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

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DOHA, Qatar — In a country whose wealth and ambition have often raised questions about its identity — is it a facilitator or instigator, a state bridging divides, or an aspiration that stands apart — the National Museum of Qatar offers a succinct and dazzling self-assessment.

“Qatar has transformed itself from a state that some people could hardly identify on a map into a major player in politics, economy, media, culture and sport worldwide,” said the country’s Emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani . in words projected onto a black background that are difficult to dispute.

Despite Qatar’s advances, it will be put to the test next month as it hosts the World Cup – an event that will draw a level of scrutiny and criticism the country has rarely experienced and threaten a global image that has been eroded over the years Creativity has been carefully nurtured through diplomacy, humanitarian work, and commercial ventures such as sports sponsorship.

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In recent weeks, renewed attention has been drawn to the plight of migrant workers who suffered or died building infrastructure for the event and concerns about how LGBTQ fans are received in a country that criminalizes homosexuality. In the past two days, the debate has shifted to outrage over a ban on beer in stadiums.

Qatari officials have fretted over much of the criticism, arguing that the country is unfairly singled out in a way that suggests an undercurrent of racism – and which ignores the tournament’s seminal nature.

“Hosting the first major football event in an Arab-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 forge friendships and break down barriers of misunderstanding between nations and people.”

And for Qatar, a successful tournament could serve to validate its myriad efforts over the years to increase its global standing and amplify its influence.

Abdullah al-Arian, a history professor at Qatar’s Georgetown University and editor of the new book Football in the Middle East: State, Society, and the Beautiful Game, said the World Cup is “part of a much broader strategy that Qatar as a significant one to position regional actors.

“It’s making room 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 in media, popular culture, education and medicine. The World Cup fits right in with that,” he said.

Just before the tournament, Qatar faced a far tougher test. The story is told at the museum in Doha – an incubator of the evolving national narrative – in an exhibition on the “Ramadan Blockade”: a siege on Qatar imposed by neighbors including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2017 and nearly four years lasted .

The blockade divided the Middle East, separating families from Persian Gulf states that had cross-border ties, and burdening Qatar — a country with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world — with an unfamiliar hardship as it suddenly struggled to become citizens to provide and residents with food and other supplies.

Saudi Arabia and its allies accused Qatar of terrorism, which they denied. Their anger stemmed from Qatar’s support for Islamist groups across the region, its sponsorship of news channel Al Jazeera and its general refusal to align itself with its neighbors. The feud ended last year when Qatar refused to comply with a list of demands from the Saudi-led bloc, including the closure of Al Jazeera. But tensions remain.

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There is consensus in the region about “common threats,” Mohammed said. “But sometimes we don’t agree on the techniques” to counter them, he conceded.

At the moment Qatar seems to have other priorities. Before being overwhelmed by the demands of the World Cup, Qatar returned to its role as a regional facilitator, supporting the United States as an external interlocutor for Iran and the Taliban – including helping evacuate US citizens and allies during the chaotic disengagement of the country from Afghanistan.

Home to a key base for the US military’s Central Command, Qatar has largely avoided a confrontation with the Biden administration, even as its neighbors, resented by what they see as an American withdrawal from the region, forged closer ties with China and aimed at Russia.

The United States has “other priorities. We cannot blame this on retreat,” Mohammed said. Governments in the region, he added, “must 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 still managed to win “several diplomatic victories,” she said, including mediating conflicts on behalf of the United States.

“The ideal scenario for Qatar’s progress will be one in which it can strike a balance between its international foreign policy ambitions while avoiding a further breakdown in regional ties with its neighbors,” she said.

As the tournament begins, Qatar is now welcoming these neighbors with thousands of fans from across the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, which is taking part in the tournament and is expected to send one of the largest contingents of ticket holders – a stunning turnaround after hostilities erupted during the blockade were unleashed.

Fans from across the region, including Tunisians, Iranians, Moroccans and Saudis, gave the tournament a “unique flair,” al-Arian said: the latest example of Qatar’s mediating role when all goes well.

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