And it’s a watershed moment for the Middle East, in more ways than one. The region is still no 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-based economy and the affluence it has brought.
A ban on drinking alcohol in stadiums has already come as a dampener for some fans. So, on the eve of the tournament, questions abound.
Will foreign fans arriving in Qatar for a carnival period find themselves up against a wall? Will Qatar, with its Sharia-aligned laws, tolerate the ‘party’ that fans rave about? Will orthodoxy and the clash of cultures be a spoiler?
Qatar has tried to portray itself as welcoming to foreigners and says it will “relax” to the unprecedented influx of tourists. But there are some clear red lines that fans need to watch out for.
Relaxed rules for drunks, but no beer in stadiums
The policy for alcohol consumption during the tournament was several times drawn up and then revised, and then redone again, a possible sign that domestic politics were playing a role.
Alcohol is only served in designated hotels, restaurants and bars in Qatar. It is illegal to drink anywhere else. Non-Muslim residents of Doha who have a liquor licence, however, are allowed to drink at home. Public drunkenness is punishable by heavy fines and jail time.
However, during the World Cup, the rules will be somewhat relaxed.
Fans can also drink in the evening in a designated “fan zone” in downtown Doha. But the decision to allow the 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 in bars often ask for photo ID or passports upon entry.
Strictly prohibited drugs
Qatar is one of the most restrictive nations in the world when it comes to drugs, banning cannabis and even over-the-counter drugs such as narcotics, sedatives and amphetamines. Drug trafficking is punished with death.
World Cup fans arriving in Qatar could be arrested for carrying even the smallest amount of drugs.
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 are punishable by law in Qatar. Public display of affection is also not encouraged.
However, authorities say unmarried couples can share hotel rooms during the World Cup without any problems. Holding hands in public won’t land you in jail, but visitors should avoid showing intimacy in public.
Qatari law provides for a prison sentence of one to three years for adults convicted of consensual gay or lesbian sex. Transvestism is also criminalised.
However, the organizers of the World Cup have said that anyone, regardless of their sexual orientation, can come “without fear of any kind of repercussions”. But attempts to promote gay rights will be thwarted.
Is Qatar ready to witness such street revelry? (AFP)
‘Cover’, is the message
“Show respect for the local culture by avoiding overly revealing clothes in public.” This line on the Qatar government tourism website says it all.
Visitors are required to cover their heads and knees; those in shorts and sleeveless tops can be turned away from government buildings and shopping malls.
Women visiting mosques will have to cover their heads with scarves. If one wants to strip down to a bikini, the confines of a hotel pool are perhaps a safer place!
Watch your manners, and your speech too
Waving the middle finger or swearing, especially when dealing with the police or other authorities, can lead to arrest.
Don’t be the first to reach out for a squeeze; wait for a hand to be offered to you. Qatari men and women tend to avoid shaking hands with the opposite sex.
Avoid taking pictures of 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 seriousness of crimes deemed harmful to the national interest and critical of the regime; so it is best to avoid social media comments while in Qatar.
(With agency input)