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World Cup fans could stoke political tensions amid calm Qatar

By Joseph Krauss | Associated Press

Qatar is a deeply apolitical place, with severely restricted freedoms of speech and assembly and a large population of foreign workers who could lose their livelihoods if they make a splash.

But that could change next month, when an estimated 1.2million football fans travel to the tiny Arab Gulf nation for the World Cup. Authorities may face calls for labor rights, LGBTQ equality and other causes in the international spotlight like no other.

They might also have to deal with public drunkenness and hooliganism in a conservative Islamic country where such behavior is deeply taboo and virtually unheard of.

Qatar has had more than a decade to prepare for the month-long tournament, which begins on November 20, and has spared no expense, thanks to natural gas reserves that make it one of the world’s wealthiest countries. of the world. It also has recent experience in hosting major international sporting events.

But there is nothing like a World Cup.

A QUIET, DESERT EMIRATE

Qatar, the first Arab or Muslim country to host a World Cup, is a wealthy and politically stable exception in the volatile Middle East. Citizens enjoy generous cradle-to-grave welfare paid for by its gas riches. Foreign workers represent more than two thirds of the population of less than 3 million inhabitants and represent almost 95% of the working population.

Qatar hosts pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera and has backed Islamist groups across the region, but within its own borders the politics are almost non-existent. Power is concentrated in the hands of a hereditary emir, criticism of the authorities is heavily restricted, and politically oriented groups are banned.

The US-based Freedom House, which studies democratic change and setbacks around the world, classifies Qatar as “not free”.

Qatari officials said security forces would adopt a light touch during the World Cup, tolerating minor infractions like public intoxication and intervening only in response to violence, destruction of property and threats to public safety.

“Different perspectives are encouraged and fans will be free to express themselves during the World Cup, as they have done at other events in Qatar,” a Qatari government official said on condition of anonymity in accordance with to regulations.

Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said he expects Qatar “to tolerate instances of activism during the World Cup, especially if they are not not related to political or geopolitical issues”.

“Qatari police trained alongside their international counterparts, including from the UK, and focused on issues such as crowd control and policing in a way that defused rather than to intensify unstable situations.”

SILENT WORKERS

The World Cup has already brought to light what rights groups describe as exploitative conditions endured by many foreign workers, including construction workers who have built stadiums and other infrastructure.

Qatar has overhauled its labor laws in recent years, dismantling much of its traditional kafala system, which tied workers to their employers. It also imposed a minimum monthly wage of around $275. But campaigners say more needs to be done to ensure workers are paid on time and protected from further abuse.

Foreign workers do not have the right to form trade unions and have no political rights. At least 60 workers were arrested in August for organizing a protest against unpaid wages. A Kenyan security guard who wrote anonymously about the plight of foreign workers was detained for months and fined last year before leaving the country.

Several football associations are lobbying Qatar over labor rights, and the English Football Association has said its players will meet migrant workers who will be invited to their training camp.

LGBTQ: TOLERANCE WITHIN LIMITS

Qatari law provides for a sentence of 1 to 3 years in prison for “inciting, inciting or seducing a man. . . commit sodomy. Separate laws prescribe up to seven years for anyone who “copulates” with a man or woman over the age of 16 “without duress, compulsion or trickery”.

Few expect these laws to be enforced against visiting football fans, but it’s unclear how authorities would handle public displays of affection – taboo even for heterosexual couples – or public advocacy of LGBTQ people.

“Book the room together, sleep together – that’s something that doesn’t concern us,” Maj. Gen. Abdulaziz Abdullah Al Ansari, a senior official overseeing security preparations, told The Associated Press in April. But he sparked controversy in the same interview by saying rainbow flags could be removed from fans to protect them from attack.

“Look at the game. It’s good. But don’t really come and insult the whole society because of it,” he said.

Qatar has already been criticized in public forums for its criminalization of homosexuality. Eight of Europe’s 13 World Cup football teams have asked FIFA for permission for their captains to wear rainbow armbands as part of the ‘One Love’ campaign.

BEVERAGE AND ITEMS

Qatar is more relaxed than some other Gulf countries when it comes to alcohol, but its sale is generally limited to luxury hotels and restaurants. Public drunkenness is taboo in the Islamic country and offenders can be imprisoned or deported.

During the World Cup, beer will also be sold in stadiums and fan zones, and officials say drunkenness will be tolerated as long as it does not threaten anyone’s safety. But there could be consequences if things get out of control or the party leaves the designated venues.

Qatar could face the often related problem of fan rivalries. Local security forces have little experience dealing with the hooliganism that has always accompanied high-stakes matches in Europe.

Matches between Honduras and El Salvador sparked the so-called ‘soccer war’ between the countries in 1969, and a notorious collision between French and West German players at the 1982 World Cup sparked a major diplomatic incident. .

Russia was banned from international football following its invasion of Ukraine, whose national team was knocked out in the playoffs. But tensions around this conflict – or others – cannot be ruled out.

Qatar’s police will not be alone in facing major unrest.

Turkey, which has more experience with political unrest, plans to send 3,250 police, including special operations forces and explosives experts, to help Qatar maintain security. It will provide training to hundreds of Qatari security forces.

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