After years of anticipation – and controversy – since Qatar was awarded the World Cup, the tournament finally got underway on Sunday in Doha.
Even before a ball was kicked, some sore spots arose. Despite years of planning, just two days before the tournament kicked off, Qatar announced a ban of alcoholic beer at the eight stadiums hosting the World Cup in a surprise volte-face.
Now, fans traveling to the country might be wondering where they stand with the rest of the host country’s local laws and customs.
The sale and consumption of alcohol has been a highly contentious issue since Qatar was first announced as the World Cup host 12 years ago.
The Muslim country is considered to be very conservative and tightly regulates alcohol sales and consumption.
In Qatar, it’s illegal to be seen drunk in public and those who violate this could face legal consequences. According to UK government advice on traveling to Qatar, drinking in a public place could “result in a prison sentence of up to six months and/or a fine up to 3,000 Qatar Rial ($824).”
In September, Qatar had said it would permit ticketed fans to buy alcoholic beer at World Cup soccer matches starting three hours before kick-off and for one hour after the final whistle, but not during the match.
Then two days before the first match, soccer’s world governing body FIFA confirmed that no alcohol would be sold at the eight stadiums which will host the tournament’s 64 matches.
Alcohol will only be served in designated fan parks and other licensed venues around Doha, FIFA said in a statement.
“There will be […] over 200 places where you can buy alcohol in Qatar and over 10 fan zones, where over 100,000 people can simultaneously drink alcohol,” said FIFA President Gianni Infantino on Saturday.
“I think personally, if for three hours a day you cannot drink a beer, you will survive.
“Especially because actually the same rules apply in France or in Spain or in Portugal or in Scotland, where no beer is allowed in stadiums now,” he added.
Still, some fans will be able to consume alcohol at matches – at a price. Supporters can purchase a Match Hospitality package, with prices ranging from $950 to $4,950 per match, for varying services and including alcohol.
A spokeswoman for Match Hospitality told CNN Sport that their packages are not impacted by FIFA’s policy change.
Nonetheless, alcohol is available at licensed hotel restaurants and bars, and expatriates living in Qatar can obtain alcohol on a permit system, according to UK government advice.
Sex outside of marriage is illegal in Qatar, and intimacy in public between men and women can result in arrest.
Sex between men is also illegal and punishable by up to three years in prison in the country, and a report from Human Rights Watch, published last month, documented cases as recently as September of Qatari security forces arbitrarily arresting LGBT people and subjecting them to “ill-treatment in detention.”
A Qatar government official recently told CNN in a statement that the World Cup host was an inclusive country.
“Everyone is welcome in Qatar,” the statement read, adding: “Our track record has shown that we have warmly welcomed all people regardless of background.”
And to ensure discrimination of any kind did not happen, measures were being implemented such as human rights training sessions with public and private security forces, and the enacting of legal provisions for the protection of everyone, according to FIFA.
A statement sent to CNN on behalf of the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC) which, since its formation in 2011, has been responsible for overseeing the infrastructure projects and planning for the World Cup, said it was committed to “an inclusive and discriminatory-free” World Cup, pointing to the fact that the country had, it said, hosted hundreds of international and regional sporting events since being awarded the World Cup in 2010.
Even so in the run-up to the tournament there were mixed messages coming from Qatar with a World Cup ambassador and former soccer player Khalid Salman saying earlier this month that homosexuality was “damage in the mind,” in an interview with German broadcaster ZDF.
Winter in Qatar is a relative term with temperatures still likely to be around 30 degrees Celsius (around 86 degrees Fahrenheit).
Despite the heat, all visitors to Qatar should show “respect for local culture by avoiding excessively revealing clothing in public,” according to the country’s tourism authority, adding that it’s recommended that both men and women should cover their knees and shoulders.
According to UK government advice, men and women “are advised not to wear shorts or sleeveless tops, when going to government buildings, health care facilities or malls,” and failure to do so means you could be asked to leave or be denied entry.
However, the US Embassy in Qatar notes that attire standards can differ according to which neighborhood or facility you are in. CNN’s teams in Doha have spotted plenty of tourists wearing shorts.
Using illegal drugs in Qatar can result in heavy fines and long jail sentences, according to the US State Department – this includes possession of marijuana/THC, CBD products and vape products.
But there are also restrictions on some prescription drugs, like stimulants, anxiety medication and strong pain relievers, and visitors are advised to check the list of banned substances before they travel.
There’s a sliding scale of freedom in the world, according to Freedom House, the independent watchdog that gets funding from the US government.
Qatar, for instance, scores a paltry 25 on Freedom House’s 0-100 scale that combines access to political rights and civil liberties. But it’s not the lowest-scoring country taking part in the World Cup; Saudi Arabia scores a 7 and Iran scores a 14.
Nor is the US the most free. Canada gets a 98 and Uruguay and Denmark get a 97, while the US scores an 83.
There is no legal guarantee of press freedom or freedom of expression in Qatar, the US Embassy in Qatar notes.
According to the US State Department, anyone convicted of “defaming, desecrating, or committing blasphemy” against Islam, Christianity, or Judaism could face a prison sentence of up to seven years, and public worship by non-Islamic faiths and atheism are illegal.
Meanwhile, attempts to convert someone of another religion or even “share your faith” can result in imprisonment or deportation.
Tensions often run high at international football matches, and it’s not uncommon for scuffles to erupt between fans, both in and outside of stadiums, from rival countries – but swearing and making rude gestures are considered obscene acts in Qatar.
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