Culture shock? Conservative Qatar gears up for World Cup party – NBC Chicago

On the Instagram accounts of models and superstars last month, the Sheikh of Qatar looked like a glittering party.

Designers in high heels descended on exhibition openings and fashion shows in downtown Doha. Celebrities, including a prominent gay rights activist, took selfies on a bustling dance floor.

“As-salaam ‘alykum Doha!” Dutch model Marpessa Hennink proclaimed on Instagram, using the traditional Muslim greeting.

The backlash was quick. Qataris went online to express their anger at what they said was a dangerous and depraved celebration, saying it threatened Qatar’s traditional values ​​ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The Arab hashtag, Stop the destruction of our values, has been trending for days.

The episode highlights the tensions tearing Qatar, a conservative Muslim emirate that restricts alcohol, bans drugs and suppresses free speech, as it prepares to welcome possibly rowdy crowds for the inaugural World Cup in the Middle-East.

“Our religion and customs prohibit indecent dress and behavior,” Moheba Al Kheer, a Qatari citizen, said of the avant-garde artists and flamboyant models who mingled with Qatari socialites in late October. “It’s normal to worry when you see these kinds of people.”

World Cup organizers say everyone is welcome during the tournament. Already, foreigners outnumber Qatari citizens by 10 times. Some Qataris are liberal and open to mixing with foreigners. Many are delighted with the tournament. But human rights groups have expressed concern over how police will deal with violations of Islamic laws by foreign fans criminalizing public drunkenness, sex outside marriage and homosexuality.

Qatar, a tiny Persian Gulf country that was once a dusty pearl port, transformed at near lightning speed into a state-of-the-art hub after its natural gas boom in the 1990s. Expats, including consultants and Western engineers and poorly paid South Asian construction workers and cleaners, flocked to the country.

Glass and steel skyscrapers, luxury hotels and massive shopping malls quickly sprang up in the desert. In an effort to diversify away from a carbon-based economy, Qatar’s ruling family has bought stakes in areas ranging from global finance and technology to French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain and London real estate.

The sister of the ruling emir, Sheikha Al Mayassa Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, has become one of the most important art buyers in the world. His mother, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned, became a global style icon and bought several luxury brands, including Valentino.

But even as Qatar, one of the world’s richest countries per capita, looked to the West for inspiration, it faced pressure from within to stay true to its heritage. Islam and its Bedouin roots. Qatar’s most powerful clan hails from the landlocked interior of the Arabian Peninsula, where the ultra-conservative form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism originated.

Qatari leaders have walked a tightrope between appeasing its conservative citizens and tribes and bolstering soft power as a major global player.

“Doha’s religious discourse to its citizens is very different from its liberal discourse to the West,” said Qatari Mohammed al-Kuwari, 38. “He can’t always achieve both.”

The dazzling spotlight of the World Cup – which requires Qatar to ease access to alcohol, create fun outlets for fans and comply with FIFA rules promoting tolerance and inclusion – increases the challenges.

In years past, the World Cup has transformed host countries into the biggest party in the world, with cheering crowds drinking heavily and celebrating together. When emotions run high, fans can be euphoric — or rude and violent.

It will shake the calm of Qatar, where such behavior is deeply taboo and virtually unheard of. Doha is not known for its nightlife. Despite its rapid development over the years, its entertainment offer remains thin and its public spaces limited.

Some overseas fans are worried about how Qatar will handle the hordes of drunken hooligans on the streets, given the country’s public decency laws and strict limits on the purchase and consumption of alcohol.

Swearing and making offensive gestures, dressing immodestly and kissing in public can normally lead to prosecution in Qatar. Anti-gay sentiment runs deep in society, as it does elsewhere in the Arab world. A senior security official has warned that the rainbow flags could be confiscated to protect fans from attacks for promoting gay rights.

Fan anxiety is evident in recent Reddit message boards: “How would the government know if someone is gay?” “How bad is it to wear short pants (Can I be arrested)?” “Is it true that people who say negative things about Qatar on social media are arrested?”

At the same time, conservative Qataris worry about how much their society can bend to accommodate World Cup guests. Doha plans to organize giant electronic music festivals. Authorities say they will turn a blind eye to offenses such as public intoxication, intervening only in response to destruction of property and threats to public safety.

“I hope the World Cup will not strip society of its religion, morals and customs,” said a 28-year-old Qatari who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

He said he found comfort in a pledge from the country’s Shura Advisory Council last month that authorities would ‘ensure the building of a strong society that adheres to its religion’ and reject ‘any excessive behaviour’. which violates local taboos.

But because the tournament fulfills the vision of the country’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to develop the country, experts say the small population of Qataris have no choice but to accept everything. what comes.

The emirate does not tolerate dissent. Qatar’s oil and gas wealth has generated a social contract in which citizens enjoy a cradle-to-grave welfare state and political rights come after state paternalism.

“If Qatar wants to be on the world map, it must uphold global norms and values,” said Andreas Krieg, assistant professor of security studies at King’s College London. “The government will stand firm on certain issues, and the people will align themselves.”

Al-Kuwari, the citizen, was more direct.

“There is fear,” he said. “If a citizen thinks of criticizing, a (jail) sentence awaits him.”


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NBC Chicago

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