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Cultural Issues as Qatar races Towards 2022 World Cup

In the same issue of The Peninsula (Qatar), this author addresses cultural sensitivity when it comes to dress, but includes some intriguing mistakes. He (or she) states that all women are required to ‘veil their faces’ in Saudi Arabia, which is untrue. There is no law requiring women to cover their faces. Custom drives many – but not all – Saudi women to cover their faces. Western women are asked to cover their hair and to wear an abaya, and must do so when going off compounds or out of their hotels, but no one is required to cover their face.

The Issue: Is Qatar ready for 2022? Well, the country is all set to launch mega infrastructure projects worth billions of dollars in order to have facilities in place to host the coveted event.

But the key question being asked by many is whether the conservative Qatari society is ready to take in its stride the cultural shock that the preparations for the event and it being actually held here would trigger.

With no less than half-a-million international soccer fans expected to descend on the Qatari soil in 2022, Qatar must build the requisite mindset — and not just physical infrastructure — to be able to absorb the social and cultural tremors such an avalanche of people from different ethnicities and cultures would cause.

Or, will the Qatari society rise in rebellion against the onslaught, especially as Western values and traditions are seen gradually overshadowing local customs and the way people dress up and behave in public?

Already, there is widespread fear in the Qatari community about their identity being diluted due to the sheer size of the expatriate population. Official estimates suggest that out of a total of 1.7 million people living in Qatar, an incredible 1.5 million are foreigners. This means that some 90 percent people in the country are non-Qatari.

Since expatriates come from all over the world (unconfirmed reports suggest there might be people from more than 80 nationalities living here) the threat to Qatari identity and culture is real, say social analysts.

Some, though, argue that since Qatar is a small country with a tiny population, its people must pay the social price for development and prosperity. “Given the situation, you can’t have both—prosperity and identity. You must compromise and choose between the two,” says another social analyst not wanting his name in print.

Concerns in the Qatari community about its age-old culture and identity being compromised due to the ever-rising numerical preponderance of foreigners, are growing.

Rising indebtedness in the community due to limited income and growing consumerism has been relegated to the background as fears deepen over the local customs and folklore falling prey to what seems to be unstoppable intrusion of foreign cultures.

There is immense hostility in the Qatari community towards the way foreigners, especially young women, dress up. Foreign cultures have already reached Qatari homes with children being largely raised by foreign maids.

“Things are still under control since we can influence our children, but we are helpless when it comes to stopping outside influences that are causing damage to our society,” says a Qatari requesting anonymity. “The most harmful outside influences are TV and foreigners living in our midst.”

Objections are raised to young non-Qatari women, particularly Westerners, wearing skirts and sleeveless tops.

A number of Qatari mothers have expressed ire and want the state to intervene and ‘discipline’ young non-Qatari women who dress up ‘indecently’ in public. The mothers say they fear that their daughters might ape such negative behaviour.

There are some Qatari women, though, who see the media (read: foreign TV stations) posing a bigger threat than foreign women wearing skirts and sleeveless tops here in public.

Says Wisam Al Othamn, a lecturer at Qatar University: “It’s necessary to monitor the media, not foreign women.”

There are others, though, who feel that dressing up in public is one’s freedom and choice, so no one should impose restrictions.

Qatari social websites are filled with comments from people talking about threats to their identity. Some have called for setting up a ‘religious police’ to especially monitor young foreign women dressing up ‘indecently’ in public.

The commentators argue that Saudi Arabia has such a police and it is compulsory for every woman, whether local or foreigner, Muslim or non-Muslim, to veil her face in public.

But there are others who laud Qatar for the freedom people have in personal matters such as dressing up in public, and claim that foreigners here dress up decently if comparisons are made with neighbouring countries like Bahrain and Dubai.

There are still others who favour Qatar forcing foreign women to veil their faces while in public. They argue that since countries like France and Belgium have banned Muslim women from using face veils in public, Qatar and other Muslim countries should take counter measures and force all women, whether Muslim or non-Muslim, to cover their faces while moving in public.

An interesting comment on the way Qatari women dress is from a man writing on a local social website. He suggests that there is nothing like Qatari attire for women. Abaya is used by women in Yemen, Iraq and Syria, so it has come here from these countries.

As for naqab or full face and body veil, it did not exist in Qatar until 20 years ago, suggests the man. “So there is nothing called Qatari dress for women,” he says.

There are some who find fault with some schools having co-education and say Qatari girls tend to ape their foreign peers from these schools.

There is ire in sections of the Qatari community over the schools’ regulator, the Supreme Education Council (SEC), giving the freedom to schools on imparting lessons in Qatari history, language (Arabic) and religion.

Writing on social websites, some commentators are critical of the SEC and say that since land, history, language and religion are the four pillars of a society’s cultural identity, the schools must impart lessons in these subjects.

“It’s surprising why the SEC has not made the teaching of these subjects compulsory in schools. It’s a step that would destroy the Qatari identity,” wrote an angered commentator.

About language, the commentator quoted a famous Qatari writer, Dr Mohamed Al Kubaisi, as saying that it is only through their version of English language (different from the British English) that the Americans have built their identity and are dominating the world by popularising it (American English).

Another commentator said he saw the SEC move as a step aimed at diluting the Qatari identity. He even suggests that some teachers are opposing the SEC’s decision individually.

“Go to Germany and France and if you don’t speak the local language you wouldn’t get a response,” the commentator said, hinting that everyone in Qatar must speak the local language, Arabic.

Social analysts believe that Qatar faces a huge challenge over the coming 11 years (during the run-up to the 2022 event) in its struggle to maintain its cultural identity, and much of the onus will be on the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs and the Ministry of Interior.

Talk of a dress code being imposed by the Interior Ministry is going on for a while with analysts wondering if at all it would see the light of day. Despite opposition to foreign women dressing up ‘indecently’ in public, there are some in the Qatari community who say they believe a dress code is unwanted and how people dress up in public should better be left to them, respecting their freedom.

There are some in the community, though, who want the government to act and impose a dress code, particularly as the number of foreigners in the country is quite high. Moreover, the fact that the foreigners come from so many nationalities makes it necessary to have some code in place to help protect Islamic values, they argue.

“If not a dress code, it should be accepted in principle by everyone living in the country that one must dress up decently to respect local customs and values,” says a community source.

“It’s normal for a country to have some say in matters like how people, especially women, dress up in public. This will in no way tantamount to curbing individual freedom,” he insists.

Analysts say that the Ministry of Interior introduced the concept of community policing sometime ago with this vision in mind. The entire concept of community policing where the law-enforcement agencies actively coordinate with different expatriate communities as well as civil societies and the locals is based on the idea of how to help protect and preserve Qatari identity and culture in the midst of threats being posed by the swelling population of foreigners in the country.

The focus of the effort (community policing) is on helping preserve basic social and religious values, knowledgeable sources say. Critics, however, maintain that the effort having been launched quite a while ago, is yet to yield results.


July 3, 2011 - Posted by | Doha, ExPat Life, Law and Order, Living Conditions, Local Lore, Qatar, Social Issues, Values, Women's Issues, Work Related Issues


  1. I liked your 2 articles, they are very interesting , I am wondering what will happen in 5 or 10 years in the middle east. I wish that we will go forward… these small things as dress code will not be a big deal.

    Comment by Hayfa Al Mughni | July 3, 2011 | Reply

  2. Once you have fast food restaurants such as McDonald ,Pizza Hut ,KFC or the like , then it is game over culturally , Globalization is here to stay no matter what the Qataris or Kuwaitis or Saudis say .

    “Please up size my fries and put extra Ketchup “will be the rallying cry during the World cup in 2022

    Comment by daggero | July 4, 2011 | Reply

  3. Daggero, you are such a cynic.

    I don’t think fast food is a great ambassador, but I think the real culprit is the media explosion. It’s a djinn that you can’t put back in the bottle. TV, cable, Smart phones, iPads, internet news – it’s all part of the same package. I don’t think western women are giving local girls a bad idea. On the other hand, when you are a guest in a country, it is appropriate to respect the local customs and traditions, such as female modesty.

    I’ve never forgotten one Qatar blogger whose elderly uncle was depressed because when he went shopping – in Qatar – no one spoke Arabic, no one understood him, in his own country. That just seems so wrong to me.

    Now, one in three people in the USA are obese, by the way. Aarrgh.

    Comment by intlxpatr | July 4, 2011 | Reply

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