And it’s a watershed moment for the Middle East, in more ways than one. The region is still a stranger to mega sporting events, let alone a Fifa World Cup.
The region remains deeply religious and rooted in conservative values, despite exposure to Western culture and exchanges with the world at large, thanks to the oil-driven economy and the affluence it has brought.
The booze ban in stadiums has already come as a dampener for some fans. So, on the eve of the tournament, there are questions galore.
Will foreign football fans arriving in Qatar for a carnival-like time find themselves up against a wall? Will Qatar, with its Sharia-aligned laws, tolerate the ‘party’ fans are looking forward to? Will orthodoxy and clash of cultures be a spoiler?
Qatar has sought to portray itself as welcoming to foreigners, and says it will “loosen up” for the unprecedented influx of tourists. But there are some clear red lines fans need to watch out for.
Rules relaxed for tipplers, but no beer at stadiums
The policy for alcohol consumption during the tournament has repeatedly been drawn up and then revised, and then remade again — a possible signal that domestic politics were playing a role.
Alcohol is served only in designated hotel, restaurants and bars in Qatar. It is illegal drink elsewhere. Non-Muslim residents of Doha who have a liquor license, however, may drink at home. Public drunkenness is punishable by hefty fines and jailing.
However during the World Cup, the rules will be somewhat relaxed.
Fans can also drink in the evenings at a designated “fan zone” in downtown Doha. But the decision to allow sale of beer in stadiums has been reversed.
Drunken brawls and damage to public property can attract arrests.
The legal drinking age is 21, and bouncers at bars often ask for photo ID or passports upon entry.
Drugs strictly prohibited
Qatar is one of the world’s most restrictive nations when it comes to drugs, prohibiting cannabis and even over-the-counter medications like narcotics, sedatives and amphetamines. Drug smuggling is punishable by death.
World Cup fans arriving in Qatar could be arrested for carrying even the smallest quantities of drugs.
The penalties could include long-term prison sentences followed by deportation and heavy fines.
Put a lid on that libido
Unmarried couples living together or extramarital sex is punishable by law in Qatar. Public display of affection too is not encouraged.
However, authorities say unmarried couples can share hotel rooms during the World Cup without issue. Holding hands in public won’t land you in jail, but visitors should avoid showing intimacy in public.
Qatari law calls for a prison sentence of one to three years for adults convicted of consensual gay or lesbian sex. Crossdressing is also criminalized.
World Cup organizers however said that anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, can come “without fear of any sort of repercussions.” But attempts to promote gay rights will be thwarted.
Is Qatar prepared to witness such street revelry? (AFP)
‘Cover up,’ is the message
“Show respect for local culture by avoiding excessively revealing clothing in public.” This line on the Qatar government’s tourism website says it all.
Visitors are required to cover their heads and knees; those in shorts and sleeveless tops may be turned away from government buildings and malls.
Women visiting mosques will need to cover their heads with scarves. If one wants to strip down to a bikini, the confines of a hotel pool is perhaps a safer place!
Mind your manners, & speech too
Flashing the middle finger or swearing, particularly when dealing with police or other authorities, can lead to arrest.
Don’t be the first to extend your hand for a shake; wait for a hand to be offered. Qatari men and women tend to avoid shaking hands with the opposite sex.
Avoid photographing people without their consent, or discussing religion and politics with locals. Insulting the royal family can land you in prison.
Interpretation and perception go a long way in judging the gravity of crimes deemed harmful to national interest and critical of the regime; so it’s best to steer clear of social media commentary while in Qatar.
(With agency inputs)