Cultural clash? Conservative Qatar is preparing for World Cup party

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

High-heeled designers came to exhibitions and fashion shows in the center of Doha. Celebrities, including a prominent gay rights activist, took selfies on a pulsating dance floor.

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

The backlash was swift. Qataris took to the internet to vent their anger at what they called a dangerous and depraved revelry, saying it threatened Qatar’s traditional values ​​ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The Arabic hashtag Stop Destroying Our Values ​​was trending for days.

The episode highlights tensions in Qatar, a conservative Muslim emirate that restricts alcohol, bans drugs and suppresses freedom of expression as it prepares to welcome potentially rowdy crowds for the Middle East’s first football World Cup.

“Our religion and customs forbid indecent dress and behavior,” Moheba Al Kheer, a Qatari national, said of the avant-garde artists and flamboyant models who mingled among Qatari socialites in late October. “It’s normal to be concerned when we see people like this.”

According to the World Cup organizers, everyone is welcome during the tournament. Already, foreigners outnumber citizens in Qatar by 10 to one. Some Qataris are liberal and open to dealing with foreigners. Many are enthusiastic about the tournament. But human rights groups have expressed concern about how police will deal with violations by foreign fans of Islamic laws that criminalize public intoxication, extramarital sex and homosexuality.

Qatar, a small country on the Persian Gulf that was once a dusty pearl port, transformed at near-warp speed into a state-of-the-art hub following the explosion of natural gas in the 1990s. Expatriates, including Western consultants and engineers and low-paid South Asian construction workers and cleaners, poured into the country.

Skyscrapers of glass and steel, luxury hotels and huge shopping malls soon sprang up in the desert. In an effort to diversify away from a carbon-based economy, Qatar’s ruling family bought up interests in things ranging from global finance and technology to French football club Paris Saint-Germain and real estate in London.

The ruling emir’s sister, Sheikha Al Mayassa Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, became one of the world’s foremost art buyers. 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 was being pressured from within to stay true to its Islamic heritage and 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 was born.

Qatari rulers have been walking a tightrope between appeasing conservative citizens and tribes and strengthening soft power as a major global player.

“Doha’s religious discourse towards its citizens is very different from the liberal discourse towards the West,” said 38-year-old Qatari Mohammed al-Kuwari. “It can’t always succeed in both.”

The bright spotlight of the World Cup – which requires Qatar to ease access to alcohol, create fun outlets for fans and comply with FIFA rules that promote tolerance and inclusion – raises the stakes.

In recent years, the World Cup has turned the host nations into the world’s biggest celebration, with exuberant crowds drinking heavily and celebrating together. When emotions run high, fans can be euphoric — or rude and violent.

This will shake quiet Qatar, where such behavior is deeply taboo and virtually unheard of. Doha is not known for its nightlife. Despite the rapid development over the years, the entertainment offer remains small and the public areas are limited.

Some foreign fans are concerned about how Qatar will deal with hordes of drunken hooligans on the streets, given public morals laws and strict restrictions on the purchase and consumption of alcohol.

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

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

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

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

He said he found comfort in one promise from the country’s advisory Shura council last month that the authorities will “ensure the building of a strong society adhering to its religion” and reject “any outrageous behavior” that breaks local taboos.

But as 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 little choice but to accept whatever comes.

The Emirate does not tolerate disagreements. Qatar’s oil and gas wealth has given rise to a social contract in which citizens benefit from a cradle-to-grave welfare state and political rights come after state paternalism.

“If Qatar wants to be on the world map, they must adhere to global norms and values,” said Andreas Krieg, assistant professor of security studies at King’s College London. “The government will stand firm on certain points, and the people will follow suit.”

Al-Kuwari, the burger, was more blunt.

“There is fear,” he said. “If a citizen thinks to criticize, a (prison) sentence awaits him.”

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Follow Isabel DeBre on Twitter at www.twitter.com/isabeldebre.

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