Qatar’s ‘soft’ World Cup policing strategy set to be tested

A one-man protest late last month by gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell provided an early test for Qatar’s World Cup policing policy.

Security officers who arrived at the scene in central Doha questioned the British activist, who was seeking to highlight Qatar’s intolerance of LGBT rights, and held him at the edge of the road for an hour. Tatchell later said that although their questions were asked “politely”, he was advised to go to the airport and left no doubt that he was not welcome to come. stay.

The calculated police response to the protest, illegal under Qatari law, was instructive. It was a dress rehearsal for the host country’s playbook on how to handle ‘soft’ security incidents at the FIFA World Cup which starts in Doha on November 20.

The multinational force formed by Qatar to maintain security during the month-long tournament includes police elements from Jordan, Morocco and Turkey, as well as delegations from the participating countries. Jordanian police have been in Qatar for a year and provided security during the Arab Cup last year.

Activist Peter Tatchell holding a sign saying
Activist Peter Tatchell staged an individual protest in Doha last month to highlight Qatar’s intolerance of LGBT rights © Reuters

“The idea is to let these things pass, ignore raising a rainbow flag or gently help a drunk back into the fan zone,” a government adviser said. “The big worry is how effective the chain of command and communication will be. This is where there could be potential problems.

Officials said police had received “sensitivity training” on how to handle incidents, although language barriers and confusing lines of communication between different components of the security forces remained a concern for Western officials.

Turkish, Moroccan and Jordanian police will work as uniformed officers under Qatari command, supported by Pakistani soldiers. None of these forces are known for their progressive policing.

Qatar must balance the potential for protests critical of its human rights record, such as its mistreatment of migrant workers, with a national political culture that is uncomfortable with protests.

Yet its limits were exposed by a disturbing incident at Doha International Airport in 2020, when passengers awaiting take-off were disembarked at gunpoint and forced to undergo intimate medical examinations as officers security were looking for a woman who had left her newborn baby in the airport lounge. .

A government review of the event concluded officials failed to escalate the incident up the chain of command, revealing how miscommunication could trigger a series of unfortunate events, the adviser said.

After Tatchell’s protest, Qatar said the heightened media attention around the World Cup was always going to give people the chance to promote their own profiles. “We are always open to dialogue with entities that want to discuss important topics,” he said.

Police officers stand near FIFA World Cup signs outside the main media center in Doha

Softer policing strategies at this year’s World Cup will depend on an effective ‘chain of command and communication’, advisers said © Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP/Getty Images

Qatar is also preparing for the threat of violent hooliganism, installing thousands of security cameras equipped with advanced facial recognition technology.

The eight stadiums will be constantly monitored by a high-tech installation using 15,000 cameras that can zoom into each seat and sensors that detect changes in ambient temperature or sudden crowds. Doors and exits can be operated remotely and crowd footage handed over to authorities in the event of a transgression.

England fans, who have a bad reputation for hooliganism abroad, are particularly concerned. The UK government has banned more than 1,300 supporters from England and Wales with a history of football-related violence from traveling to Qatar.

British police will also be on the ground to help, led by Mark Roberts, Chief Constable of Cheshire Police and Head of the British Police Delegation. They have already provided training to Qataris on using real-time “spotters” to identify troublemakers, officials said.

“We will have officers in Qatar and we are working with Qatari police to support a safe and trouble-free tournament,” said Jon Evans, UK communications manager for Football Policing.

The UK is also sending officers to Dubai to work with local police and advise the large contingent of England and Welsh fans who plan to stay in the region’s tourist hub during the tournament.

Tens of thousands of expats in the Gulf are expected to make up a sizeable contingent among the cohorts of England and Welsh fans heading to Doha. Their better understanding of regional culture will help allay fears of hooliganism.

Qatari police take part in a training program in Izmir, Turkey

Qatari police prepared for any crowd control issues at the World Cup by holding training drills in Turkey © Halil Fidan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Crowd control is not the only area of ​​cooperation. Qatar, a longtime Western partner, is also leveraging its strategic relationship to build a stronger defensive cordon against military and terrorist threats, officials say.

A joint Qatari-British squadron of Typhoon fighter jets was deployed to support the tournament’s “air security operations”. The British contingent took part in air defense around the London 2012 Olympics.

Turkey, Qatar’s closest regional ally, is providing troops to bolster ground defenses alongside Italian forces.

The United States, which has a strong presence through its regional military headquarters outside Doha, is participating in naval efforts to counter maritime threats.

David Roberts, associate professor at King’s College London, said Qatar’s small size and population presented a human resources challenge at the best of times, “let alone at a time of such acute attention as during of the World Cup”.

This is why Qatar has “sought for so long to leverage international allies – in every possible way – to play a role”, he said.

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