More than a million sports fans will travel to Qatar for the World Cup in November and December, a spectacle that usually turns the host countries into one non-stop party. But this year may be different.
The small, conservative Muslim nation may show little tolerance for the booze-fueled hooliganism that has played out at past tournaments.
Qatar has sought to portray itself as welcoming to foreigners, but traditional Muslim values remain strong in the hereditarily ruled emirate. Qatar’s judicial system, based on an interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia, has drawn Western criticism for its tendency to favor prosecutors and police.
The autocratic country says it will relax in the face of the unprecedented influx of tourists. But fans attending the World Cup should be aware of Qatar’s cultural laws and customs, including alcohol, drug, sexuality and dress code policies.
Here is an overview of some of them:
Alcohol is served only in restaurants and bars of licensed hotels in Qatar. It is illegal to consume it elsewhere. Non-Muslim residents of Doha who have a liquor license can, however, drink at home. At the World Cup, fans will be allowed to buy Budweiser beer within the grounds of the stadium – but not in the contest concession stands – before and after matches. Fans can also drink in the evening at 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 during the tournament police would turn a blind eye to most infractions but potentially make arrests if anyone got into a drunken fight or damaged public property. The legal drinking age is 21, and bar bouncers often ask for photo ID or a passport upon entry.
Qatar is one of the most drug-restrictive countries in the world, banning cannabis and even over-the-counter drugs like narcotics, sedatives and amphetamines. Selling, trafficking, and possessing illegal drugs can result in severe penalties, including long prison sentences followed by deportation and heavy fines. Drug trafficking charges can carry the death penalty. World Cup fans should be aware of these laws when arriving at Hamad International Airport, where authorities are scanning bags and passengers with new security technology and have arrested those carrying the smallest amounts drug.
Qatar considers the cohabitation of unmarried women and men a crime, using so-called 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 “frowned upon”, according to the government’s tourism website. Holding hands won’t land you in jail, but visitors should avoid showing their intimacy in public. Qatari law provides for a prison term of one to three years for adults convicted of consensual same-sex or lesbian sex. Cross-dressing is also criminalized. World Cup organizers have told The Associated Press that anyone, regardless of sexual orientation, can come “without fear of any kind of repercussions”. But an official has warned that the rainbow flags could be confiscated to protect fans from attacks for promoting gay rights in a region where discrimination is rampant.
The Qatar government’s tourism website urges men and women to “show respect for the local culture by avoiding excessively revealing their clothing in public”. He asks visitors to cover their shoulders and knees. Those wearing shorts and sleeveless tops may be turned away from government buildings and shopping malls. Women visiting mosques in the city will be provided with scarves to cover their heads. It’s a different story in hotels, where bikinis are common in hotel pools.
Showing your middle finger or swearing, especially when dealing with the police or other authorities, can result in 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 photos of sensitive military or religious sites, can lead to prosecution. It is also important to exercise caution when discussing religion and politics with locals. Insulting the royal family can land you in jail. Few Qataris are likely to welcome criticism of their system of governance from a tourist. Spreading false news and harming the country’s interests is a serious and loosely defined crime, so social media comments about Qatar are best avoided.