Delegates to a high-powered international sports security conference had a glimpse this week of Qatar's internal debate about how far the Gulf state should go in meeting Western and world soccer body FIFA demands that offend conservative segments of Qatari society and the royal family.
With the debate focused on the availability of alcohol during the 2022 World Cup, the first ever to be hosted in the Middle East, delegates watched Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee general secretary Hassan al Thawadi walk a tightrope in a bid to appease all parties.
Al Thawadi set off alarm bells in his official address to the 2nd International Sport Security Conference when he questioned the need for the serving of alcohol in stadiums.
Al Thawadi’s remarks were perhaps mistakenly seen as backtracking on an earlier pledge that alcohol would be relatively freely available during the World Cup.
"I don't see the reason for it being in the stadium. I'm looking at it in terms of England and looking at in terms of everybody else. That is something we are discussing with FIFA ... Let's discuss this with relevant stakeholders and come up with a plan that welcomes everyone,” Al Thawadi said.
Speaking to journalists later, Al Thawadi insisted that alcohol would be available during the World Cup. "All I can say is alcohol will be available – maybe not as freely available as some other countries but it will be available. We made plans and as we go along more clarity will be provided to people," he said.
Qatar never promised publicly to allow alcohol in stadium but has insisted since winning the right to host the World Cup in December 2010 that it would allow consumption of alcohol in specially designated fan zones.
Al Thawadi believes that he stands on strong grounds that the alcohol issue is a safety and a security issue rather than a cultural or religious one. FIFA, defending the commercial rights of its sponsors, including Budweiser beer brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev, has locked horns with the non-Muslim hosts of the next two World Cup, Brazil and Russia. Both countries have outlawed the sale of alcohol at sporting events in a bid to control crowds and pre-empt violence.
Qatar’s reluctance to allow alcohol in stadiums is however being increasingly compromised by Brazil and Russia caving into Western and FIFA demands. A Brazilian congressional commission caved in earlier this month and approved a World Cup bill earlier this month that would allow the sale of alcohol in stadiums. The bill still has to be endorsed by the Brazilian parliament’s lower house and senate and then by President Dilma Rousseff.
Russia too appears about to give in. Russian soccer federation president Sergey Fursenko recently called for the reinstitution of beer advertisements in Russian stadiums. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin told a soccer fan that “when the decision was made about stadiums, it came from the best of intentions. OK, we’ll return to it again and think about it.”
Nonetheless, Al Thawadi was hedging his bets because the alcohol issue takes on particular significance in Qatar, the only Muslim state besides Saudi Arabia that adheres to the puritan concepts of Mohammed Abdel Wahhab. An 18th century warrior preacher, Abdul Wahhab's teachings are among Islam's most conservative. By and large Qatar has nonetheless developed a far more liberal approach than is practiced in Saudi Arabia.
Increasingly, however, conservative Qataris and some members of the royal family are signalling their dissatisfaction with the course Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa al-Thani supported by his wife, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, is steering. Some of that criticism is believed to be tribally motivated because Sheikha Mozah hails from a tribe that traditionally opposed the Al Thanis.
As a result, the debate about allowing alcohol amounts to far more than a discussion about what concessions Qatar should make to Western soccer executives and FIFA. It is a debate about the future course of the country, the powers of its ruler and its national identity.
The outcome of the debate will not only determine the future of Qatar’s effort to become a global sports hub – a key pillar of the national identity Emir Hamad is seeking to shape – but also its positioning as a forward-looking sponsor of change in a region stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Gulf that is wracked by anti-government protests and convoluted transitions to more open societies.
Al-Wahhab’s puritanism constitutes 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 power political force in post-revolt Egypt and elsewhere in the region.
Saudi Arabia recently officially embraced Salafism as a key element in its soft power strategy aimed at countering Iran’s perceived revolutionary Islamic appeal as well as the wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa. The embrace also constitutes a response to Qatar’s idiosyncratic foreign and domestic policies, including its support for the Muslim Brotherhood that is widely distrusted by Saudi Arabia.
The latest debate was sparked when a group of rowdy Australians and New Zealanders left a bar on Pearl Qatar Island, home to an estimated 41,000 residents many of whom are expatriates, alcohol bottles in hand and continued drinking in a public space.
Qatar allows drinking only in hotel bars rather than in public spaces. The December incident prompted a ban on drinking in Pearl Island restaurants that have since seen their revenues drop dramatically.
The Pearl Island incident has emboldened Qatari critics of alcohol to argue that the emir’s tolerance violates the country’s constitutions and laws which do not grant him the prerogative to allow its sale or consumption. In doing so, the critics are implicitly sparking a rare debate about the powers of the ruler.
Hassan Al Sayed, a professor of constitutional law and former dean of the College of Law at Qatar University, charged that there is no Qatari law that allows for the sale of alcohol and that in fact several laws, including the constitution, criminalize it, according to arabist.net.Even “if there is any decision coming for example from the Emir or any department here (legalizing alcohol)… no in fact, this is not okay and this is against the law,” Al Sayed said.
He said that for Qatar to legally allow the sale and consumption of alcohol it must change its constitution, which in article 1 stipulates that “Islam is the State’s religion and the Islamic Sharia is the main source of its legislations.” Al Sayed argues that the legal ban applies also to free zones the government said it would create for fans attending the 2022 World Cup.
A majority of Qataris is likely to oppose constitutional reform out of fear that the country would lose its Islamic identity, a key element in the national identity it is trying to shape.
If sports are for Qatar’s leaders a key tool in forging national identity and projecting Qatar internationally, banning alcohol is its equivalent for more 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, often dressed in full-length robes, the Gulf's national dress, 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, introduced pork alongside the alcohol it was already selling to expatriates. The introduction was one spark of an online call to boycott the airline. It followed a similar protest in recent months decrying telecommunications services.
"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 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 sense of being a minority in one’s own country prompted the Supreme Education Council to recently order all educational institutions to impose Arab as the language of teaching within nine months.
The order came after Qatari crown prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani attended a graduation ceremony last fall and noted that the majority of graduates were not Qataris but foreigners. "Where are the Qataris," Sheikh Tamim asked.
Academics attribute the lack of male Qatari students to the fact that local head hunters hunt Qataris in high school offering them salaries that are the equivalent to what they would earn once they complete a university study. “There is no need for them to study,” a foreign professor said.
Sheikh Tamim is widely viewed as sympathetic to the conservative element of Qatari society. Hotels in Qatar that he owns are among those that do not serve alcohol.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.