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.

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