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 stands apart as broker or instigator, state bridge divide or fighter — the National Museum of Qatar offers a brief and scintillating self-assessment.

“Qatar has transformed from being barely recognizable on a map to a major player worldwide in politics, economy, media, culture and sports,” said the country’s Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani. In words projected on a black background and difficult to dispute.

However, for all of Qatar’s progress, it will be tested next month as it hosts the World Cup — an event that has invited scrutiny and criticism the country has rarely experienced and threatens the global image it has carefully cultivated over the years through creativity. Commercial endeavors such as diplomacy, humanitarian work and sports sponsorship.

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Recent weeks have brought new attention to the plight of migrant workers who have suffered or died building infrastructure for the event, and 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 stadiums.

Qatari officials have been more critical, arguing that the country is being unfairly singled out in a way that suggests an influx of racism – and which ignores the path-breaking nature of the tournament.

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“Hosting football’s premier event for the first time in an Arab and Muslim-majority country is a truly historic moment and an opportunity to break stereotypes about our region,” Qatar’s Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said in a text message. “Football has the power to build bonds of friendship and overcome barriers of misunderstanding between nations and peoples.”

And for Qatar, a successful tournament will help validate its countless efforts over the years to raise its global profile and amplify its influence.

Abdullah Al-Arian, a history professor at Qatar’s Georgetown University and editor of a new book, “Football in the Middle East: State, Society and the Beautiful Game,” said the World Cup was “one element of a much broader strategy.” It intends to position Qatar as a significant regional actor.

“It’s carving out a space for itself outside the shadow of neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Iran. And it’s done so in part through large-scale development projects, as well as investments in media, popular culture, education, medicine. The World Cup fits that perfectly,” he said.

Shortly before the tournament, Qatar faced a much tougher test. The story is told at a museum in Doha — an incubator of an evolving national narrative — in an exhibit on the “Ramadan Blockade”: the nearly four-year-long blockade of Qatar imposed in 2017 by neighbors including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. .

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The embargo divided the Middle East, separating families from Persian Gulf states with cross-border ties and unaccustomed Qatar, a country with the world’s highest per capita income, which suddenly struggled to provide for its citizens. and residents with food and other supplies.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have accused Qatar of terrorism, which it denies. Their anger stems from Qatar’s support for Islamist groups across the region, its sponsorship of the Al Jazeera news channel and a general refusal to accommodate its neighbors. The feud ended last year when Qatar refused to comply with a list of demands made by the Saudi-led bloc, including the shutdown of Al Jazeera. But tensions persist.

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There was agreement in the region on “common threats”, Mohammed said. “However sometimes we disagree on strategies” to deal with them, he admitted.

For now, Qatar seems to have other priorities. Before it was overwhelmed by the demands of the World Cup, Qatar returned to its role as a regional mediator, helping the United States as a third-party interlocutor with Iran and the Taliban — including helping to evacuate US citizens and allies from Afghanistan during the country’s chaotic withdrawal.

Qatar hosts a key base for the U.S. military’s Central Command and has largely avoided confrontation with the Biden administration, whose neighbors, following what they see as America’s withdrawal from the region, have pursued closer ties with China and Russia.

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The United States “has other priorities. We can’t blame this on disengagement,” Mohammed said. Governments in the region, he said, “need to start taking more responsibility.”

Qatar’s “international role has matured over the past decade,” said Elham Fakhro, a research fellow at the University of Exeter’s Center for Gulf Studies. The blockade came as a “shock”, but Qatar still managed to pull off “several diplomatic victories”, including brokering conflicts on behalf of the United States.

“The ideal scenario for Qatar moving forward is one that strikes a balance between its international foreign policy ambitions, while avoiding another breakdown in regional relations with its neighbors,” he said.

As the tournament kicks off, with Qatar now hosting its neighbours, thousands of fans are arriving from across the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, which is competing in the tournament and will send one of the largest contingents of ticket holders – a stunning turnaround after the feud unleashed during the blockade.

Al-Arian said it gave the tournament a “unique flavour”, as fans flocked from across the region, including Tunisians, Iranians, Moroccans and Saudis: the latest example of Qatar’s mediating role, if all goes well.

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