For all the progress Qatar has made, it will be tested over the next month as it hosts the World Cup – an event that has invited a degree of scrutiny and criticism the country has rarely seen and threatens a global image that has been carefully cultivated over the years through creativity. Diplomacy, humanitarian work, and commercial endeavors such as sports sponsorship.
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Recent weeks have brought renewed attention to the plight of migrant workers who have suffered or died building infrastructure for the event, and to concerns about how LGBTQ audiences will be received in a country that criminalizes homosexuality. In the past two days, the debate has turned to anger over the decision to ban beer in stadiums.
Qatari officials have bristled at much of the criticism, arguing that the country is being unfairly singled out in a way that suggests a racist undercurrent — and that ignores the pioneering nature of the tournament.
“Hosting 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 down stereotypes about our region,” Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, said in a text message. “Football has the power to build friendship and overcome barriers of misunderstanding between nations and peoples.”
And for Qatar, a successful tournament can validate its countless efforts over the years to raise its global standing, 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: Country, Society, and the Beautiful Game,” said the World Cup was “one component of a much broader strategy that intends to position Qatar as an important regional player.”
It is carving out space for itself outside the shadow of neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Iran. This has been done in part by investing in large-scale development projects, as well as media, popular culture, education and medicine. “The World Cup fits perfectly with that,” he said.
Shortly before the tournament, Qatar faced an even more stern test. The story is told at the Doha Museum – the incubator of the evolving national narrative – in an exhibition on “The Siege of Ramadan”: the blockade 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, separating families from Persian Gulf states with whom it had ties across borders, and burdening Qatar–the country with the highest per capita income in the world–with an unusual hardship, as it suddenly scrambled to provide citizens. and for residents food and other supplies.
Saudi Arabia and its allies have accused Qatar of terrorism, which it has denied. Their anger stems from Qatar’s support for Islamist groups across the region, its sponsorship of the Al Jazeera news channel, and its general refusal to commit to its neighbors. The spat ended last year, with Qatar refusing to comply with a list of demands made by the Saudi-led bloc, including shutting down Al Jazeera. But the tensions persisted.
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There was agreement in the region on “common threats,” Mohammed said. “However, sometimes we do not agree on the methods” to confront them, he acknowledged.
For now, Qatar appears to have other priorities. Before it was overwhelmed by the demands of the World Cup, Qatar returned to its role as a regional mediator, assisting the United States as a third-party interlocutor with Iran and the Taliban — including helping to evacuate US citizens and allies during the country’s chaotic withdrawal. From Afghanistan.
Qatar hosts a major base for the US military’s Central Command and has largely avoided confrontation with the Biden administration, even as its neighbors, wary of what they see as US disengagement from the region, have sought closer ties with China and Russia.
The United States “has other priorities. We can’t blame this for the disengagement,” Mohammed said, adding that governments in the region “need to start taking more responsibility.”
“Qatar’s international role has matured over the past decade,” said Elham Fakhro, a research fellow at the University of Exeter’s Center for Gulf Studies. She said the blockade came as a “shock”, but that Qatar had managed to score “several diplomatic victories”, including mediating disputes on behalf of the United States.
She said, “The ideal scenario for Qatar moving forward would be one in which it can balance its international foreign policy ambitions, while avoiding another breakdown in regional relations with its neighbours.”
As the tournament kicks off, Qatar is now hosting those neighbours, with thousands of fans coming in from all over the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, who are competing in the tournament and presumably fielding one of their biggest contingents of ticket holders – a startling turnaround after the animosities that flared up during the siege.
With fans pouring in from all over the region, including Tunisians, Iranians, Moroccans and Saudis, El-Erian said, it gave the tournament a “unique flavor”: the latest example of Qatar’s mediating role, if all goes smoothly.