The recent alcohol ban and other national issues are dividing Qataris as the country prepares to host one of the world’s most prestigious sporting events.
Qatar is increasingly seeing domestic opposition to liberal policies.
Alcohol was banned on the man-made Pearl-Qatar Island and a large mosque was named after a controversial founder of a puritan strand of Islam. These developments do not augur well for the 2022 FIFA World Cup that Qatar is supposed to host.
Qatari officials have said that the 500,000 soccer fans expected to attend 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 licensed expatriates.
The alcohol ban was introduced in advance of the Al Kass International Cup, a ten-day Under-17 soccer tournament involving top world clubs such as Brazil's Vasco De Gama FC Barcelona, Japan's Kashima Antlers and Egypt's Al Ahly. It also came as senior international figures gathered in Doha to brainstorm the role of governments, NGOs and the private sector in promoting sports.
Business at restaurants on the Pearl, which are popular among Qatar’s growing expatriate community, has dropped as much as 50% 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, a prominent food brand manager.
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 primarily attracts local spectators. The competition offers Aspire Qatar, the Gulf state's selective youth team comprised of the best Qatari and international players among a pool of 500,000, the opportunity 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 and development, part of the energy-rich nation’s effort to shape its national identity at a time when 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. Al Mannai included “empowering young people” as 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 a national identity, alcohol bans are the equivalent tool for 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, unmistakable in their traditional Qatari robes, will 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, made pork available alongside the alcohol it was already selling to licensed expatriates. The introduction of pork helped spark an online call to boycott the airline.
Qatar’s The Peninsula newspaper reported that a group of some 500 Qataris had called for a boycott of the state-owned airline 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 over it. It followed a similar protest in recent months decrying telecommunications services.
Qatar Airways has declined to comment on why its store has 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 (people) 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 alcohol ban, the shutdown of a weekly party on the Pearl, the naming of a mosque in memory of Mohammed ibn Abd al-Wahhab (an 18thcentury warrior-priest whose austere, puritan interpretation of Islamic life has inspired Qatari cultural traditions), and the online protests are issues that opponents of Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup will seize on in their continued attempts to have FIFA’s decision reversed.
Abd 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 powerful political force in post-revolutionary Egypt. Saudi Arabia’s recent official endorsement of Salafism can be read as a response to Qatar’s idiosyncratic, often anti-traditional foreign and domestic policies.
That response is likely to sharpen 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.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
*[This article first appeared on Mr. Dorsey’s blog.]
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