The tiny rich Gulf sheikhdom of Qatar has a lot of things to boast about these days.
Besides being the richest country in the world, it is emerging as one of the most diplomatically powerful, playing a key role in supporting protesters in the Arab Spring and mediating conflicts everywhere from Afghanistan to Yemen. Then, there’s the fever pitch anticipation over Qatar hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup – the first Arab state to do so.
The event may be a full decade away, but already there are stirrings of controversy. FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, could soon launch an investigation into allegations that Qatar offered bribes to win hosting rights. There are also concerns that Qatar’s scorching summer temperatures are impractical for players.
But the most pressing concern – to some at least – appears to be something that is much more of a concern for would-be fans: Qatar authorities have said drinking will only be allowed in designated ‘fan zones’ during the World Cup.
The sale and consumption of alcohol in Qatar cuts to the heart of the country’s contradictions. Qatar is seeking to project itself as a cosmopolitan destination for tourists from all over the world, but also wants to maintain its cultural identity, which is incredibly conservative, by Western standards.
To the ire of many expats, the sale of alcohol has been banned on The Pearl – Qatar’s signature man-made island development – since late last year. That ban has raised further questions over how Doha plans to accommodate up to half a million thirsty soccer enthusiasts.
Qatari authorities say they have tried to strike a balance. Expats can purchase alcohol in special shops, if they have a license. Qatar Airways, the national carrier, continues to serve alcohol (and pork) on flights. It can also be served at Five Star hotels on The Pearl, which tend to cater to expats.
The ban, however, has had a terrible effect on the restaurant business. Some restaurant owners on The Pearl told me their business has fallen as much as fifty per cent after the ban. Their chefs won’t even use alcohol for cooking, fearing retribution.
Expats worry that the ban on the sale of alcohol on The Pearl is a precursor to other, more stringent rules. Regardless of whether those concerns play out, the alcohol ban is just the latest evidence of Qatar’s balancing act, where its conservative traditions can clash with its worldly aspirations.
Recently Hassan al-Thawadi, general secretary of the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee, recently signalled officials might loosen the regulations for the world cup. He said alcohol would be sold during the tournament and that the country was ‘discussing with FIFA the extent of it and where,” adding that Qatar was aiming to host an event where “everyone will be able to have fun and be exposed to Qatari culture.”
It’s unclear whether soccer fans will find his words enough to assuage their fears of a World Cup with limited access to beer.