More than a million sports fans will travel to Qatar for the World Cup in November and December, a spectacle that typically turns host countries into a non-stop party. But this year may be different.
The small, conservative Muslim nation may show little tolerance for the alcohol-fuelled hooliganism that has developed in past tournaments.
Qatar has tried to reinvent itself as welcoming to foreigners, but traditional Muslim values remain strong in the hereditary-ruled emirate. Qatar’s judicial system, based on an interpretation of Islamic law, or Shariah, has drawn Western criticism for its tendency to favor prosecutors and police.
The autocratic country says it is reeling from the unprecedented influx of tourists. But fans attending the World Cup should be aware of Qatar’s laws and cultural customs, including alcohol, drug, sexuality and dress code policies.
Here’s a look at some of them:
Alcohol is only served in hotel restaurants and bars that have licenses in Qatar. It is illegal to consume elsewhere. Non-Muslim residents of Doha who have a liquor license, however, can drink at home. At the World Cup, fans will be allowed to buy Budweiser beer in the stadium compounds — though not in the concession stands — before and after games. Fans can also drink in the evening in a designated “fan zone” in downtown Doha. Generally in Qatar, public drunkenness is punishable by heavy fines and imprisonment. But Qatar’s head of security operations said that during the tournament, police will turn a blind eye to most offenses but potentially make arrests if someone gets into a drunken brawl or damages public property . The legal drinking age is 21, and bouncers at bars often ask for photo ID or passports upon entry.
Qatar is one of the world’s most restrictive drug nations, banning cannabis as well as over-the-counter medications such as narcotics, sedatives and amphetamines. The sale, trafficking and possession of illegal drugs can lead to severe penalties, including long prison terms followed by deportation and heavy fines. Drug smuggling charges can carry the death penalty. World Cup fans should be aware of these laws when they arrive at Hamad International Airport, where authorities scan bags and passengers with new security technology and arrest those carrying the smallest amount of drugs.
Qatar considers the cohabitation of unmarried men and women a crime, using indecency laws to punish extramarital sex. However, authorities say unmarried couples can share hotel rooms during the World Cup without a problem. On the streets, public displays of affection are “scorned,” says the government’s tourism website. Holding hands won’t land you in jail, but visitors should avoid showing intimacy in public. Qatari law requires a prison sentence of one to three years for adults convicted of consensual gay or lesbian sex. Crossdressing is also criminalized. World Cup organizers told The Associated Press that anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, can come “without fear of any repercussions.” But an official warned that rainbow flags could be confiscated to protect fans from being attacked for promoting gay rights in a region where discrimination is rampant.
Qatar’s government tourism website urges men and women to “show respect for local culture by avoiding excessively revealing clothing in public.” Visitors are asked to cover their shoulders and knees. Those in shorts and sleeveless tops may be kept away from government buildings and shopping malls. Women visiting mosques in the city will be given scarves to cover their heads. It’s a different story in hotels, where bikinis are common in hotel pools.
Flashing the middle finger or swearing, especially when it comes to the police or other authorities, can lead to arrest. Most criminal cases in Qatar that ensnare unwary foreigners involve such offences. Many Qatari women and men do not shake hands with the opposite sex; wait for a hand to be offered. Filming and photographing people without their consent, as well as taking pictures of sensitive military or religious sites, can be prosecuted. It’s also important to tread carefully when discussing religion and politics with the locals. Insulting the royal family can land you in jail. Few Qataris are likely to welcome criticism of their government system from a tourist. Spreading fake news and harming the country’s interests is a serious and vaguely defined crime, so it’s best to watch social media comments about Qatar.