DOHA – World Cup fans in Qatar caught committing minor offences such as public drunkenness will escape prosecution under plans being developed by authorities in the conservative Muslim host nation, a diplomat and a person familiar with Qatari briefings to foreign police told Reuters.
While the policing strategy for the Nov 20-Dec 18 competition has yet to be finalised, organisers have told diplomats and police from qualified countries they intend to show flexibility for relatively minor infringements, the sources said.
The signals reflect the delicate balance which Qatar, a tiny Arab state where many follow the same puritanical school of Sunni Islam as in neighbouring Saudi Arabia, is trying to strike between respecting religious traditions and accommodating the raucous exuberance of more than a million visiting fans.
Qatar’s World Cup organisers, the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, did not respond to a request for comment.
“Increased leniency pleases the international community, but comes with the risk that it might upset conservatives inside the country,” another Western diplomat said.
Organisers have not publicly clarified their approach to policing, and many embassies have warned fans they face punishment for behaviour that would be tolerated elsewhere.
“Remember, while you’re in Qatar, you are subject to local laws,” US diplomat Morgan Cassell said in a YouTube video.
According to Qatar’s legal code, freedom of expression is restricted, homosexuality is illegal and sex outside marriage is outlawed. Public drunkenness can incur a prison sentence of up to six months and some things considered benign elsewhere like public displays of affection or wearing revealing clothes can be grounds for arrest.
“Arguing with or insulting others in public could lead to arrest. Activities like protests, religious proselytising, advocacy of atheism and criticism of the government of Qatar or the religion of Islam may be criminally prosecuted here. That applies to your social media posts, too,” Cassell said.
However organisers already intend to relax Qatar’s strict laws limiting the public sale of alcohol, and will allow beer to be served near stadiums a few hours before matches kick off.
Informally, they have also told police from European countries which have qualified for the tournament and some diplomats in Doha to expect police to show flexibility in enforcing other laws, such as drunkenness or public disorder.
“Minor offences won’t result in a fine or arrest, but police will be instructed to go to a person and ask him or her to comply… Someone who removes a T-shirt in public will be asked to put his T-shirt back on. There is some sort of tolerance,” said the person familiar with Qatari briefings of several European police sending officers to Qatar.
While Qatari authorities have not confirmed this approach, special legislation taking effect during the tournament gives Qatar’s World Cup security chief – known as the Gold Commander – significant leeway in tackling violations of Qatar’s laws.
It says the commander, in coordination with authorities, can take decisions including how to treat “acts in violation of the provisions of the laws in force in the country”.