Qatar uses the riyal as its official currency. Each riyal is then further divided into 100 dirhams. The currency is issued by the Qatar Central Bank and it comes in the form of both notes as well as coins. Coins are issued as 1, 5, 10 and 50 dirhams and notes come as 1, 5, 10, 50, 100 and 500 riyals.
The currency is identified on international markets, by the letters QAR and the currency is pegged to the US dollar at the rate of 3.64 riyals to 1 US dollar.
History of the Riyal
The riyal is not a very old currency, having only come into being in 1966. Prior to this the currency in use was basically the Gulf rupee, which in turn was a form of the Indian rupee. Until 1973, the riyal was the Qatar and Dubai riyal but when Dubai became part of the United Arab Emirates, it was decided that the riyal would then be purely the Qatar riyal, since Qatar is not part of the UAE.
However, it is very likely that the Qatar riyal may soon be replaced with a currency that is common to all the states in the Gulf Co-operation Council. They are working together to try and find a new currency that will be one to which they can all sign up (apart from Oman, which has stated that it will not be ready to join the new currency in 2010). But in Qatar, the reality is that the riyal may be phased out by this time!
Getting Hold of Qatar Riyals
It is not wholly straightforward getting hold of Qatar riyals, since there are a lot of ATM facilities available, but not all of these will accept foreign cards, or rather cards that are not from a Gulf state, so it is always best to assume that the ATM may be a back up for money, but not your primary means of being able to access it.
Generally, traveller's cheques are the best way of taking money in and if you take in traveller's cheques, it is usually best to take them in the form of US dollars, since the riyal is pegged to the dollar. Banks tend to be open from 7.30 in the morning, until 1 in the afternoon, so don't assume that the banks will be open in the afternoon: some are, but most are not.
However, if you do miss a bank then there are plenty of bureau de changes available, where you can exchange money or cash traveller's cheques and these tend to be open from 8 am until 8 pm, but close between noon and 4 pm. It is so hot at this time, that few people venture out to do anything, let alone stand in the bank !
Qatar is a very safe place to visit. There is, admittedly a slightly higher risk of terrorism than in other countries, simply because this is a country in the middle east and there is a heightened risk of terrorism in these countries, particularly ones where there is a high number of foreign nationals living and working, as indeed Qatar has. However, it is not a country that is desperately unsafe and you should not feel that it is not safe to visit.
Petty crime is practically non-existent, but there is a curiosity about westerners that may result in people simply looking at you, or if you are a woman, staring at you. This can be slightly disconcerting at times, but it is not threatening and you may simply find (if you are a woman) that 'covering up' means that you are stared at less or that people simply ignore you (and after you have been stared at for a while, being ignored is great!).
The main safety issue that you need to be aware of is de-hydration. It is very, very important to keep drinking water and if you drink alcohol it is really important to drink even more water, since the alcohol will dehydrate you even more. This is a very important issue, since dehydration can very quickly occur and it is not pleasant when it is serious, so keep your fluid levels topped up at all times and keep checking the colour of your urine: if it goes very dark then you are dehydrated and need to take fluids in. Also you need to ensure that you keep the levels topped up all day: it is not enough to simply drink water in the morning and then think that this will last you all day.
Out and About
Although Qatar is not a well known tourist destination, it certainly has a lot to offer travellers. It is relatively 'oil rich' and so is not a poor country and one thing you will find, is that the international type hotels are actually quite expensive. You will be able to buy alcohol in these, but you will not be able to go to a shop and buy alcohol, since you need a special licence for alcohol and this is for residents only. You also cannot bring alcohol into the country and if you try to do so, you may well find that it is confiscated as you arrive. These guys don't want alcohol in the country, so you need to respect their wishes.
Due to the fact that it is a Muslim country, you do need to ensure that you dress appropriately. If you are a woman and you dress 'skimpily' the locals will not regard you as 'cool' or respect the fact that you feel you can dress however you please. They will think that you are showing them disrespect and you may get some hassle, particularly from men. At worst, they will think that you have no morals and that you are asking for 'trouble', so whatever your views on being very conservatively dressed, make sure that you simply abide by the customs and habits of the country that you are visiting.
But if you keep drinking water and you dress modestly, then you will find a country that is fascinating and is quite friendly.
The capital is Doha, which doesn't feel like a capital city, but it is very much up and coming and in a few years time, it will probably rate as one of the best places to visit in the Gulf. However, there is plenty to see and do and one very interesting place to visit is the Museum of Islamic Arts, which has a whole range of artworks, from ancient to more modern works and helps to give some indication of just how Islam permeates every aspect of life in a Muslim country.
Qatar National Museum is also a fantastic place to see the former palace of the sheiks: no matter how wealthy you feel before you visit, you will undoubtedly come out feeling something of a poor relation!
There are some good restaurants where you can enjoy lots of good food and some excellent fish dishes as well, which are straight out of the sea, usually that day, so these are a definite 'must' even if you are not too keen on fish.
Watersports are really popular in Qatar, but as always, before you climb on those jet skis, check out whether your insurance offers you protection if there is an accident. Healthcare in Qatar is quite good, but it is not cheap, so you could easily find yourself having to find thousands to pay for a hospital bed, if things go wrong.
Outside of the capital there is not a lot to do, with much of the country being desert like but if you can afford it, hire a jeep and get out 'wadi bashing' in the sand dunes, where you pitch your driving skills against the sand dunes. It is great fun, but sometimes not for the faint hearted. You should also be careful to take plenty of water with you if you are going into the desert areas, since it is exceptionally hot and if you stay out longer than you had anticipated, then you may find that you run out of water and this is not a situation you want to be in. It sounds dull, but it could literally save your life, so always pack emergency supplies of water.
In addition to Doha, the only other city of any real size is Rayyan, with a population in the region of 275,000. It doesn't really have as much going for it as Doha and most of the foreign workers live in Doha, so there isn't as much 'culture' for visitors, but the fact that not many foreigners go there makes it interesting in itself, for many people who like to experience different ways of life and one that is far removed from the Western way of life.
Usually people are pleased to see you and most people in Doha will have at least a smattering of English, so communication is not too much of a problem. Since Qatar was once under British rule, there is a long history with the UK and so English is viewed as an important language, for that reason as well as the view that since it is spoken in the US, it is a dominant language in the world.
Qatar is not a name that many people are familiar with. People may know that is in the 'middle east' but they are not familiar with it in the same way that they are familiar with Dubai or Saudi Arabia. In a sense this makes it just that little bit more special and it offers travellers a sense of another world. A world that is not secular, but one where Islamic traditions and philosophy are seen as very important. If you want wild nightlife and lying on the beach in a bikini, then Qatar is probably not the destination for you. But if you want to see how Islamic life goes on, day to day, in a country that has extremely hot weather and where the pace of life is often very slow, Qatar can offer a real insight into how this world.
For further information, check out http://www.qatarvisitor.com