2022 World Cup spotlights strains in Qatari society

A recent arti­cle in Cor­nell University’s stu­dent news­pa­per, The Cor­nell Dai­ly Sun, ques­tion­ing whether Sheikha Mozah Bint Nass­er Al-Missned, the wife of the ruler of Qatar, should be a mem­ber of the Weill Cor­nell Med­ical Col­lege Board of Over­seers after estab­lish­ing a clin­ic that describes homo­sex­u­al­i­ty as a “behav­iour­al dis­or­der” and seeks to treat peo­ple who are gay spot­lights com­plex issues the con­ser­v­a­tive Gulf state is con­fronting as it pre­pares to host the 2022 World Cup.

The stir in both the Unit­ed States and Qatar caused by the arti­cle also puts into sharp relief ten­sions between the ambi­tions of the Qatari ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khal­i­fa Al Thani, and Qatar’s elite to posi­tion the ener­gy-rich Gulf state as an enlight­ened and impor­tant inter­na­tion­al polit­i­cal and finan­cial play­er and a glob­al sports hub, and the aspi­ra­tions of sig­nif­i­cant seg­ments of its con­ser­v­a­tive population. 

If any Arab state has so far remained untouched by the wave of anti-gov­ern­ment protests sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa it is Qatar whose tiny pop­u­la­tion has ben­e­fit­ted from a cra­dle to grave social safe­ty net, the country’s ener­gy wealth and the emir’s poli­cies that have put Qatar on the map. To the degree that there is crit­i­cism of the emir’s poli­cies, their like­ly impact on Qatari soci­ety and the adjust­ments Qatar is under pres­sure to make as a result of its suc­cess­ful bid to host the World Cup, they are expressed qui­et­ly in pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions and diwaniyas where local men gather. 

Much like in the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates, Qataris are reluc­tant to rock the boat in a coun­try in which they con­sti­tute a major­i­ty and that is forced to tol­er­ate a major­i­ty of expa­tri­ates to com­pen­sate for the local population’s lack of num­bers. As a result, both Qatar and the UAE have not been hit by mass anti-gov­ern­ment protests as occurred in Bahrain, threat­en to erupt in Kuwait and ear­li­er this year racked Oman. The region’s protest wave has already top­pled the auto­crat­ic lead­ers of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and is tear­ing Syr­ia and Yemen apart. 

Nev­er­the­less, Qatar’s bid to be a glob­al play­er is putting stress­ful demands on a soci­ety that is root­ed in deep-seat­ed con­ser­v­a­tive trib­al and Islam­ic val­ues. To host the World Cup, Qatar has already had to expand the areas dur­ing the tour­na­ment in which alco­hol can be con­sumed from beyond the rel­a­tive­ly few bars in lux­u­ry hotels. 

Trade unions are demand­ing that the Gulf state prove that migrant work­ers build­ing infra­struc­ture for the tour­na­ment are not sub­ject to inhu­man con­di­tions. The Inter­na­tion­al Trade Union Con­fed­er­a­tion (ITUC), the world’s largest trade union, and Build­ing Work­ers Inter­na­tion­al (BWI) charged in a report ear­li­er this year that the work­ing and liv­ing con­di­tions of most­ly Asian migrant labour being used to build nine sta­di­ums in 10 years are unsafe and unregulated. 

“A huge migrant labour force, with very lit­tle rights, no access to any unions, very unsafe prac­tices and inhu­man liv­ing con­di­tions will be lit­er­al­ly putting their lives on the line to deliv­er the 2022 World Cup,” said ITUC gen­er­al sec­re­tary Sha­ran Bur­row ITUC.. 

BWI sec­re­tary gen­er­al Ambet Yuson charged that Qatar’s “abil­i­ty to deliv­er the World Cup is total­ly depen­dent on severe exploita­tion of migrant labour, which we believe to be bare­ly above forced labour conditions.” 

David Roberts notes on The Gulf Blog that a major­i­ty of Qataris are con­cerned with the over­haul of the Qatari edu­ca­tion sys­tem by Rand Corp. that involved chang­ing cur­ric­u­la, the lan­guage of instruc­tion and the lift­ing of gen­der seg­re­ga­tion in class­rooms in Edu­ca­tion City, an edu­ca­tion-focused free zone. Cor­nell is one of the for­eign uni­ver­si­ties that has a cam­pus in Edu­ca­tion City. 

Sim­i­lar­ly, Sheikha Moza’s very pub­lic role and pres­ence con­sti­tutes a divi­sive issue. To young women, the Sheikha serves as a role mod­el, yet many Qataris describe it, accord­ing to Mr. Roberts, as “unde­sir­able or prob­lem­at­ic” in a con­ser­v­a­tive coun­try like Qatar. 

Many Qataris take issue with Sheikha Moza’s manda­to­ry intro­duc­tion of DNA tests before mar­riage in a soci­ety where mar­riage among cousins is customary. 

The Cor­nell stu­dent news­pa­per arti­cle re-focus­es atten­tion on apprehn­sions raised from the day Qatar won the right to host the 2022 World Cup last Decem­ber about the sta­tus of gay rights. Qatar like most pre­dom­i­nant­ly Mus­lim nations bans homo­sex­u­al­i­ty and gay groups have raised con­cerns about the sta­tus of gay fans dur­ing the tournament. 

The web­site of Shei­ka Moza’s says that Al Aween clin­ic spe­cial­izes in the treat­ment of dis­or­ders such as addic­tion to alco­hol, drug and Inter­net use, as well as deviant and unusu­al sex­u­al behav­iour. The web­site hosts a doc­u­ment that lists homo­sex­u­al­i­ty as one of sev­er­al “behav­iour­al dis­or­ders and neg­a­tive tendencies.” 

To treat its patients, the clin­ic offers a vari­ety of “ther­a­peu­tic units” and coun­selling. The web­site includes sam­ples of coun­selling pro­vid­ed to patients. For exam­ple, a woman seek­ing advice on her rela­tion­ship with anoth­er woman was told to stop her “unhealthy sex­u­al behav­iour” and end com­mu­ni­ca­tion with her partner. 

To be sure, Qatar is but one of many coun­tries in the region strug­gling to bal­ance con­ser­v­a­tive, tra­di­tion­al val­ues with the demands of a glob­al­ized world. The host­ing of the World Cup, how­ev­er, puts it more than any oth­er soci­ety in the Gulf under the inter­na­tion­al mag­ni­fy­ing glass and empha­sizes dif­fer­ences in per­cep­tions of the country’s ruler and the tra­di­tion­al, con­ser­v­a­tive instincts of his subjects. 

Says Mr. Roberts: “I repeat what I said on the day that they won the prize (the World Cup): they don’t have a clue what they’ve let them­selves in for.” 

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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