Driving in Doha and in the surrounding desert is, on paper, similar to driving in the United States. Cars tend to be large, 4-wheel-drives dominate the road, driving is on the right side of the road, and most cars are automatic. Gas is cheap and the road system modern and extensive. But, despite strict rules, ranging from speed limits to seat-belt wearing and only hand-free phones allowed, most newcomers to Doha find that driving here is not for the faint-hearted, and takes a bit of getting used to.
The country is relatively small though, and taking to the desert roads can be a unique experience, especially when you have to give way to camels crossing the road.
Most visitors to Doha from countries such as the U.S., Canada, Australia, the EU and Great Britain are allowed to drive for seven days on their national driving license, from their day of arrival. If you are staying longer, an International Driving License is required. Drivers need to be 18 years of age, but if you wish to rent a car, you will need to be 25 years old, and must purchase insurance. As it is unlikely that you will be arriving in Qatar in your own vehicle, unless you are driving in from Saudi Arabia, all hired cars will be equipped with the necessary documents and materials required by law.
Rules of the Road
Most rules for driving in Doha are the same as elsewhere: seatbelts should be worn, talking on the phone, unless hands-free, is prohibited, you must stick to the speed limits and not run red lights. But there are some rules, which are less intuitive, that you should know before hitting the road in Doha.
Drinking and driving laws: There is zero tolerance for alcohol if you are driving. Not even one liqueur chocolate, nor one sip of beer. Nothing.
Road signs: Road signs are in both Arabic and English, and in kilometers rather than miles.
Safety Belts and car seats: Seat belts, if fitted, must be worn at all times in the front, but it's not compulsory on the back seat. You will, however, see many people not wearing them and, worse, a lot of young children loose in the cars. Car seats for children are not compulsory yet, although a new law is being discussed. If, for your own family’s safety you travel with a child seat, then Qatar Airways allows you to check one, free of charge.
Circular Traffic: There are a lot of junctions in Doha without traffic lights, using the circular roundabout approach. Please be extra cautious here, as you’ll find that sometimes if you want to turn off to the right, a car in the outer lane keeps going straight. At peak hours you’ll often find police managing the flow of traffic.
Directions: While the streets in Doha do have names, you’ll often find that locals and long-term expatriates use rather unusual directions when guiding you: turn right at Crazy Roundabout or turn after the third mosque. If you are unsure, carry a map with you to make sure you end up where you want to go.
Road etiquette: At all times refrain from rude hand gestures, even if some truly crazy drivers might deserve them. Hand gestures and road rage can send you to prison. If a driver behind you flashes their lights, move over, as they are telling you that you are in their way.
Red lights: It is an offense to jump a red light, but be cautious nevertheless, as sometimes the patience levels of locals are low. Don’t be surprised when the split second the light turns green, a volley of horns shoo you on your way.
In case of an accident: You have to stop where you are and wait for the police to arrive, even if it's the smallest accident and both drivers are insured and in agreement. The police will give you a report and instructions on how to proceed. If you have a rental car, the rental company will take it from there. The emergency number is 999.
Camels on the road: Camels are ubiquitous and do not have a sense of self-preservation. So, please drive with caution outside of the city limits as you will regularly see them walking on, or crossing the roads. If you do hit a camel, call the police and be prepared for a very hefty fine.
Filling up with gas: However large your tank, it will be cheap to fill up in Qatar. Recent prices are less than US$0.50 per liter of petrol or diesel. Most gas stations offer the service of filling up the tank for you, so you don’t have to leave the air-conditioned confines of your car. Most main roads have gas stations along the way, but to be safe, if you are intending to drive, say all the way to the northern edge of Qatar, fill up before you leave Doha’s city limits.
Parking: There are plenty of public parking lots along the Corniche, malls, and all major attractions, while hotels and restaurants tend to offer valet parking.
Toll Roads: There will be a toll system, QGate, in place once all the current road upgrades are completed, but it is not expected to be operational until the earliest in 2021.
Speed limits: There are speed cameras on the roads, and it is often easy to get carried away with the speed of other drivers, so be careful. On urban roads the limit is 37 mph (60 kmh), on rural roads 60 mph (100 kmh) on rural roads, and 74 mph (120 kmh) on the highway.
Traffic offenses: Qatar operates a point system for traffic offenders, and has a hefty fine structure, but at the time of writing does not have on-the-spot fines. The car rental company will carry out a check when you return the car, in case you may have been caught speeding, and will add the fine to your final bill.
Weather and Road Conditions
Qatar has put a lot of money into its well-maintained roads, and continues to do so to be ready for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Doha is a coil of well sign-posted, ring roads and connections to the outer edges of the country are good. But sometimes the weather puts a dampener on things. Being in a desert country, you can get sand storms which cover the road quickly and reduce visibility to zero. Additionally, the handful of rainy days that Doha experiences can cause immediate flash flooding as drainage is not a real concept here. During rainfall, the roads get very slippery, which can cause accidents.
Renting a Car
Whether you rent a car depends on whether you want to explore outside of Doha. Within the city limits you might as well travel by taxi or public transport, equally, you can easily hire cars with drivers for hours or a day, at affordable prices, which takes the stress out of driving. If you do want to go it alone, at the airport you have all the well-known car rentals and can easily set off from there. You might want to opt for a larger vehicle with four-wheel-drive though, as small saloons sometimes get bullied on the roads and you’ll feel a lot safer in a larger car. And always bring plenty of water with you on any trip.
A popular pastime of locals and resident expatriates is the so-called dune-bashing: going off road with your four-wheel-drive and explore the desert while doing some stunts. Unless you have experience, and even if you have experience, never try this on your own, as you can easily get stuck off grid and even though Qatar is a relative small country, it might be impossible to find you in time, as desert conditions are brutal. However, if you do want to go dune-bashing, and we strongly recommend that you do, as it is enormous fun, hire an experienced driver and enjoy it without the stress and potential danger.