Qataris told to plan Mecca trip to avoid World Cup fans

Locals who are unhappy with the prospect of revellers descending on Qatar for the 2022 World Cup can go on a pilgrimage during the tournament, a government official says.

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DOHA //Locals who are unhappy with the prospect of revellers descending on Qatar for the 2022 World Cup can go on a pilgrimage to Mecca during the tournament, an official at a government-run cultural centre said yesterday.

As the news that Qatar has been chosen to host the world's largest sports tournament sinks in, residents here have begun to consider the impact masses of partying foreigners will have on the conservative society.

"As a choice, they could go [to Mecca]. There's no obligation to stay in this country, is there?" said Ijaz Ahmad, the British head of Islamic culture at the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs' Fanar centre. "They can go on the Umrah or they can go on holiday to London."

The Fanar centre works to raise awareness of Islam and the local culture among foreign visitors and residents. Mr Ahmad said the consumption of alcohol by football fans "is a difficult issue" because of the varying levels of tolerance to the practice among locals.

"Islam is quite clear that we shouldn't be drinking alcohol, and it's for our own benefit," he said. "Drinking 16 pints of lager doesn't do anyone any good."

He said the country's current restrictions - alcohol consumption is permitted in some hotels and houses of non-Muslims - had helped curtail alcohol-related crime and traffic accidents.

"We don't need to be under the influence of alcohol to enjoy ourselves," Mr Ahmad said, adding that drinking would be permitted in some areas during the tournament.

He was unsure of the details of the plan. Other concerns for the organisers will be alcohol-induced dehydration in temperatures that can exceed 30°C at night and foreign men taking off their shirts in the heat.

"It's still very much a reserved country. We try to educate people: if you dress in a certain way, you'll cause offence," he said. "In Islam there is no prohibition on men taking their tops off, but they should be covered from navel to knee. Muslim women should be covered apart from their hands and face."

Hooligans could pose a threat that Qatar has little experience in dealing with. Mr Ahmad has little doubt that the ministry of interior will be seeking help from international experts.

The diverse nature of Qatar's expatriate community and local tolerance of their traditions were evident at a Christmas festival in the Royal Plaza mall this week.

Dozens of stalls sold seasonal decorations and children sat on Santa's lap as a choir from Park House English School sang carols to shoppers.

"Qatar is a small country with a big heart," said Dougie Smith, the school's Scottish headmaster, who has lived in Doha for 21 years.

"I hope there won't be too much drunken, rowdy behaviour," Mr Smith said about the 2022 World Cup. He said Qataris were open-minded because they had taken their views from all over the world and they still had 12 years to prepare themselves for the culture shock.

"It's an incredible achievement that's put a small country on the world map," he said. "If I'm not here by that time, I'll certainly come back to watch it."

Like Qataris, not all expatriates were keen on the changes that the tournament would inevitably bring. Nour, a French convert to Islam who has lived in Qatar for six years and was selling Syrian soap at the event, said "for business, this is very good, but for the country, it is not so good. They've started to lose their traditions already".

"Alcohol shouldn't be allowed at all. This is Muslim ground. We cannot allow it," she said. "It's one of the most forbidden things.

"I was in Paris in '98 and saw many things, such as drunken people sleeping, unconscious on the ground at 6am. Here, it's going to be worse. The country's open enough."