Culture in Qatar: a game of cat and mouse

Photo: by author. Photo: by author.

The text is published anonymously by one of our researchers.

When asked if the World Cup is causing tension and disruption in a traditional place like Qatar at an art conference in Doha Sheikha Al-Mayassa Al-Thani, the sister of the Emir, answered that she was not worried. The question was timely. Recently a Bollywood-concert featuring a controversial Canadian actress, known for participating in reality shows and adult movies, was cancelled last minute. The cancellation came after the Ministry of Culture called the organizers in for a meeting, explaining that the show could not go on unless the actress was removed from the program. The meeting request came shortly after Doha News ran a story about the actress’ background and her scheduled show in Qatar.

The incident is far from unique. Earlier this year Qatar banned children’s book Snow White from its schools, following a complaint from a parent who found the content “inappropriate”. Even though the authorities and the school involved apologized, several Twitter-users claimed this was not enough. Some suggested the person responsible should be let go of his job. In a separate case, local media reported on Valentines Day that some Doha restaurants had been demanded by the government to tone down the celebrations. Reservations were upheld, but the restaurants removed their romantic decorations, such as hearts and red roses.

In recent years, Qatar has sought global attention and put a large effort into promoting itself as a destination for sports and culture. The tiny emirate has hosted a number of large sports events, like the Asian games in 2006 and the World Cup in men’s handball in 2014 in addition to several cultural festivals. The largest event so far planned is also the most controversial; the 2022 FIFA Football World Cup.

In addition to inviting different cultures, including the Western, to Qatar through these events, it also requires a large foreign workforce. Of a total population of 2.2 million, the native Qatari population only constitutes about 250 000. The majority of people living in Qatar are in other words are immigrants, and the immigrant population is expected to grow with half a million as the World Cup emerges. Qatar, like its neighbor Saudi Arabia, follows the conservative Wahhabi branch of Islam. The enormous amount of immigrant workers is already putting pressure on the traditional conservative norms of society. When a group of Qataris in 2014 started a grassroots campaign named “Reflect your respect”, it was a result of the tension among a rapidly growing community of immigrant workers and the more conservative parts of the native population. The campaign aimed at informing foreigners about local traditions and values, and teaching them to act accordingly. With a special focus on how to dress respectfully, the activists printed large posters and flyers to hand out at public places and shopping malls.

For organizers of large, international events in Qatar it has proved to be a challenge to balance the expectations of the international community with those of the conservative Qataris. During the Handball World Cup in 2015 for example, famous international performers were not announced until a couple of days before their show. The concerts of Pharrel Williams and Gwen Stefani who played in Qatar the 22nd and 24th of January was not announced until the 19th of the same month. That Australian singer Kylie Minogue was to perform at the closing ceremony 1st of February was not announced until the 30th of January, only two days in advance. While at the same time holding back large headliners likely to draw audience, Qatar flew in hired fans from Spain, as spectators at the games remained few. The explanation is likely to be found in that the government could have the concerts cancelled if the pressure became hard enough: despite being announced shortly in advance the news gained criticism, and a twitter-campaign against the event emerged under the hash tag “Kylie Minogue naked in Qatar”.

As Qatar is aiming higher and higher when it comes to hosting international events, this way of trying to balance expectations by playing cat and mouse with the conservatives can hardly be sustainable. As it appears from the examples above, the conservative lobby in Qatar is strong. For a huge event as the FIFA World Cup then, with a large amount of football fans arriving from around the world, issues of culture cannot be ignored. It’s worth noting that the FIFA World Cup is not simply a series of football games, it’s a package. Along with the games comes expectation of the event being one big party – in the European or Latin American sense of the word.

The restrictions on alcohol in Qatar are hard, and consumption is mainly served in restaurants and bars inside fancy hotels. In addition, expats who obtain a license can purchase a specified amount of alcohol, decided by their income, in a designated shop. Drinking alcohol in public is prohibited, and the sites where alcohol is consumed is usually places where expats and locals don’t mix. While western presence and number of nightclubs is increasing, so is conservative reaction to the availability of alcohol. In December 2011 the government banned alcohol in restaurants in the upscale neighborhood of the Pearl Qatar, and as late as last year restrictions were hardened on the sale of alcohol in hotels in the days leading up to the Muslim holiday of Eid al Adha. As scholar Kristian Coates Ulrichsen has noted, the ban on alcohol on the Pearl came after it was known that the shops licensed to sell alcohol to expats also sold pork meat, which created a furor among the conservative community.[1]

Qatars own tourism-strategy states that events like the World Cup ”must be in harmony with local traditions and values, uphold Qataris’ Arab and Islamic identity and moral code, encourage family values and social cohesion”.[2] However, to what degree alcohol will be available remains unclear. The organizing committee has previously stated that alcohol will be not available everywhere, but in designated areas.[3] This is not likely to be satisfactory to FIFA, as beer-producer Budweiser is one of the largest sponsors of the World Cup. The issue was present also ahead of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. Brazil has since 2001 practiced a total ban on alcohol in stadiums. As a response to FIFAs demands however, the ban was temporarily lifted for the World Cup.

Qatar’s government is challenged by the desire to present itself to the international community as a cosmopolitan hub of culture and diplomacy on one hand, while satisfying the domestic demands of a conservative population on the other. As Qatar has struggled to manage “small scale” Western cultural presence in the past, what will happen when hundreds of thousands of football fans arrives to party? Thus, as the controversial World Cup in Qatar approaches it seems clear that balancing the expectations of the international community and the Qatari population will pose a challenge, and that Sheikha Al-Mayassa perhaps should reconsider her statement. There is indeed reason to be worried.

 

[1] Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, Qatar and the Arab Spring (London: C. Hurst & Co. Ltd., 2014).

[2] Susan Dun, “No Beer, No Way! Football Fan Identity Enactment Won’t Mix with Muslim Bliefs in the Qatar 2022 World Cup,” Journal of Policy Research in Tourism, Leisure and Events 6, no. 2 (2014): 186–99.

[3] The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, “Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy – FAQs.docx” (The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy), accessed February 2, 2015, http://www.sc.qa/en/media.