For Qatar, the World Cup is a high-stakes test and a show of clout

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DOHA, Qatar — In a country where wealth and ambition often raise questions about its identity — whether it is a mediator or agitator, a nation that bridges divisions or a struggler with a difference — Qatar’s National Museum offers A concise and shiny self-assessment.

“Qatar has transformed from a country that some could barely recognize on a map to a major player in global politics, the economy, the media, culture and sports,” the country’s emir Tamim bin Hamad In the words of Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, in indisputable words projected on a black background.

For all its progress, Qatar will still be tested when it hosts the World Cup next month – an event that has drawn a rare level of scrutiny and criticism for the country and threatened a global image carefully cultivated through years of creativity. Diplomatic, humanitarian work and commercial activities such as sports sponsorship.

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Recent weeks have brought renewed attention to the plight of migrant workers who have suffered or died to build infrastructure for the event, as well as concerns about how LGBTQ fans will be received in a country that criminalizes homosexuality. Over the past two days, the debate has turned to outrage over the decision to ban beer in the stadium.

Qatari officials have bristled at many criticisms that the country has been unfairly singled out, suggesting an undercurrent of racism – while ignoring the seminal nature of the World Cup.

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Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani said in a text message: “It is a real moment to host football’s top-flight competition for the first time in an Arab and Muslim-majority country. A moment in history, but also an opportunity to break down stereotypes about our region.” “Football has the ability to build bonds of friendship and overcome barriers of misunderstanding between nations and peoples.”

For Qatar, a successful event is a testament to the numerous efforts it has made over the years to enhance its global status and expand its influence.

Abdullah Arian, a history professor at Qatar’s Georgetown University and editor of a new book, “Football in the Middle East: Nations, Societies and the Beautiful Game,” said the World Cup was “one part of a broader strategy” intended to position Qatar as an important regional players.

“It’s carving out space for itself outside the shadows of its neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Iran. It’s doing that in part by investing in big development projects, as well as media, pop culture, education and medicine. The World Cup fits right in with that,” he said. He says.

Not long before the World Cup, Qatar faced an even tougher test. The story is told at Doha’s museum – an incubator of growing national narratives – in an exhibition on “Ramadan Lockdown”: the 2017 siege of Qatar by neighbors such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that lasted nearly four weeks. year.

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The blockade has divided the Middle East, separated families with cross-border ties to the Persian Gulf country, and left Qatar — one of the world’s highest per capita incomes — in unprecedented straits as it suddenly scrambled to provide for its citizens and residents. food and other supplies.

Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse Qatar of terrorism, which Qatar denies. Their anger stems from Qatar’s support for Islamist groups across the region, its sponsorship of the Al Jazeera news channel and its general refusal to align itself with its neighbours. The feud ended last year with Qatar refusing to comply with a series of demands from the Saudi-led bloc, including shutting down Al Jazeera. But tensions remain.

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Mohammed said the region agreed on a “common threat”. “But sometimes we don’t agree” on technologies to counter them, he admits.

For now, Qatar appears to have other priorities. Before being overwhelmed by World Cup demands, Qatar resumed its role as a regional mediator, assisting the United States as a third-party interlocutor with Iran and the Taliban — including helping to evacuate U.S. citizens and Allies are from Afghanistan.

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Qatar, a major base for the U.S. military’s Central Command, has largely avoided confrontation with the Biden administration, even as its neighbors are angry at the U.S.’s departure from the region and seek closer ties with China and Russia.

The US has “other priorities. We cannot blame this on disengagement,” Mohammad said. Governments in the region “need to start taking more responsibility,” he added.

Qatar’s “international role has matured over the past decade”, said Elham Fahro, a researcher at the Center for Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter. She said the blockade was “shocking”, but Qatar still managed to score “multiple diplomatic victories”, including mediating the conflict on behalf of the US.

“The ideal scenario for Qatar going forward would be that it can balance its international foreign policy ambitions while avoiding another rupture in regional relations with its neighbours,” she said.

Qatar now hosts these neighbours, as the game kicks off, with thousands of fans from across the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, which is playing and should field one of the largest contingents of ticket holders – an astonishing one. The shift comes after hostilities erupted during the lockdown.

Al-Arian said that as fans flocked from all over the region, including Tunisians, Iranians, Moroccans and Saudis, it gave the game a “unique flavor”: If all goes well, it’s A recent example of Qatar’s mediation role.

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