Qatar is a devotedly apolitical place, with speech and assembly heavily restricted and a large population of foreign workers who could lose their livelihoods if they cause a stir.
But that could change next month, when an estimated 1.2 million soccer fans descend on the small Persian Gulf nation for the World Cup. Authorities can face calls for labor rights, LGBTQ equality and other causes under the glare of an international spotlight like no other.
They may also have to deal with public drunkenness and hooliganism in a conservative Islamic country where such behavior is deeply taboo and virtually unknown.
Qatar has had more than a decade to prepare for the month-long tournament, which begins on November 20, and has spared no expense, thanks to natural gas reserves that rank it among the world’s richest countries. You also have some recent experience. the celebration of important international sporting events.
But there is nothing like a World Cup.
A QUIET AND DESERT EMIRATE
Qatar, the first Arab or Muslim nation to host a World Cup, is a wealthy and politically stable outlier in the volatile Middle East. Citizens enjoy a generous cradle-to-grave welfare paid for by their gas riches. Foreign workers make up more than two-thirds of the population of less than 3 million and make up almost 95% of the workforce.
Qatar hosts the pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera and has supported Islamist groups across the region, but within its own borders politics is almost non-existent. Power is concentrated in the hands of a hereditary emir, criticism of the authorities is heavily restricted, and politically oriented groups are banned.
The US-based Freedom House, which analyzes democratic change and setbacks around the world, classifies Qatar as “Not Free”.
Qatari officials have said security forces will adopt a light touch during the Cup, tolerating minor infractions such as public intoxication and only intervening in response to violence, destruction of property and threats to public safety.
“Different perspectives are encouraged and fans will be free to express themselves during the World Cup, as they have during other events hosted in Qatar,” a Qatari government official said on condition of anonymity in accordance with regulations.
Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said he hopes Qatar “will tolerate instances of activism during the World Cup, especially if it’s not related to political or geopolitical issues.”
“Qatar’s police have been training alongside their international counterparts, including from the UK, and have focused on issues such as crowd control and policing in ways that de-escalate rather than escalate volatile situations.”
The World Cup has already shed light on what human rights groups describe as exploitative conditions endured by many foreign workers, including construction workers who built stadiums and other infrastructure for the World Cup.
Qatar has overhauled its labor laws in recent years, dismantling much of its traditional kafala system., which tied workers to their employers. He has also mandated a monthly minimum wage of about $275. But activists say more needs to be done to ensure workers are paid on time and protected from further abuse.
Foreign workers are prohibited from forming unions and have no political rights. At least 60 workers were arrested in August for organizing a protest over unpaid wages. A Kenyan security guard who wrote anonymously about the plight of foreign workers has been detained for months and fined last year before leaving the country.
Several soccer federations are lobbying Qatar over labor rights, with the English federation saying its players will meet migrant workers who will be invited to its training camp.
LGBTQ: TOLERANCE WITHIN BOUNDARIES
Qatari law criminalizes homosexuality, with a seven-year prison sentence for men who have sex with other men.
Few expect such laws to be applied against visiting soccer fans, but it is unclear how authorities would handle public displays of affection (taboo even for heterosexual couples) or public advocacy for LGBTQ rights.
“Book the room together, sleep together, this is not our concern,” Maj. Gen. Abdulaziz Abdullah Al Ansari, a senior leader overseeing security preparations, told The Associated Press in April. But it generated controversy. in the same interview by saying that rainbow flags could be removed from fans to protect them from being attacked.
“Watch the game. It’s fine. But don’t really go in there and insult the whole society for this,” he said.
Qatar has already faced criticism in public forums for his criminalization of homosexuality. Eight of the 13 European soccer teams at the World Cup have asked FIFA for permission for their captains to wear rainbow armbands. as part of the “One love” campaign.
ALCOHOL AND ABUSE
Qatar is more laid back than other Gulf nations when it comes to alcohol, but its sale is generally limited to upscale hotels and restaurants. Public drunkenness is a taboo in the Islamic country and offenders can be jailed or deported.
Beer will also be sold during the World Cup in stadiums and fan zones, and officials say drunkenness will be tolerated as long as it doesn’t threaten anyone’s safety. But there could be consequences if things get out of control or the party moves out of the designated locations.
Qatar could face the often related problem of fan rivalries. Local security forces have little experience in handling the hooliganism that has historically accompanied high-risk matches in Europe..
Matches between Honduras and El Salvador sparked the so-called “Soccer War” between the two countries in 1969, and a notorious clash between French and West German players at the 1982 World Cup sparked a major diplomatic incident..
Russia has been banned from international football for his invasion of Ukraine, whose national team was eliminated in the playoffs. But tensions due to that conflict, or others, cannot be ruled out.
The Qatari police will not be alone in handling major disturbances.
Turkey, which has more experience in political unrest, plans to send 3,250 police, including special operations forces and explosives experts, to help Qatar maintain security. It will provide training to hundreds of Qatari security forces.
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AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports