Qatar — Alcohol debate shines light on divisions in Qatari society

Del­e­gates to a high-pow­ered inter­na­tion­al sports secu­ri­ty con­fer­ence had a glimpse this week of Qatar’s inter­nal debate about how far the Gulf state should go in meet­ing West­ern and world soc­cer body FIFA demands that offend con­ser­v­a­tive seg­ments of Qatari soci­ety and the roy­al fam­i­ly.

With the debate focused on the avail­abil­i­ty of alco­hol dur­ing the 2022 World Cup, the first ever to be host­ed in the Mid­dle East, del­e­gates watched Qatar 2022 Supreme Com­mit­tee gen­er­al sec­re­tary Has­san al Thawa­di walk a tightrope in a bid to appease all parties. 

Mr. Al Thawa­di set off alarm bells in his offi­cial address to the 2nd Inter­na­tion­al Sport Secu­ri­ty Con­fer­ence when he ques­tioned the need for the serv­ing of alco­hol in sta­di­ums. Mr. Al Thawadi’s remarks were per­haps mis­tak­en­ly seen as back­track­ing on an ear­li­er pledge that alco­hol would be rel­a­tive­ly freely avail­able dur­ing the World Cup. 

“I don’t see the rea­son for it being in the sta­di­um. I’m look­ing at it in terms of Eng­land and look­ing at in terms of every­body else. That is some­thing we are dis­cussing with FIFA … Let’s dis­cuss this with rel­e­vant stake­hold­ers and come up with a plan that wel­comes every­one,” Mr. Al Thawa­di said. 

Speak­ing to jour­nal­ists lat­er, Mr. Al Thawa­di insist­ed that alco­hol would be avail­able dur­ing the World Cup. “All I can say is alco­hol will be avail­able – maybe not as freely avail­able as some oth­er coun­tries but it will be avail­able. We plans and as we go along more clar­i­ty will be pro­vid­ed to peo­ple,” he said. 

Qatar nev­er promised pub­licly to allow alco­hol in sta­di­um but has insist­ed since win­ning the right to host the World Cup in Decem­ber 2010 that it would allow con­sump­tion of alco­hol in spe­cial­ly des­ig­nat­ed fan zones. 

Mr. Al Thawa­di believes that he stands on strong grounds that the alco­hol issue is a safe­ty and a secu­ri­ty issue rather than a cul­tur­al or reli­gious one. FIFA, defend­ing the com­mer­cial rights of its spon­sors, includ­ing Bud­weis­er beer brew­er Anheuser-Busch InBev, has locked horns with the non-Mus­lim hosts of the next two World Cup, Brazil and Rus­sia. Both coun­tries have out­lawed the sale of alco­hol at sport­ing events in a bid to con­trol crowds and pre-empt violence. 

Qatar’s reluc­tance to allow alco­hol in sta­di­ums is how­ev­er being increas­ing­ly com­pro­mised by Brazil and Rus­sia cav­ing into West­ern and FIFA demands. A Brazil­ian con­gres­sion­al com­mis­sion caved in ear­li­er this month and approved a World Cup bill ear­li­er this month that would allow the sale of alco­hol in sta­di­ums. The bill still has to be endorsed by the Brazil­ian parliament’s low­er house and sen­ate and then by Pres­i­dent Dil­ma Rousseff. 

Rus­sia too appears about to give in. Russ­ian soc­cer fed­er­a­tion pres­i­dent Sergey Fursenko recent­ly called for the rein­sti­tu­tion of beer adver­tise­ments in Russ­ian sta­di­ums. Prime Min­is­ter Vladimir Putin 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.” 

Nonethe­less, Mr. Al Thawa­di was hedg­ing his bets because the alco­hol issue takes on par­tic­u­lar sig­nif­i­cance in Qatar, the only Mus­lim state besides Sau­di Ara­bia that adheres to the puri­tan con­cepts of Mohammed Abdel Wah­hab. An 18th cen­tu­ry war­rior preach­er, Mr. Abdul Wahhab’s teach­ings are among Islam’s most con­ser­v­a­tive. By and large Qatar has nonethe­less devel­oped a far more lib­er­al approach than is prac­ticed in Sau­di Arabia. 

Increas­ing­ly, how­ev­er, con­ser­v­a­tive Qataris and some mem­bers of the roy­al fam­i­ly are sig­nalling their dis­sat­is­fac­tion with the course Emir Hamad Bin Khal­i­fa al-Thani sup­port­ed by his wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nass­er Al Missned, is steer­ing. Some of that crit­i­cism is believed to be trib­al­ly moti­vat­ed because Sheikha Mozah hails from a tribe that tra­di­tion­al­ly opposed the Al Thanis. 

As a result, the debate about allow­ing alco­hol amounts to far more than a dis­cus­sion about what con­ces­sions Qatar should make to West­ern soc­cer exec­u­tives and FIFA. It is a debate about the future course of the coun­try, the pow­ers of its 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 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. 

Mr. Al-Wahhab’s puri­tanism con­sti­tutes 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 and else­where in the region. 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, includ­ing its sup­port for the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood that is wide­ly dis­trust­ed by Sau­di Arabia. 

The lat­est debate was sparked when a group of row­dy Aus­tralians and New Zealan­ders left a bar on Pearl Qatar Island, home to an esti­mat­ed 41,000 res­i­dents many of whom are expa­tri­ates, alco­hol bot­tles in hand and con­tin­ued drink­ing in a pub­lic space. 

Qatar allows drink­ing only in hotel bars rather than in pub­lic spaces. The Decem­ber inci­dent prompt­ed a ban on drink­ing in Pearl Island restau­rants that have since seen their rev­enues drop dramatically. 

The Pearl Island inci­dent has embold­ened Qatari crit­ics of alco­hol to argue that the emir’s tol­er­ance vio­lates the country’s con­sti­tu­tions and laws which do not grant him 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, charged 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,” Mr. Al Sayed said. 

He said 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. 

If sports are for Qatar’s lead­ers a key tool in forg­ing nation­al iden­ti­ty and pro­ject­ing Qatar inter­na­tion­al­ly, 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. It fol­lowed a sim­i­lar protest in recent months decry­ing telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions services. 

“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 sense of being a minor­i­ty in one’s own coun­try prompt­ed the Supreme Edu­ca­tion Coun­cil to recent­ly order all edu­ca­tion­al insti­tu­tions to impose Arab as the lan­guage of teach­ing with­in nine months. 

The order came after Qatari crown prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khal­i­fa Al-Thani attend­ed a grad­u­a­tion cer­e­mo­ny last fall and not­ed that the major­i­ty of grad­u­ates were not Qataris but for­eign­ers. “Where are the Qataris7 Sheikh Tamim asked. 

Aca­d­e­mics attribute the lack of male Qatari stu­dents to the fact that local head hunters hunt Qataris in high school offer­ing them salaries that are the equiv­a­lent to what they would earn once they com­plete a uni­ver­si­ty study. “There is no need for them to study,” a for­eign pro­fes­sor said. 

Sheikh Tamim is wide­ly viewed as sym­pa­thet­ic to the con­ser­v­a­tive ele­ment of Qatari soci­ety. Hotels in Qatar that he owns are among those that do not serve alcohol. 

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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