Qatari doubts about alcohol boosted by unlikely allies: World Cup hosts Brazil and Russia

To serve or not to serve?
With alco­hol becom­ing a domes­tic polit­i­cal issue in the Gulf state of Qatar, host of the 2022 World Cup, Qatari offi­cials are cer­tain­ly tak­ing heart from world soc­cer body FIFA’s bat­tle with the non-Mus­lim hosts of the next two tour­na­ments, Brazil and Rus­sia, over the role of alco­hol in the world’s largest sport­ing events.

That how­ev­er may be pre­ma­ture. The out­come of FIFA’s dis­pute with Brazil, host of the 2014 World Cup, and Rus­sia where the tour­na­ment will be held in 2018, is cer­tain to shape the soc­cer body’s cer­tain­ly forth­com­ing debate with Qatar.

Unlike Qatar, which restricts the con­sump­tion and sale of alco­hol on reli­gious grounds, Brazil and Rus­sia have out­lawed its sale at sport­ing events in recent years in a bid to con­trol crowds and pre­vents riots and vio­lence.

With FIFA insist­ing in the words of its Gen­er­al Sec­re­tary Jerome Val­cke that “alco­holic drinks are part of the FIFA World Cup…that’s some­thing we won’t nego­ti­ate” due to its oblig­a­tions to spon­sors that include brew­er Bud­weis­er, a com­pro­mise may already be in the mak­ing. What­ev­er that com­pro­mise is, it will cer­tain­ly inform debate in Qatar as well as between the Gulf state whose cul­tur­al his­to­ry is root­ed in a puri­tan inter­pre­ta­tion of Islam and FIFA.

Alco­hol and par­tic­u­lar­ly beer bat­tles increas­ing­ly seem to be a fea­ture in the walk-up to a World Cup. Ger­man brew­ers revolt­ed in 2006 because their beers were ini­tial­ly exclud­ed until Anheuser-Busch agreed to sell local beer Bit­burg­er along­side its own. “We’re not talk­ing about alco­hol, we’re talk­ing about beer,” Mr. Val­cke said in Brasil­ia, a dis­tinc­tion that cer­tain­ly will be reject­ed in Qatar.

Qatar-based con­tro­ver­sial Islam­ic tele­vi­sion preach­er Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi who com­mands a fol­low­ing of tens of mil­lions and has a week­ly show on the Gulf state’s Al Jazeera tele­vi­sion net­work issued a reli­gious edict in 2008 that Mus­lims could con­sume bev­er­ages with up to 0.5% alco­hol.

The rul­ing was how­ev­er reject­ed by sup­port­ers of Wah­habism, the puri­tan ver­sion of Islam com­mon to Qatar and Sau­di Ara­bia even if it’s more lib­er­al inter­pre­ta­tion in Qatar is a far cry from its severe appli­ca­tion in Sau­di Ara­bia. The rul­ing more­over doesn’t do much for beer brew­ers whose prod­ucts have an alco­hol con­tent of more than four per cent.

An emailed FIFA state­ment on this week’s first meet­ing in Brazil­ia of the 2014 Cup’s Local Orga­niz­ing Com­mit­tee made no men­tion of the alco­hol issue, but FIFA’s insis­tence that Brazil over­turn its ban has sparked debate in the Latin Amer­i­can coun­try as offi­cials seek to find a res­o­lu­tion.

While some mem­bers of the Brazil­ian Con­gress and judi­cia­ry are cam­paign­ing for the ban on alco­hol to remain in place, FIFA said in a state­ment sent to CNN that it believes that the law insti­tut­ing the ban would soon be changed.

“The sell­ing of beer in sta­di­ums is part of the fan cul­ture and will also be part of the 2014 FIFA World Cup. It is impor­tant to note that the sale of alco­hol will be lim­it­ed to beer only as was done at all pre­vi­ous FIFA World Cups. We are con­fi­dent that we will be able to solve the very few open mat­ters and close the chap­ter of the 2014 Bill by March 2012, so we can then focus on the oper­a­tional aspects of stag­ing the FIFA Con­fed­er­a­tions Cup in 18 months from now and then the 2014 FIFA World Cup,” the state­ment said.

Brazil­ian Min­is­ter for Sports Aldo Rebe­lo, speak­ing to CNN acknowl­edged that Brazil in its agree­ment to host the World Cup had “agreed with all the require­ments… We need to move on and fas­ten up and I am con­fi­dent that by March we can com­plete this,” the min­is­ter said.

Sim­i­lar­ly, Russ­ian soc­cer fed­er­a­tion pres­i­dent Sergey Fursenko called in recent days for the rein­sti­tu­tion of beer adver­tise­ments and brews in Russ­ian sta­di­ums. Prime Min­is­ter Vladimir Putin last week told a soc­cer fan that “when the deci­sion was made about sta­di­ums, it came from the best of inten­tions. OK, we’ll return to it again and think about it.”

Qatar, a con­tro­ver­sial choice for the World Cup because of fan objec­tions to some of its cul­tur­al mores, a lack of a soc­cer tra­di­tion and blis­ter­ing sum­mer tem­per­a­tures, has sought to pre-empt a debate about alco­hol by announc­ing that it would cre­ate fan zones where alco­hol can be con­sumed.

The offer has so far silenced the Gulf state’s non-Qatari crit­ics but fea­tures in a domes­tic debate that recent­ly led to a ban on alco­hol in restau­rants on a man-made island that is home to and fre­quent­ed by expa­tri­ates. The debate has also sparked online calls for a boy­cott of state-owned Qatar Air­ways because it serves alco­hol on board and oper­ates a shop in the cap­i­tal Doha that sells alco­hol and pork to non-Mus­lims.

Qatar’s drink­ing zone solu­tion to the alco­hol prob­lem could well serve as a mod­el for a com­pro­mise with Brazil and Rus­sia. Alter­na­tive­ly, an agree­ment with the two non-Mus­lim nations involv­ing a dif­fer­ent solu­tion could spark a revis­it of the Qatari approach and fuel oppo­si­tion to Emir Hamad bin Khal­i­fa Al Thani’s efforts to posi­tion the Gulf state as a glob­al sports hub and make sports a pil­lar of its nation­al iden­ti­ty.

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.