Qatar — Alcohol ban raises specter of problems for Qatar’s hosting of 2022 World Cup

A ban on alco­hol on Qatar’s man-made The Pearl Qatar island cou­pled with the nam­ing of a large mosque after the founder of a puri­tan strand of Islam and online protests against var­i­ous state-owned com­pa­nies high­lights domes­tic oppo­si­tion to some of the Gulf state’s more for­ward look­ing poli­cies as well as free­doms for soc­cer fans it is expect­ed to host dur­ing the 2022 World Cup. 

Qatari offi­cials have said that the 500,000 soc­cer fans expect­ed to descend on their coun­try dur­ing the World Cup will be allowed to con­sume alco­hol in des­ig­nat­ed zones. Alco­hol is cur­rent­ly served exclu­sive­ly in hotels and sold in a Qatar Airways–owned shop only to expa­tri­ates who hold a license. 

The ban­ning of alco­hol on the island, whose restau­rants are pop­u­lar with Qatar’s grow­ing expa­tri­ate com­mu­ni­ty, was intro­duced in advance of the Al Kass Inter­na­tion­al Cup, a ten-day Under-17 soc­cer tour­na­ment, involv­ing top world clubs such as Paris Saint-Ger­main, Brazil’s Vas­co De Gama (Brazil), Juven­tus, Ajax, FC Barcelona, Japan’s Kashima Antlers and Egypt’s, Al Ahly. It also came as senior inter­na­tion­al fig­ures gath­ered in Doha at Qatar’s invi­ta­tion to brain­storm over the role of sports in soci­ety and what gov­ern­ments, NGO’s and the pri­vate sec­tor should do to pro­mote sports. 

Busi­ness at restau­rants on the Pearl has dropped as much as 50 per­cent as a result of the ban. “Obvi­ous­ly the busi­ness has dropped; by half… for some restau­rants, prob­a­bly even more,” said Sumeet Jing­han, coun­try man­ag­er of Food­mark, whose brands include Carluccio’s, The Meat Com­pa­ny and Man­go Tree. 

Mr. Jing­han said Food­mark had sus­pend­ed plans to open two more restau­rants and a club on the Pearl, home to an esti­mat­ed 41,000 res­i­dents, until it became clear whether the ban was per­ma­nent or not. 

The ban did not imme­di­ate­ly affect the Al Kass tour­na­ment which attract­ed pri­mar­i­ly only local spec­ta­tors. The com­pe­ti­tion offers Aspire Qatar, the Gulf state’s youth team, whose play­ers include young Qataris as well as youths from Africa, Asia and Latin Amer­i­ca select­ed in a year­ly tal­ent search from among some 500,000 aspir­ing soc­cer play­ing kids to com­pete against some of the world’s best teams. 

The tour­na­ment is one ini­tia­tive in Qatar’s empha­sis on sports as a cor­ner­stone of its for­eign pol­i­cy, devel­op­ment and effort to shape the ener­gy-rich nation’s nation­al iden­ti­ty at a time that youth-dri­ven pop­u­lar revolts have top­pled the lead­ers of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and pushed embat­tled auto­crats in Syr­ia and Yemen to the brink. Qatar’s Al Jazeera tele­vi­sion net­work has played an impor­tant role in the revolts with Syr­i­an Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad accus­ing it of insti­gat­ing and encour­ag­ing the protests against his regime. 

“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,” said Noo­ra Al Man­nai, CEO of Qatar’s bid to win the right to host the 2020 Olympic Games. 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. 

If sports are for Qatar’s lead­ers a key tool in forg­ing nation­al iden­ti­ty, ban­ning alco­hol is its equiv­a­lent for more con­ser­v­a­tive and nation­al­ist forces in the Gulf state. 

“I don’t see a rea­son to have alco­hol. It impacts very neg­a­tive­ly on locals. Locals are not hap­py with it,” The Wall Street Jour­nal quot­ed Qatari writer Abdul Aziz Al Mah­moud as saying. 

Con­ser­v­a­tive Qataris wor­ry that an increas­ing num­ber of their com­pa­tri­ots, often dressed in full-length robes, the Gulf’s nation­al dress, drink pub­licly in hotels and bars. “It is a taboo in Qatar to see some­body wear­ing the nation­al dress and drink­ing,” said Has­san Al Ibrahim, a Qatari com­men­ta­tor, accord­ing to the Journal. 

Con­ser­v­a­tive fears in a nation where locals account for at best one third of the pop­u­la­tion were fur­ther inflamed when the Qatar Dis­tri­b­u­tion Com­pa­ny, a Qatar Air­ways owned-retail shop, intro­duced pork along­side the alco­hol it was already sell­ing to expa­tri­ates. The intro­duc­tion was one spark of an online call to boy­cott the airline. 

Qatar’s The Penin­su­la dai­ly report­ed that a group of some 500 Qataris had called for a boy­cott of the state-owned air­line, a major tool in the posi­tion­ing of the Gulf state as a glob­al trav­el hub, in protest against its serv­ing of alco­hol on flights, high fares and fail­ure to allo­cate more jobs to Qatari nation­als. The pro­test­ers’ cam­paign fea­tured the Qatar Air­ways logo with a no entry sign super­im­posed on it. It fol­lowed a sim­i­lar protest in recent months decry­ing telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions services. 

Qatar Air­ways has declined to com­ment on why its store had start­ed to sell pork. 

“I nev­er thought the day would come that I have to ask the wait­er in a restau­rant in Qatar what kind of meat is in their burg­ers,” said a Qatari on Twitter. 

“Ppl don’t get it. Its not about the pork—its about us feel­ing more & more like a minority—in our own coun­try,” tweet­ed anoth­er Qatari. 

The ban­ning of alco­hol as well as the shut­ting down of a week­ly par­ty on the Pearl, a devel­op­ment that bills itself as the Arab Riv­iera; the nam­ing of a mosque in mem­o­ry of Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wah­hab, an 18th cen­tu­ry war­rior priest whose aus­tere, puri­tan inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam life shapes life in Sau­di Ara­bia and inspires Qatari cul­tur­al tra­di­tions; and the online protests are like­ly issues that oppo­nents of Qatar’s host­ing of the World Cup will seize on in so far failed attempts to get the award­ing by world soc­cer body FIFA reversed. 

Al-Wahhab’s puri­tanism cre­at­ed the cra­dle of Salafism – an Islam­ic trend that prop­a­gates a return to the way of life at the time of Islam’s first 7th cen­tu­ry caliphs and has emerged as a pow­er polit­i­cal force in post-revolt Egypt. Sau­di Ara­bia recent­ly offi­cial­ly embraced Salafism as a key ele­ment in its soft pow­er strat­e­gy aimed at coun­ter­ing Iran’s per­ceived rev­o­lu­tion­ary Islam­ic appeal as well as the wave of anti-gov­ern­ment protests sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa. The embrace also con­sti­tutes a response to Qatar’s idio­syn­crat­ic for­eign and domes­tic policies. 

That response is like­ly to sharp­en the bat­tle lines with­in Qatar as the Gulf state pre­pares to host per­haps not only one but two of the world’s biggest sport­ing events in the next decade. 

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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