in-depth look.
Furthermore, my wife and I may very well move back to Canada eventually. Our RRSPs and TFSAs aren’t going anywhere, and we will continue to invest through Canadian platforms – all that to say we’re still going to be looking at the world through a Canadian lens – just from a slightly different angle than we did in the past.
Expat Life in Doha as a Canadian
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that the type of personality that gets his kicks out of researching discount brokerages also found it necessary to get as many data points as possible about being a Canadian expat in Qatar before moving there. My wife tells me, “This is why you’re a Ravenclaw,” in Harry Potter-Speak.
My quest for information on expat life in Doha was supercharged when we were all told to stay indoors for several weeks this spring. Dinner parties now turned into Amazon research sessions and Zoom dates with international teachers in Qatar, as well as expats in other fields. I quickly learned that the expat community was quite friendly, and more than willing to share their tips and tricks for making a smooth transition to expat life.
So after talking to a couple dozen people on the ground in Doha, and reading several books on life in Qatar, I’ve come to learn some random facts about our new home:
- Qatar is an incredibly safe country. Crime rates are very low and healthcare (especially the private healthcare that we will have very affordable access to) is amongst the best in the world.
- While the law is based on Islamic principles, Qatari cultural expectations are honestly not that much different from many conservative small towns on the prairies that I grew up in.
- Living and working in Education City (a Doha suburb) looks absolutely amazing in terms of convenience, instant expat community, and stunning architecture.
- Qatar has a very unique history, and has thrived – despite only having a Qatari Citizen population of only 300,000 or so – by having a clear understanding of the value of international diplomacy and cleverly navigating the often-choppy water of international relations.
- The Capital City of Doha is home to 90%+ of Qatar’s population, and almost any building that you walk into was built in the last 50 years.
- Qatar’s wealth (it is amongst the highest GDP per citizen on the planet) is built not only on a relatively small oil sector, but mainly on it’s massive exportation of liquified natural gas. Consequently, it is uniquely prepared for the transition away from coal and oil that much of the world is making.
- There are many western expats in Doha in the fields of education, banking, insurance, and hydrocarbon extraction. This translates into a ready-made community for new move-ins.
- Many of the residents in Doha are from SE Asian countries. These residents are mainly employed in the trades and labour industries that keep Qatar running, and skyscrapers popping up. Qataris tend to be employed in high ranking government positions or in the business sector.
- It’s HOT! No surprise that the desert is a bit on the warm side, but a fellow Manitoba expat teacher put it best when she told us, “The weather is roughly the same degree of extreme as it is here on the prairies. You tend to stay inside for 3-4 months of the year, for four months of the year it’s gorgeous, and for two months on either side of that it’s very livable and depends on your tastes.” My wife heard “no snow” and she was sold!
- The direct/close travel opportunities are endless (although it costs a bit more to travel than it did a few years ago, due to a Middle East political situation – Google: Qatar blockade for more information).
- The shopping and mall adventures available might easily tempt you to part with every single Riyal of that tax-free salary. Walking through amazing malls is a new tradition throughout much of the Middle East due to the popularity of large air conditioned spaces.
- If you’re overly worried about the loss of alcohol and pork, you can be reassured that both are available in Doha – for the right price. Purchasing of either non-Islamic-friendly substance is restricted to a single government-run store that enforces high tax markups. (I jokingly explained to my friends that as a Manitoban, having the booze sold with a high tax mark-up, exclusively at a government-run store – should make me feel at home!)
So we’re off on a new adventure. I’m curious what readers would be interested in learning about when it comes to life/finances as an expat in the Middle East – so please feel free to leave suggestions/questions in the comments below. If nothing else, the first time we go the camel races (yes – you read that correctly) the pictures should make for an interesting change of pace from discussing interest rates and index investing options.
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