‘Everybody is welcome in Doha,’ the Emir of Qatar said this summer, ‘but we expect and we want people to respect our culture.’ Hassan Al-Thawadi echoed his leader last week: ‘Everyone is welcome.’
He is in charge of the Supreme Committee, the body responsible for fulfilling the host nation’s responsibilities for the . He should know, right?
Fifa president Gianni Infantino repeated the sentiment when marking a month to go. He got a little more specific than his Qatari colleagues: ‘Everyone will be welcomed to the tournament regardless of origin, background, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or nationality.’
I mean, it’s a bloody World Cup. The biggest sporting event on the planet. How could that be in doubt?
Well, a number of people don’t feel very welcome.
Sex outside marriage is prohibited for Muslims in Qatar, as is the case across most of the Arabic-speaking Middle East. Specific penalties of up to seven years’ imprisonment are in place for anyone having intimate same-sex relations, Qatari, Muslim, or not.
The version of Sharia law in place in Qatar also criminalises sex between men, which in theory could be punishable by the death penalty, though there is no evidence of this ever having been applied.
When I lived in Qatar, I knew gay people from all over the world who had chosen to live and work there, some of whom had married people of the opposite sex.
I also had a number of British friends who chose not to visit as a result of Qatar’s attitude towards homosexuality. With so many other places in the world LGBTQ+ people can spend their money, my pals reasoned, why bother trying their luck in Gay Doha.
But there is only one place in the world hosting the World Cup this year, so for the devoted football fan it’s Qatar or bust. Will you be safe? Another key figure, Qatar 2022 CEO Nasser Al-Khater, was asked this week an almost certainly pre-agreed question about the ‘LGBTQ issue’ by state-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera. Ah well, ‘everyone has the right to their own opinions,’ he said. ‘This should be the place for sport and for people to enjoy the sport.’
So here it is, a month out: the stance. We already know that public displays of affection aren’t tolerated in Qatar, so the line senior Qataris are taking is the one that many feel worked quite well up to now: don’t ask, don’t tell, Qatar-style. But can it be the place for people to ‘enjoy the sport’ if for some their very existence is being sidestepped and deflected? Speaking to Arab friends in Qatar about how welcome gay fans would be next month was an unexpected and instructive disaster.
These are progressive people I knew well but I was gutted to realise that when I raised the question of sexuality I had caused offence.
British LGBTQ+ people have not yet achieved equality, and the community suffers higher rates of suicidal distress, anxiety and depression than the general population. The fight goes on. But it is a fight most people are aware of and in the main are comfortable talking about.
This is a very recent win. Consider that equality of consent for gay men in this country was only achieved in law in 2001. In a Gallup poll in the States in 2006, 51 per cent of those surveyed considered gay or lesbian relations ‘morally wrong’.
Public conversations about sexual identity are still very new in the Middle East. That’s why you have not heard any Qatari official use the terms I am using here and why it was Swiss-Italian Infantino who specified what everyone’s talking about. So then, this is the context for fans who want to travel and are concerned.
For those who live in the country, there is rather more to worry about. The one Qatari who speaks publicly about LGBTQ+ rights, and is himself gay, Dr Nasser Mohamed, has received asylum in the States.
He helped Human Rights Watch get access to six people in Qatar who say they were detained in an underground prison in West Bay – the shiny hotel-thronged part of Doha where many fans will stay – and verbally and physically abused, as recently as last month.
The evidence suggests residents are at risk for their sexual orientation. In deciding to host the World Cup Qatar has opened itself up to scrutiny, perhaps more than it realised. If you care about this, that’s the help you can give.
These are progressive people but raising the question of sexuality causes offence.
Sports broadcaster Kate Mason is a regular on BBC’s Fighting Talk and Final Score and host of The Drop In from the Football Ramble, which she is taking to Qatar to find out how ready the tiny nation is to host the World Cup. The first episode is out next Tuesday (November 1) wherever you get your podcasts.
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