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

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DOHA, Qatar – In a country whose wealth and ambition have often raised questions about its identity – whether it is a mediator or an enabler, a state bridging divisions or a struggler standing apart – it Qatar’s national museum offers a concise and colorful self-assessment.

“Qatar has transformed from a state that some people could barely recognize on a map to a major player in politics, the economy, the media, culture and sport around the world,” said the country’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, says, in words that are projected onto a black background and difficult to argue with.

However, for all Qatar’s progress, it will be tested over the next month when it hosts the World Cup – an event that has invited some of the scrutiny and criticism the country has rarely experienced and threatens its global image. -eang carefully nurtured over the years through creative. diplomacy, humanitarian work and commercial endeavors such as sports sponsorship.

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Recent weeks have brought renewed attention to the plight of migrant workers who suffered or died building the infrastructure for the event, and to concerns about how LGBTQ supporters will be received in a country that n criminalizing homosexuality. In the last two days, the debate has shifted to anger over a decision to ban beer in stadiums.

Qatari officials have been the subject of much of the criticism, arguing that the country is being unfairly selected in a way that suggests an undercurrent of racism – and which ignores the gruesome nature of the tournament.

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“Hosting a major football event in an Arab and Muslim-majority country for the first time 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 could validate its countless efforts over the years to raise its global status, and strengthen its influence.

Abdullah al-Arian, professor of history at Georgetown University in Qatar and editor of the 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 intended to set Qatar as a significant regional actor.

“It is carving out a space for itself outside the shadow of neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Iran. And it does this in part by investing in large-scale development projects, as well as the media, popular culture, education, medicine. The World Cup fits into that,” he said.

Just before the tournament, Qatar faced a much more rigorous test. The story is told in the museum in Doha – the incubator of the evolving national narrative – in an exhibition about the “Ramadan evacuation”: a blockade of Qatar imposed by neighbors including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2017 that lasted almost four years.

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The blockade divided the Middle East, separated families from Persian Gulf states with cross-border ties, and saddled Qatar – a country with one of the highest incomes in the world – with unfamiliar hardships as it scrambles suddenly to provide citizens and residents with food and other supplies.

Saudi Arabia and its allies accused Qatar of terrorism, which it denied. Their anger stemmed from Qatar’s support for Islamist groups across the region, its sponsorship of the Al Jazeera news channel and its general refusal to fall in line with its neighbours. The row ended last year, with Qatar refusing to comply with a list of demands made by the Saudi-led bloc, including that it shut down Al Jazeera. But the tensions remain.

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There was agreement in the region on “common threats,” Mohammed said. “But sometimes we don’t agree on the techniques” for countering 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, assisting the US as a third-party liaison with Iran and the Taliban – including helping to evacuate US citizens and allies in during the chaotic withdrawal of the country. from Afghanistan.

Qatar is home to a major base for the US military’s Central Command and has largely avoided conflict with the Biden administration, even as its neighbours, who are clamoring for what they see such as American disengagement from the region, pursuing closer ties with China and Russia.

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The United States has “other priorities. We cannot blame this on disengagement,” Mohammed said. He added that governments in the region “need to start taking more responsibility.”

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

“The ideal scenario for Qatar going forward will be one where it can balance its international foreign policy ambitions, while avoiding another breakdown in regional relations with its neighbours,” he said.

As the tournament gets under way, Qatar is now hosting those neighbours, with thousands of fans coming from across the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, who are competing in the tournament and are due to send one of the largest number of ticket holders – a stunning change. after the enemy released during the siege.

As fans poured in from across the region, including Tunisians, Iranians, Moroccans and Saudis, it had given the tournament a “unique flavour”, al-Arian said: the latest example, if it all goes smooth, of Qatar’s mediating role.

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