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The impact of the Qatar World Cup on Arabian perceptions and attitudes

How has the 2022 Qatar World Cup altered the perception of the middle east – not just within football, but on a wider scale?

Photo by Fauzan Saari via Unsplash
Photo by Fauzan Saari via Unsplash

Opinions expressed by Digital Journal contributors are their own.

The opening ceremony of the 2022 Qatar World Cup was anything but ordinary. Before a ball had been kicked in the newly built Al Bayt Stadium, it was not a football icon who graced the pitch, but Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman. His question was designed to reflect the feelings of traveling fans throughout the region as he asked simply, “am I welcome?”

His answer came from YouTuber Ghanim Al Muftah, a famous online personality who has suffered from Caudal Regression Syndrome since birth. “We sent out the call because everyone is welcome,” he said, looking up at the decorated actor. “This is an invitation to the whole world.”

This was far from spontaneous, and the heavily scripted dialogue may have even caused more cynical viewers to squirm in their seats. But the message was clear. Qatar was here to announce to the world that it is not the discriminatory nation it’s been portrayed as. 

After a thrilling four-week competition which culminated in arguably the greatest World Cup final of all time, how has the 2022 Qatar World Cup altered the perception of the middle east – not just within football, but on a wider scale?

Foreign fans in Qatar

Much was made before the tournament about Qatar’s ability to accept fans who did not conform to local laws and customs. In particular, the LGBT community was highlighted as being an at-risk group. Qatar’s Penal Code 2004 declares same-sex sexual activity illegal. Participating countries such as France, Germany and England were forced to reverse their decision to wear rainbow armbands in support of LGBT rights.

The availability of alcohol in stadiums was another point of contention for fans used to being able to enjoy a beverage at half-time. With Budweiser already having secured exclusive rights to sell alcohol in stadiums, the decision was reversed at the eleventh hour. Fans would have to settle for Budweiser Zero, an alcohol-free alternative.

Regardless of their methods, it must be acknowledged that the 2022 Qatar World Cup achieved a remarkably low level of crime. England fans, for example, have a history of raucous behavior at major tournaments. You need look no further than their Euro 2020 final against Italy, hosted at Wembley, as evidence. Yet they were lauded for their terrific behavior, recording no arrests throughout the tournament. Meanwhile, in England, there were 531 football-related incidents

Softening laws and online gambling

One thing not included in Qatar’s Penal Code is online gambling. You won’t find any casinos or sports betting shops in the Gulf state, which are illegal. One could therefore surmise that online gambling is also forbidden. It certainly doesn’t fit with their strong religious ethos.

But the general perception in Qatar is that hunting down locals who use offshore betting accounts is of low priority, mirroring the laws in other countries with similar laws. 

Coupled with how far the hosts of the 2022 Qatar World Cup went to drill home the idea that they’re welcoming of all guests and nations, it’s not imperceptible that the stance on online gambling in Qatar has softened, following other MENA countries such as Kuwait and the UAE, which made significant progress in that field. This is already evidenced by gaming sites available in MENA countries being openly discussed in reputable sites such as haz-tayeb.com. Online casinos fall under the same category and, again, authorities rarely pursue players of games like online roulette and blackjack.  

If this attitude continues to spread to other aspects of the nation, it will go a long way to helping foreign travellers feel more open to spending time in Qatar.

International perception of Qatar

Before the tournament, relations between Qatar and the wider footballing world were already strained. Liverpool’s manager, Jurgen Klopp, was one of many major footballing figures to have his say – and he blamed the media as one of the major culprits for “letting this [World Cup in Qatar] happen.”

As the tournament progressed, these views seemed to assuage. Low crime rates eased concerns about minority groups traveling to the tournament. Stadiums were well-ventilated, allaying worries that the players would suffer in the Qatari heat. And then there was the final, where one of the greatest footballers of all time, Lionel Messi, donned a traditional Arabic bisht as he finally captured the World Cup at the end of an illustrious career.

The hosts couldn’t have written a more fitting end to the tournament. The images will live long in the minds of supporters and, in turn, will have improved the world’s perception of Qatar as a footballing nation.

Financial sustainability

When Qatar was controversially awarded the 2022 World Cup, one of the most obvious concerns was their lack of infrastructure. As part of an eye-watering $6.5 billion investment, Qatar created eight top-of-the-range stadiums. And their treatment of workers building those stadiums came under intense – and deserved – scrutiny.

It would be understandable for this to be seen as an act of gross overindulgence, but Qatar’s post-World Cup actions tell a different story. The stadiums were actually designed to be reduced in size after the tournament, with an estimated 170,000 seats being donated to underdeveloped countries. The Lusail Stadium – an 80,000-capacity venue which hosted eventual winners Argentina in their semi-final against Croatia – is earmarked as a future setting for, among other things, affordable housing, health clinics, and a school.

A football tournament alone will not be enough to undo the perceived wrongs of the nation of Qatar. But the Gulf state has done all it can to show the world it is open to change. Perhaps Qatar’s intended message is best demonstrated in Morgan Freeman’s closing statements from the opening ceremony: 

“In celebration, in hearing from our heroes through all the differences in language, there is a common thread of hope, jubilation and respect. We may or may not understand the words, but in the deepest part of us, we must understand and appreciate the emotions that connect us all.”

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Written By

George Nellist is a public relations, marketing and strategic brand expert who has executed social media and strategic marketing campaigns for a variety of Fortune 500 companies and small businesses. For more information, visit Ascend Agency.

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