Qatari backlash against alcohol at World Cup amid confusion over drinking rules

“Qatar welcomes you!” states the flyer. “Reflect your respect to the religion and culture of Qatari people by avoiding these behaviours.”

The listed behaviours include immodesty, profanity, homosexuality and drinking alcohol. The neatly-typed and illustrated sheets printed in English and Arabic have been shared online more than 15,000 times.

Qatar’s supreme committee, the body tasked with delivering the Fifa World Cup, distanced itself from the flyer and its message.

“The publication… was not issued by an official authority, and contains inaccurate information,” the committee said.

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The flyers are the work of local modesty campaigners. But their popularity reflects a growing concern for Qatar’s authorities – and visiting fans.

The delicate, experimental balance of accommodating alcohol while respecting local sensitivities is coming under pressure. 

The official position was stated by tournament chief executive, Nasser al-Khater, in September.

“Alcohol will be available to those who want a drink in designated areas,” he said. “It will not be openly available on the streets.”

Discreet drinking was already allowed in dozens of licensed hotel bars, but for the World Cup, tournament sponsor Budweiser’s products will be available at stadiums and fan zones.

Laws against public drinking and intoxication are expected to be less rigorously enforced, although there is ambiguity over what this means in practice.

The encroachment of alcohol into public space is a new development. For some Qataris, many of whom practice a socially conservative form of Islam, it is an unwelcome one.

The opening of a new liquor store in Doha last month, for which customers require a permit, met with a backlash.

Videos showing rows of wine and beer circulated online and drew condemnation.

“Qatar is going through a new stage,” wrote blogger Sultan al-Khulaifi, referring to the World Cup. “We ask God Almighty to close this place.”

The owners of a chain of petrol stations have been forced to deny rumours they intend to begin selling alcohol.

Qataris have expressed fears that Western values are being imposed upon them at the cost of their own.

Cartoonist Saad Almuhanadi of Qatar’s Al-Watan newspaper spoke for many with his comic “Trojan Cup.”

A further hint at the underlying tension came with a sudden order to move beer tents to less visible locations at World Cup venues, reportedly at the request of a member of Qatar’s royal family.

But tournament organisers are also under pressure to fulfil obligations to sponsors and Fifa, which was said to have been surprised by the move.

Mr al-Khater said organisers were “finalising our alcohol strategy” in September, and it appears that strategy is still in development.

That is in common with other facets of the tournament. Construction of accommodation for visitors is ongoing in the week leading up to the opening match on Sunday, which was itself moved a day forward at short notice.

Opposition to alcohol is grounded in perception of danger as well as religious principle.

“If you have drunk people in the street that’s not safe,” a Qatari man told The New York Times at a fan zone event in Doha last month.

“I will not feel safe for my children or family because the people who are drunk could do anything because they are outside of their minds.

“It’s true that there are concerns about alcohol and it is making some people uncomfortable,” says Sara al-Ansari, an academic in the faculty of media and mass communication at Qatar University.

“It’s not common to see people drunk in public. Some of the concerns are about public vandalism.”

DOHA, QATAR - DECEMBER 14: A general view of the Fan Zone during the FIFA Club World Cup match at Jassim Bin Hamad Stadium on December 14, 2019 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Tom Dulat - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
A fan zone event in Doha in 2019, where alcohol will be served during the World Cup (Photo: Getty)

Such fears are not unfounded given the chaotic scenes at the last major international football tournament, Euro 2020, which resulted in England fans being banned from Wembley stadium.

The picture is further complicated by the multinational force being assembled to police the crowds.

British police will be in Qatar as “supporter engagement officers”, intending to act as buffers between fans and local police and manage low-level disorder.

There will also be security forces from Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan, and Turkey, all of which have been criticised by human rights groups for brutality in their home countries.

Qatari police have reportedly undergone “sensitivity training” as part of their intensive preparations for the tournament.

Ambiguities around enforcement policies are making supporters nervous, says Ronan Evain, head of Football Supporters Europe, which represents fan groups across the continent.

“We are advising fans to respect the laws but the problem we have is that the Qatari authorities have not clarified their approach on arrests for drunken behaviour – whether fans will be prosecuted, put on a plane home, or asked to go to bed,” he says.

“We don’t know what rules are suspended or not for the tournament.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 11: England fans gather outside of the stadium during the UEFA Euro 2020 Championship Final between Italy and England at Wembley Stadium on July 11, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Chloe Knott - Danehouse/Getty Images)
The final of Euro 2020 at Wembley was marred by scenes of disorder (Photo: Getty)

Supporters will be constrained by the high price of alcohol in Qatar, suggests Ed Ball, a US fan travelling to the World Cup with his wife.

He has created a map of venues licensed to sell alcohol that has been viewed more than 350,000 times.

“I think the prices and all the hoops you have to jump through over there are going to eliminate a lot of the hooliganism,” says Mr Ball.

“This will be the first time in the Middle East for a lot of football fans and the last thing they want to do is get in trouble… They are probably going to be mindful of what the dos and don’ts are.”

The American is optimistic that cultural barriers will break down once the tournament is underway, as it did at the last two World Cups he attended in Russia and Brazil.

Ms al-Ansari is also hopeful that what she describes as a grand experiment will go smoothly.

“It does feel like it’s very experimental, it’s really hard to tell whether it is going to work out neatly or if there are going to be any sorts of clashes between people inside (drinking) spaces and outside,” she says.

“I think people just need some time to process and digest all these changes that are happening.”

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