Debate questions emir’s powers to shape Qatar’s positioning as a sports hub and sponsor of revolts

Qatar’s debate about allow­ing alco­hol and the sale of pork amounts to far more than a dis­cus­sion about adher­ence to the ener­gy-rich Gulf state’s con­sti­tu­tion and laws; it is a debate about the pow­ers of the country’s ruler and its nation­al identity. 

The out­come of the debate will not only deter­mine the future of Qatar’s effort to become a glob­al sports hub – a key pil­lar of the nation­al iden­ti­ty Emir Hamad Bin Khal­i­fa al-Thani is seek­ing to shape – but also its posi­tion­ing as a for­ward-look­ing spon­sor of change in a region stretch­ing from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf that is wracked by anti-gov­ern­ment protests and con­vo­lut­ed tran­si­tions to more open societies. 

It is a debate that is being close­ly mon­i­tored by crit­ics of world soc­cer body FIFA’s deci­sion to award Qatar the host­ing of the 2022 World Cup; a wide-range of sports offi­cials and ath­letes who antic­i­pate a Qatari bid for the 2020 Olympic Games and the 2019 World Ath­let­ics Cham­pi­onships; and pol­i­cy mak­ers and pun­dits across the globe. 

Caught on cam­era by CBS News in April of last year, US Pres­i­dent Barak Oba­ma described Sheikh Hamad as “a big boost­er of democ­ra­cy all through­out the Mid­dle East,” but not­ed that “he him­self is not reform­ing sig­nif­i­cant­ly.” Mr. Oba­ma sug­gest­ed that Qataris with a per capi­ta annu­al income of $145,000 felt lit­tle urge to rock the boat. Emir Hamad has since Mr. Obama’s quip announced elec­tions next year for a roy­al advi­so­ry body. Qatar’s debate on moral mores non­the­less appears to con­tra­dict Mr. Obama’s assessment. 

The debate attract­ed inter­na­tion­al atten­tion fol­low­ing last month’s unex­plained ban­ning of alco­hol in restau­rants on Qatar’s man-made island, The Pearl, which says it aims to “rede­fine an entire nation” and is pop­u­lar with Qatar’s grow­ing expa­tri­ate com­mu­ni­ty, as well as online calls by Qatari nation­als for a boy­cott of state-owned Qatar Air­ways because of its serv­ing on-board of alco­hol and recent intro­duc­tion of the sale of pork in a shop it owns in the cap­i­tal Doha. 

The debate about the country’s nation­al iden­ti­ty is par­tic­u­lar­ly sen­si­tive giv­en that Qatari nation­als account for approx­i­mate­ly only one quar­ter to one third of the country’s 1.7 mil­lion inhab­i­tants with for­eign labour and expa­tri­ates form­ing a major­i­ty at a time that the rela­tion­ship between rulers, gov­ern­ments and the pub­lic across the Mid­dle East and North Africa is being redefined. 

“Our goal is to cre­ate a dia­logue that res­onates with and talks to the youth. This is an oppor­tu­ni­ty to inspire and engage young peo­ple…. Sports are at the heart of Qatar’s devel­op­ment… Sports like edu­ca­tion and arts are part of our nation­al iden­ti­ty,” Noo­ra Al Man­nai, CEO of Qatar’s bid to win the right to host the 2020 Olympic Games, told a recent brain­storm in Qatar designed to define the role of gov­ern­ment, NGOs and busi­ness in sports. 

Ms. Al Man­nai said “empow­er­ing young peo­ple” was one rea­son for the bid along­side Qatar’s efforts to medi­ate con­flicts and reduce region­al obe­si­ty and dia­betes levels. 

The ban of alco­hol on The Pearl extends beyond pub­lic venues to the kitchen, where one res­i­dent, Jenifer Fen­ton, writ­ing on Arab News Blog, said it could also not be used for cook­ing. Restau­ra­teurs and res­i­dents have yet to receive a jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for the ban. The ban does not affect major hotels in Doha that are allowed to sell alco­hol to non-Mus­lims or the Qatar Air­ways shop that sells alco­hol and pork to licensed for­eign nation­als for pri­vate consumption. 

Spec­u­la­tion about the rea­son­ing includes the ruler and the gov­ern­ment want­i­ng to project a more pious image in advance of the country’s first elec­tion of a roy­al advi­so­ry body to rumours of a finan­cial dis­pute between the gov­ern­ment and the resort’s developers. 

Qatar has long sought to dif­fer­en­ti­ate its inter­pre­ta­tion of the teach­ings of the 18th cen­tu­ry puri­tan war­rior priest, Mohammed Abdul Wah­hab, from that of strict Sau­di Ara­bia where in con­trast to Qatar women are severe­ly restrict­ed and Islam­ic law is rig­or­ous­ly applied to all not just Mus­lims and Sau­di nationals. 

The debate is like­ly to engen­der empa­thy in the Gulf and else­where in the Mid­dle East and North Africa as Islamist forces emerge as win­ners from the pop­u­lar revolts sweep­ing the region. 

Nonethe­less, it has sparked con­cern among sec­u­lar­ists in Tunisia where the Islamist Enna­ha­da par­ty won the first elec­tions fol­low­ing last year’s over­throw of Pres­i­dent Zine el Abe­dine Ben Ali that the coun­try may focus more on rela­tions with the Gulf than on its tra­di­tion­al ties to Europe. Enna­ha­da offi­cials were quick to assert dur­ing Sheikh Hamad’s recent vis­it to Tunisia to mark the first anniver­sary of the top­pling of Mr. Ben Ali that the coun­try would not jeop­ar­dize its rela­tions with Europe but was bas­ing its for­eign pol­i­cy on achiev­ing the revolution’s goals. 

Qatari crit­ics of alco­hol argue that the emir’s tol­er­ance vio­lates the country’s con­sti­tu­tions and laws which do not grant the emir the pre­rog­a­tive to allow its sale or con­sump­tion. In doing so, the crit­ics are implic­it­ly spark­ing a rare debate about the pow­ers of the ruler. 

Has­san Al Sayed, a pro­fes­sor of con­sti­tu­tion­al law and for­mer dean of the Col­lege of Law at Qatar Uni­ver­si­ty, says accord­ing to Ms. Fen­ton, that there is no Qatari law that allows for the sale of alco­hol and that in fact sev­er­al laws, includ­ing the con­sti­tu­tion, crim­i­nal­ize it. Even “if there is any deci­sion com­ing for exam­ple from the Emir or any depart­ment here (legal­iz­ing alco­hol)… no in fact, this is not okay and this is against the law,” Ms. Fen­ton quotes Mr. Al Sayed as saying. 

Mr. Al Sayed says that for Qatar to legal­ly allow the sale and con­sump­tion of alco­hol it must change its con­sti­tu­tion, which in arti­cle 1 stip­u­lates that “Islam is the State’s reli­gion and the Islam­ic Sharia is the main source of its leg­is­la­tions.” Mr. Al Sayed argues that the legal ban applies also to free zones the gov­ern­ment said it would cre­ate for fans attend­ing the 2022 World Cup. 

A major­i­ty of Qataris is like­ly to oppose con­sti­tu­tion­al reform out of fear that the coun­try would lose its Islam­ic iden­ti­ty, a key ele­ment in the nation­al iden­ti­ty it is try­ing to shape. 

Restau­rant exec­u­tives are opti­mistic that the ban will be lift­ed and that Qatar is not on the verge of declar­ing itself dry. The recent res­ig­na­tion of Khalil Sholy, the man­ag­ing direc­tor of Unit­ed Devel­op­ment Com­pa­ny (UDC), the devel­op­er of The Pearl, has fuelled hopes of a resolution. 

That how­ev­er could take sev­er­al months. UDC said in a state­ment post­ed on the Qatar Exchange that Mr. Sholy will retain his pow­ers as man­ag­ing direc­tor and pres­i­dent for three months “to assist the per­son who will be elect­ed by the board of direc­tors to fill the position.” 

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.

Face­book and/or on Twit­ter

Team GlobDef

Seit 2001 ist im Internet unterwegs, um mit eigenen Analysen, interessanten Kooperationen und umfassenden Informationen für einen spannenden Überblick der Weltlage zu sorgen. war dabei die erste deutschsprachige Internetseite, die mit dem Schwerpunkt Sicherheitspolitik außerhalb von Hochschulen oder Instituten aufgetreten ist.

Alle Beiträge ansehen von Team GlobDef →