Qatar bans serving beer in World Cup stadiums

DOHA, Qatar – Qatar on Friday banned the sale of beer in World Cup stadiums, a sudden reversal in the deal the conservative Muslim emirate struck to secure the soccer tournament just two days before the opening game.

The move was the latest sign of tension to host the event, which is not just a sports tournament but a month-long party, in the autocratic country, which has severe restrictions on the sale of alcohol. It’s also a huge blow to World Cup beer sponsor Budweiser and raises questions about how much control FIFA retains over their tournament.

When Qatar released its bid to host the World Cup, the country agreed to FIFA’s requirements for the sale of alcohol in stadiums – but the details were not released until September, just 11 weeks before kick-off, indicating how tense the situation is negotiations could have been. FIFA’s statement on Friday said that non-alcoholic beer will continue to be sold in the eight stadiums, while champagne, wine, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages will be served in the luxury hospitality areas.

The vast majority of ticket holders do not have access to these areas; you can drink alcoholic beer in the evenings at the so-called FIFA Fan Festival, a designated party area with live music. Outside the tournament areas, Qatar strictly limits the purchase and consumption of alcohol, although sale in hotel bars has been allowed for years.

“Following discussions between the authorities of the host country and FIFA, it was decided to focus sales of alcoholic beverages at the FIFA Fan Festival, other fan destinations and licensed venues, and to remove beer outlets from … the stadium perimeter,” FIFA said in a statement .

Several football fans took the decision in their stride, with some noting that they knew the rules would be different in Qatar.

“We’re not here to drink beer,” said Adel Abou Hana, a fan from the United States. “We are here to see world-class football.”

However, Federico Ferraz regretted that the decision was made at such short notice. “It’s a bit of a shame because for me beer and football go hand in hand,” said Ferraz, who was visiting from Portugal. When the news broke, Budweiser’s Twitter account tweeted, “Well, that’s awkward…” without elaborating. The tweet was later deleted.

Ab InBev, Budweiser’s parent company, acknowledged in a statement that some of its plans “cannot go ahead due to circumstances beyond our control.”

The company pays tens of millions of dollars for exclusive rights to sell beer at every World Cup and has already shipped most of its stock from the UK to Qatar in anticipation of selling its product to millions of fans. While actual sales at the tournament may not represent a significant percentage of the giant company’s revenue, the World Cup nonetheless represents a major branding opportunity.

The company’s partnership with FIFA began at the 1986 tournament and they are in negotiations to renew their contract for the next World Cup in North America. Ronan Evain, chief executive of fan group Football Supporters Europe, called the decision to ban beer sales in Qatar’s stadiums “extremely worrying”.

“For many fans, whether they don’t drink alcohol or are used to dry stadium policies at home, this is a detail. It won’t change their tournament,” Evain wrote on Twitter. “But with 48 (hours) to go we’ve clearly entered dangerous territory – where ‘reassurances’ no longer matter.”

Ruled by a hereditary emir who has full say in all government decisions, Qatar follows a form of Islam known as Wahhabism. In recent years, Qatar has emerged as a cutting-edge hub after a natural gas boom in the 1990s, but it has been pressured from within to remain true to its Islamic heritage.

Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol, and several Muslim residents of Qatar cheered the decision on Friday, noting that visitors should respect the country’s customs.