For visiting fans, the World Cup in Qatar will be very different. Major tournaments, where strong emotion meets alcohol meets mob mentality, can always produce unpleasant incidents.
This time, however, fans are wondering whether more frivolous moments of celebration and joy could be threatened by local laws.
An example of why supporters are confused came in early October, when a poster went viral on Twitter saying visitors to Qatar should show respect by refraining from homosexuality, dating, drinking alcohol and “immodesty”.
It turned out that poster was produced by a Qatari citizen group rather than anyone official and it was called “factually incorrect” by Qatar’s tournament organisers, but its wide distribution illustrates why some fans are still unsure about what they can and cannot do at this World Cup.
More disinfo about the Qatar World Cup. This infographic being shared thousands of times – by many accounts. No, alcohol hasn’t been banned – in fact drinking rules have been relaxed – neither has music, dating, loud noises or profanity. Thnx @NesibeHicret for the heads up pic.twitter.com/NSwTeKYMDq
— Marc Owen Jones (@marcowenjones) October 6, 2022
To provide some clarity, The Athletic has gone through Qatar’s laws to clarify exactly what will be permitted during the tournament.
Possibly the largest point of departure from any previous tournament. While this will not be a ‘dry’ World Cup, alcohol availability will be significantly reduced compared to its predecessors. Whether this has major effects on fan behaviour will be interesting to see, with plans still being finalised by authorities with just over a week to go until the opening game.
This will be the first World Cup held in a Muslim country where alcohol is not widely available but is instead only served in licensed places, such as some hotels and restaurants. Despite this, organisers confirmed in September that alcohol will be served in “select areas within stadiums” during the tournament. However, only soft drinks will be allowed in view of the pitch, as at Premier League matches.
There will also be a 40,000-capacity fan zone in capital city Doha, where drinking can take place from 6.30pm, plus the ‘Arcadia Spectacular’ event — a festival featuring “internationally renowned artists and DJs” — in which fans will be able to drink alcohol pretty much round the clock, between 10am and 5am the next day.
Licensed hotel bars and restaurants will continue to be permitted to sell alcohol.
You will need to be at least 21 years old to buy alcohol at any of the licensed venues.
There are several restrictions to be aware of.
Drinking in public outside the permitted areas is strictly prohibited, as is public drunkenness. Advice from the UK foreign office warns that drinking in a non-licensed public place could result in a prison sentence of up to six months and/or a fine of up to 3,000 Riyals (about £700).
Speaking to Sky News in October, the tournament’s chief organiser Nasser Al-Khater said that drunk fans could be taken to “a place to sober up”. He did not provide any further details on this.
Carrying alcohol — even if it’s unopened — is also prohibited.
There is zero tolerance for drugs in Qatar — whether that is supply, use or possession. Embassies have typically been unable to intervene when a citizen of their country is detained there on drugs-related charges.
Any individual caught smuggling drugs into the country could face 20 years in prison, plus a fine of between 100,000 (about £24,000) and 300,000 riyals (about £70,000).
Repeat offenders face the possibility of life imprisonment, or, at the extreme end of the scale, the death penalty. Convictions received outside Qatar will also be taken into account when determining repeat offences.
There is little differentiation between categories of drugs, with marijuana possession treated as strictly as cocaine or heroin possession.
In a slightly different category, smoking is allowed in Qatar, but it is banned in some places. Vapes are not legal and cannot even be brought into the country.
At the stadium
Other questions surround fan behaviour within the World Cup’s stadiums. For example, it is common to see fans take their shirts off when celebrating in the UK, an action which appears at odds with the conservative dress code of Qatari society.
This is something which could be policed by authorities — but the implementation of these laws is expected to depend heavily on context. For example, walking shirtless around families in the street is different to whipping your top off in the stadium at the spur of the moment after seeing your team score.
Across the tournament, police have been asked to govern with a “soft touch” — although with forces drawn from several countries, the uniformity of their actions is not guaranteed.
Similarly, the prospect of beer-throwing and tossing alcohol in the air to celebrate a goal is frowned upon without being explicitly banned. Organisers say that the prices could reduce the prevalence of such activity — while also asking supporters to remember that the fan zones could include local families.
Large banners will be allowed, but these need to be pre-approved by the national association or World Cup organisers — “offensive or political messaging” is not permitted.
While musical instruments smaller than 60cm x 40cm are allowed, these are not allowed to “interfere” with the event.
One of the core arguments against Qatar hosting a World Cup is its ban on homosexuality, punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine.
In 2013, Hassan Al-Thawadi, head of the Supreme Committee for delivering the World Cup, was criticised for saying that everybody was welcome at the event, so long as they refrained from public displays of affection.
However, in September, English Football Association chief Mark Bullingham said he had been assured that LGBT+ England fans would not be arrested at the tournament for holding hands or kissing in public.
Though sex between unmarried couples is not permitted in Qatar, the government said unmarried couples will be allowed to share hotel rooms, regardless of sexuality.
However, in May this year, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish reporters contacted 69 hotels on FIFA’s official list of hotels, pretending to be a newlywed gay couple — and found three did not accept their attempt to make reservations, while 20 more asked them to avoid publicly demonstrating their sexuality.
In response, a spokesperson for the tournament organisers in Qatar said this would be addressed before the games begin: “More than 100 hotels in Qatar that will accommodate visiting football fans, players, officials and other core stakeholders will be required to comply with the Sustainable Sourcing Code.”
In April, Major General Abdulaziz Abdullah al-Ansari, a senior security leader in Qatar, said rainbow flags could be confiscated from supporters, claiming it would be to protect them from violence by anti-LGBT+ fans. His comments were criticised by several fan groups and anti-discrimination bodies.
Restrictions around sexual activity are not limited to homosexuality.
A law on extra-marital sex in Qatar states: “Whoever copulates with a female over 16 without compulsion, duress or ruse shall be punished with imprisonment for a term up to seven years. The same penalty shall also be imposed on the female for her consent.”
If the defendant is Muslim, it could lead to a sentence of flogging — with 100 lashes a typical punishment.
Last month, The Athletic reported on the dangers that these laws present to women, who are disproportionately affected by their implementation. Several cases have seen women who report sexual violence tried under extra-marital sex laws.
Survivors of sexual violence could also find themselves unable to access basic health services, such as emergency contraception or specialist antibiotics, without a marriage certificate.
A document circulating on social media, with FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 branding appeared to suggest that “women will not face any accusations if they report rape or sexual harassment/violence”.
However, the Supreme Committee responded by stating that “the document was not developed or approved by the Supreme Committee or any other Qatar authority”.
Travelling fans intending on protesting against Qatari laws may find themselves in danger.
As exclusively reported by The Athletic in June, protestors could face a five-year prison sentence for “stirring up public opinion” under Qatari laws.
Amnesty International told The Athletic that the “vague” terminology of the law, which was strengthened in January 2020, “could silence peaceful protest”.
Article 136 of the penal code states those affected by the new law include: “Anyone who broadcasts, publishes, or republishes false or biased rumours, statements, or news, or inflammatory propaganda, domestically or abroad, with the intent to harm national interests, stir up public opinion, or infringe on the social system or the public system of the state”.
Offenders could be sentenced to a maximum of five years in prison and a fine of 100,000 Qatari riyals (about £24,000).
Though experts are not sure whether Qatar will punish foreign nationals to the same extent as its own citizens, the scope of the law is wide. Activists must obtain a permit from the Interior Ministry in order to peacefully protest, which are rarely granted by the government.
However, laws do not only apply to physical protest but also “cybercrime” and “printing & publications”.
The 2014 Cybercrimes Law punishes the dissemination of “false news” online with a maximum three-year prison sentence. Like the penal code, its terminology is vague, outlawing posts which “violate social values or principles” or “insult and slander others”.
Fans who hand out leaflets are also at risk of prosecution as the law states that “no publications printed in or imported into Qatar may be sold or distributed without written consent”. This includes posters or stickers on walls and could also affect supporters who are, for example, sharing a fanzine.
The branded document circulating on social media suggested that “public protestors will neither be approached, detained nor prosecuted unless the protest becomes a security issue in the area”. However, the Supreme Committee does not recognise the document’s authenticity.
Several recent major tournaments have seen incidents of fighting between fans. Violence broke out between Brazil and Serbia fans at the 2018 World Cup, while England fans fought Russian supporters at the 2016 European Championship.
In Qatar, a serious assault — defined as causing sickness or incapacity to work for 20 days — could be punished with a prison sentence of up to two years or a fine of up to 10,000 Riyals (about £2400).
If the assault is considered premeditated, the sentence could be extended to three years, and the fine increased to 15,000 Qatari rials (£3,600).
The poster that went viral in October mentioned at the top of this article listed producing “loud music and sounds” as behaviour to avoid. However, doing so is not illegal in Qatar.
A 2002 environmental law limits daytime noise to 55 decibels and to 45 decibels at night, but these are more guidelines for industrial and commercial businesses.
However, Qatar has very strict laws on public hygiene. Littering is punishable by a fine of up to 10,000 Riyals (about £2,400), while public spitting, urination or defecation could see, at the extreme end, imprisonment for up to six months, plus a fine.
Swearing is considered an obscene act and is therefore punishable by law. It can be aggravated if directed towards police officers. Potential punishments include a fine, short jail sentence, or deportation.
Finally, there are restrictions on photographing people and religious, military or construction sites.
Last November, two journalists from Norwegian broadcaster NRK were detained for “filming without a permit”.
Qatar is a socially conservative country.
UK government advice is that, while not punishable by law unless it is deemed an obscene act, individuals may be asked to leave government buildings, healthcare facilities and shopping malls for clothing violations. They recommend women cover their shoulders and avoid short skirts, while men are asked to avoid shorts and sleeveless tops.
However, in practice, the majority of malls will not enforce these guidelines harshly, while shorts are relatively widespread.
Public breastfeeding in Qatar has not typically been an issue.
(Top photo: Mohammed Dabbous/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)