For all Qatar’s progress, it will be tested next month as it hosts the World Cup – an event which has drawn a degree of scrutiny and criticism the country has rarely experienced and which threatens a global image carefully cultivated over the years through creativity. diplomacy, humanitarian work, and business endeavors like sports sponsorship.
Recent weeks have brought renewed attention to the plight of migrant workers who have suffered or died build infrastructure for the event, and concerns about how LGBTQ fans will be received in a country that criminalizes homosexuality. Over the past two days, the debate has turned into outrage at a decision to ban beer in stadiums.
Qatari officials have bristled at most of the criticism, arguing that the country is being unfairly singled out in a way that suggests an undercurrent of racism – and ignores the revolutionary nature of the tournament.
“To host the first football event in an Arab and Muslim majority country for the first time is a truly historic moment and an opportunity to break stereotypes about our region,” said Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al. – Thani, in a text message. “Football has the power to create bonds of friendship and to overcome the barriers of misunderstanding between nations and peoples.”
And for Qatar, a successful tournament could serve to validate its countless efforts over the years to elevate its global stature and amplify its influence.
Abdullah al-Arian, professor of history at Georgetown University in Qatar and editor of the new book “Football in the Middle East: State, Society and the Beautiful Game”, said the World Cup was “one element of a much broader strategy to position Qatar as an important regional player.
“It carves out a place outside the shadow of neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Iran. And it did this in part by investing in large-scale development projects, as well as in the media, popular culture, education, medicine. The World Cup fits perfectly into that,” he said.
Shortly before the tournament, Qatar faced a much tougher test. The story is told at the Doha Museum – an incubator of the evolving national narrative – in an exhibit on the “Ramadan blockade”: a siege of Qatar imposed by neighbors including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2017 that lasted nearly four years.
The blockade has divided the Middle East, separated families from Persian Gulf states that had cross-border ties and burdened Qatar – a country with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world – with unusual hardship, as ‘he suddenly strove to provide citizens and residents with food and other supplies.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have accused Qatar of terrorism, which it has denied. Their anger stemmed from Qatar’s support for Islamist groups in the region, its sponsorship of the Al Jazeera news channel and its general refusal to align itself with its neighbors. The row ended last year, with Qatar refusing to comply with a list of demands made by the Saudi-led bloc, including the shutdown of Al Jazeera. But tensions persist.
There was agreement in the region on “common threats”, Mohammed said. “Yet sometimes we don’t agree on the techniques” to counter them, he conceded.
For now, Qatar seems to have other priorities. Before being overwhelmed by World Cup demands, Qatar resumed its role as a regional mediator, assisting the United States as a third-party interlocutor with Iran and the Taliban, including helping to evacuate citizens and American allies during the country’s crisis. chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Qatar is home to a major base for the US military’s central command and has largely avoided confrontation with the Biden administration, even as its neighbors, bristling at what they see as a US disengagement from the region, have pursued closer ties with China and Russia.
The United States has “other priorities. We cannot blame this on disengagement,” Mohammed said. Governments in the region, he added, “need to start taking more responsibility.”
Qatar’s “international role has matured over the past decade,” said Elham Fakhro, a researcher at the Center for Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter. The blockade came as a “shock” but Qatar still managed to score “several diplomatic victories”, she said, including mediating disputes on behalf of the United States.
“The ideal scenario for Qatar to move forward will be one where it can strike a balance between its international foreign policy ambitions, while avoiding a further breakdown in regional relations with its neighbours,” she said.
As the tournament begins, Qatar now welcomes these neighbors, with thousands of fans coming from the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, which is participating in the tournament and is expected to send one of the largest contingents of ticket holders – a stunning turnaround after the animosities unleashed during the blockade.
As fans poured in from across the region, including Tunisians, Iranians, Moroccans and Saudis, it gave the tournament a “unique flavor”, al-Arian said: the latest example, if all goes well , of Qatar’s role as mediator.