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

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DOHA, Qatar — In a rustic whose wealth and ambition have usually stirred questions on its identification — is it a mediator or instigator, a state bridging divides or a striver standing aside — Qatar’s nationwide museum provides a succinct and shimmering self-assessment.

“Qatar has remodeled from a state that some folks might barely determine on a map to a significant participant in politics, the financial system, media, tradition and sports activities worldwide,” the nation’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, is quoted as saying, in phrases which are projected on a black background and laborious to dispute.

For all Qatar’s progress although, it will likely be examined over the subsequent month because it hosts the World Cup — an occasion that has invited a level of scrutiny and criticism the nation has not often skilled and that threatens a world picture rigorously cultivated over time by artistic diplomacy, humanitarian work and business endeavors like sponsorship of sports activities.

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Current weeks have introduced renewed consideration to the plight of migrant staff who suffered or died building the infrastructure for the occasion, and to issues over how LGBTQ followers can be obtained in a rustic that criminalizes homosexuality. Previously two days, the talk shifted to outrage over a decision to ban beer at stadiums.

Qatari officers have bristled at a lot of the criticism, arguing the nation is being unfairly singled out in a way that implies an undercurrent of racism — and that ignores the pathbreaking nature of the match.

“Internet hosting soccer’s premier occasion in an Arab and Muslim-majority nation for the primary time is a very historic second and a chance to interrupt stereotypes about our area,” Qatar’s international minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, mentioned in a textual content message. “Soccer has the ability to construct bonds of friendship and overcome boundaries of bewilderment between nations and other people.”

And for Qatar, a profitable match might serve to validate its myriad efforts over time to lift its international stature, and amplify its clout.

Abdullah al-Arian, a professor of historical past at Georgetown College in Qatar and editor of a brand new e-book, “Football in the Middle East: State, Society, and the Beautiful Game,” mentioned the World Cup was “one element of a wider technique desiring to place Qatar as a major regional actor.

“It’s carving out house for itself outdoors the shadow of neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Iran. And it’s carried out this partially by investing in large-scale growth initiatives, in addition to media, well-liked tradition, schooling, medication. The World Cup suits proper into that,” he mentioned.

Not lengthy earlier than the match, Qatar confronted a much more rigorous take a look at. The story is advised within the museum in Doha — an incubator of the evolving nationwide narrative — in an exhibit concerning the “Ramadan blockade”: a siege of Qatar imposed by neighbors together with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2017 that lasted practically 4 years.

The blockade divided the Center East, separated households from Persian Gulf states who had cross-border ties, and saddled Qatar — a rustic with one of many highest per capita incomes on the earth — with an unaccustomed hardship, because it all of a sudden scrambled to supply residents and residents with meals and different provides.

Saudi Arabia and its allies accused Qatar of terrorism, which it denied. Their anger stemmed from Qatar’s help for Islamist teams throughout the area, its sponsorship of the Al Jazeera information channel and its basic refusal to fall consistent with its neighbors. The feud ended final 12 months, with Qatar refusing to adjust to an inventory of calls for made by the Saudi-led bloc, together with that it shut down Al Jazeera. However the tensions persist.

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There was settlement within the area on “frequent threats,” Mohammed mentioned. “But typically we don’t agree on the strategies,” for countering them, he conceded.

For now, Qatar seems to produce other priorities. Earlier than it was overwhelmed with the calls for of the World Cup, Qatar returned to its function as regional mediator, aiding the USA as a third-party interlocutor with Iran and the Taliban — together with serving to to evacuate U.S. residents and allies through the nation’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Qatar hosts a significant base for the U.S. army’s Central Command and has largely prevented confrontation with the Biden administration, whilst its neighbors, bristling at what they see as American disengagement from the area, have pursued closer ties with China and Russia.

The US has “different priorities. We can’t blame this on disengagement,” Mohammed mentioned. Governments within the area, he added “must begin to take extra duty.”

Qatar’s “worldwide function has matured over the previous decade,” mentioned Elham Fakhro, a analysis fellow on the Heart for Gulf Research on the College of Exeter. The blockade got here as a “shock,” however Qatar nonetheless managed to drag off “a number of diplomatic victories,” she mentioned, together with brokering conflicts on behalf of the USA.

“The best situation for Qatar transferring ahead can be one the place it may well stability between its worldwide international coverage ambitions, whereas avoiding one other breakdown in regional relations with its neighbors,” she mentioned.

Because the match begins, Qatar is now internet hosting these neighbors, with hundreds of followers coming from across the Arab world, together with Saudi Arabia, which is competing within the match and is meant to ship one of many largest contingents of ticket holders — a surprising turnaround after the animosities unleashed through the blockade.

As followers poured in from everywhere in the area, together with Tunisians, Iranians, Moroccans and Saudis, it had lent the match a “distinctive taste,” al-Arian mentioned: the newest instance, if all of it goes easily, of Qatar’s mediating function.

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