The group stages of the World Cup started in the kidney-shaped emirate of Qatar, located on the tip of the Arabian peninsula. Situated above Saudi, it is the first Arab and Muslim nation to host these games that inspire unique national fervor. There were many questions when they won their audacious bid back in 2010.
How would the tiny, conservative country, which prefers for people not to wear shorts in the malls, host the world with all her many citizens, customs, and behaviors?
Yesterday, Saturday, November 27th, marked the end of the first week, and the answer, we who are here and experiencing it live, can say, with great humor, hospitality, and enjoyment. Fans are having a great time trying out the traditional male Gulf headdress, known as the gutra, with the coiled black a’agal, made in the color combination of the 32 countries, which has turned out to be perhaps one of the best marketing/commercial choices of merchandise in the history of merch-ing.
Men from all nationalities are getting help from Qatari police officers, security guards, and onlookers with how to put it on. You can’t really be mad at someone who is trying to learn your culture; you give a bit of trust to the person close enough to touch your head.
Where connections haven’t gone as smoothly, however, is the subject of alcohol. Football (soccer if you’re from certain places) is synonymous with drinking. A pint, or two, in a bar, while the game is on – all of this is at odds with the collective impressions about life in Islamic countries.
There Are Bars in Qatar
But, yes, there are bars in Qatar – (and the rest of the Middle East) with much higher prices for drinks than in other places because the only outlets allowed to sell alcohol are usually in four-star hotels (or higher).
Yes, people do drink in Qatar, and other parts of the Middle East, both Muslim and non, in public and at home.
You need a license to buy it from the one authorized distributor, known as QDC. Muslims are not allowed to have such licenses, and yes, it does ask for your religion on the application. Plus, your employer must provide a letter so that your total allotment does not 10% of your annual salary because lonely expats do turn to self-medication.
Yes, there is a rehab center, again for expats and locals alike, because, as we know, addiction knows no nationality or faith.
So if the residents of Qatar have controlled access to alcohol, then why all the fuss about beers without balls?
If you’ve been reading around here for a while, you know I’ll say, the answer is complicated because Islamic identity in the Arabian Gulf has a different permutation than elsewhere in the Muslim world. Some identify this as Wahabism (a whole book in itself). Others describe the unique combination of wealth, small homogenous populations, and geographic isolation as a particular mix, different to say, Lebanon with Christians and Muslims, or Iraq with various ethnicities.
Take all of that and add the fact that alcohol is synonymous with westerners, and any concessions to it are tantamount to comprising one’s morals, for conservative Muslims, and you have the grumbling that began back in 2010.
Qatar is a case study of how leaders, with a vision, are working with a citizenry that might not have bought entirely in. The carefully curated process of modernization has been stepped forward that is sometimes met with resistance based on people’s values (sound like anywhere else we know?).
Alcohol is not the only challenge to a perception of self or nationhood – art as well, what is depicted, and what is permissible, has also been the subject of public scrutiny. Sculptures, especially of humans, for example, are not permitted in Islam, because they can tip one over into idolatry.
So the sale of alcohol in the country due to the World Cup caused several strands of conversations, both within and without Qatar.
The Beef about Beer at the World Cup in Qatar
First, the officials said beverages would be available in fan zones made for footballing culture (aka beverage and big screen) near the stadia. A multi-million dollar contract with Budweiser later, and it looked like all would be well. A measure of progress in the way labor reforms have come developed over the twelve years of preparation as the stadia were being built.
Then, as the date came closer, in September 2022, it seemed the possibility of a drink would be even closer – on the premises of the stadia itself.
But, in an inexplicable twist, days before the opening, there was an about-face, first noticed by reporters who saw the Budweiser branding being moved off the stadia grounds, later confirmed by the declaration from the organizing committee that alcohol would only be in specific, authorized ‘fan zones’ with screens, games, and entertainment.
What is puzzling to anyone who knows anything about football (or communication strategy) is that alcohol during games in stadia is, in fact, not offered worldwide. In fact, the ban against sales in Europe was only lifted in 2018; in England, you still can’t drink in your seats. At LaLiga stadia, in Spain, for another example, there is no sale of alcohol, only in nearby bars.
So what is all the fuss about? In not offering alcohol in the stadia, or even on the grounds, Qatar is actually in keeping with sound football hosting.
Well, changing the plan a few days before people who have spent hundreds to thousands of dollars land, is not a great look.
Beyond that, however, is the power dynamic between FIFA, one of the world’s largest so-called non-profits, and Qatar, a country that is continually expanding its soft power network with sports hosting as a key part of its strategy.
And also the space in which we understand what it means to live or visit an Islamic society as a non-Muslim.
Because, as I had to explain to many, many friends at home, the headlines are deceiving when they say there is no beer being sold at the World Cup.
Perhaps this is another example of losing nuance when the conversation goes wider; there is beer in the fan zones, there is beer in licensed bars and restaurants, and there is beer here, there, and everywhere but on the grounds of stadia.
Despite how the decision was delivered, there are some interesting positive developments to maintaining the limit of alcohol:
… the medics operating the ‘drunk tank’ from Hamad hospital (hello, free health care) find themselves with much more free time than those working in other World Cups.
… many have pointed out that having lots of beer can make you miss the game because you’ll be constantly running to the bathroom.
… as people worldwide have commented on social media fora, if you can’t skip a few beers now and then, perhaps there’s a larger force at work.
And I am absolutely no expert on this, but apparently beer isn’t the alcoholic beverage of choice for most consumers….
To learn more about what life is like in the Arabian Gulf, check out the Crimes In Arabia series!