Clash of cultures? Conservative Qatar prepares for World Cup party

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

High-heeled designers turned up at exhibition openings and fashion shows in downtown Doha. Celebrities, including a prominent gay rights campaigner, took selfies on a pulsating dance floor.

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

The backlash was swift. Qataris went online to express their anger at what they called dangerous and deplorable revelry, saying it threatened Qatar’s traditional values ​​ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. The Arabic hashtag, Stop the Destruction of Our Values, trended with for days.

The episode highlights the tensions ripping through Qatar, a conservative Muslim emirate that restricts alcohol, bans drugs and bans free speech, as it prepares to welcome the crowds who could be too much for the first World Cup in the Middle East.

“Our religion and our customs prohibit indecent clothing and behavior,” Moheba Al Kheer, a Qatari citizen, said of the avant-garde artists and flamboyant models who were mingling with Qatari socialites in late October. “We tend to worry when we see these types of people.”

World Cup organizers say everyone is welcome during the tournament. Already, foreigners have more than 10 citizens in Qatar. Some Qataris are liberal and can mix with foreigners. Many are excited about the competition. But human rights groups have expressed concern about how police will deal with foreign fans’ violations of Islamic laws that criminalize public drunkenness, sex outside marriage and homosexuality.

Qatar, a tiny Persian Gulf country that was once a dust-blown pearling port, has transformed at near-zero speed into an ultra-modern hub following the natural gas boom of the 1990s. Expats, including Western consultants and engineers and low-paid South Asian construction workers and cleaners, flocked to the country.

Glass and steel skyscrapers, luxury hotels and huge malls soon appeared in the desert. In an effort to diversify away from a carbon-based economy, Qatar’s ruling family has bought stakes in everything from global finance and technology to French soccer club Paris Saint-Germain and London real estate.

The ruling emir’s sister, Sheikha Al Mayassa Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, was one of the world’s most important 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, among the richest countries in the world per capita, looked to the West for inspiration, it was under pressure from within to stay true to its Islamic heritage and Bedouin roots. Qatar’s most powerful clan comes from the landlocked interior of the Arabian Peninsula, where the ultraconservative form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism was born.

Qatari rulers have been scrambling to defuse tensions between its citizens and conservative tribes and cultivate soft power as a key global player.

“Doha’s religious discourse to its citizens is very different from its liberal discourse to the West,” said 38-year-old Qatari Mohammed al-Kuwari. “It’s not always going to work out.”

The big spotlight rises on the World Cup – which requires Qatar to ease access to alcohol, create fun outlets for fans and adhere to FIFA rules that promote tolerance and inclusion.

In recent years, the World Cup has turned the host countries into the world’s biggest party, with jubilant crowds drinking heavily and celebrating together. When emotions are high, fans can be euphoric – or rude and violent.

This will shake quiet Qatar, where such behavior is highly taboo and almost unheard of. Doha is not known for its nightlife. Despite its rapid development over the years, its entertainment offer is narrow and public spaces are limited.

Some foreign fans worry about how Qatar will handle the many drunken thugs on the streets, given the nation’s public decency laws and strict limits on the purchase and consumption of alcohol.

Swearing and making offensive gestures, dressing inappropriately and kissing in public are usually prosecuted in Qatar. Anti-gay sentiment runs deep in society, as elsewhere in the Arab world. A senior security official warned that rainbow flags could be confiscated to protect fans from being attacked for promoting gay rights.

A fan’s concern can be seen in recent Reddit message boards: “How would the government know if someone is gay?” “How bad is it to wear short pants (Can I catch you)?” “Is it true that people who say negative things about Qatar on social media are arrested?”

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

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

He said he found solace in a a commitment from the country’s Shura Advisory Council last month that the authorities will ensure that they “build a strong society that adheres to their religion” and that they will reject “any excessive behavior” that breaks local taboos.

But because the competition fulfills the vision of the country’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to develop the country, experts say that the tiny population of Qataris has little choice but to accept whatever comes.

The Brooks emirate has no disagreement. Qatar’s oil and gas wealth has spawned 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 standards and values,” said Andreas Krieg, assistant professor of security studies at King’s College, London. “The government will stand its ground on certain issues, and the population will fall in line.”

Al-Kuwari, the citizen, was blunter.

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

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

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