Doha: The first World Cup in the Middle East has been marred by the troubles of the volatile region against a backdrop of anti-government protests in Iran and an increase in Israeli-Palestinian violence.
However, while broadcasting pro-Palestinian sympathies has been permitted – people were even handing out “Free Palestine” T-shirts ahead of Argentina’s match with Poland on Wednesday – security forces have clamped down on fans seeking to show support for protesters in Iran, who have been demanding an end to clerical rule there.
The contradiction came to the fore outside the Al Thumama Stadium this week. On Thursday, security waded through hundreds of fans wrapped in flags, hats, and scarves showing support for Palestine ahead of Morocco v Canada match. Two nights earlier, security at the same stadium confiscated items showing support for Iranian protesters, forcing fans to remove T-shirts and some flags ahead of Iran’s crunch match against the United States.
Ahead of the match, FIFA’s Human Rights department sent an email to fans who complained about treatment at earlier Iran matches, clarifying that ‘Women.Life.Freedom’ or the name or portrait of Mahsa Amini – the woman whose death in Iranian police custody sparked the unrest – are allowed in stadiums.
Qatar’s World Cup organizers said that “security authorities stepped in to deescalate tension and restore calm.” Qatar’s government media office did not respond to a request for comment.
While fans see a double standard, analysts say the approach reflects the political priorities of Qatar, a conservative Muslim country with an authoritarian government that has long walked a diplomatic tightrope. Its policies have included building good ties with Iran while hosting the region’s largest U.S. military base, hosting the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas while previously having some trade relations with Israel, and allowing Israelis to fly direct to Doha for the World Cup – a first.
For fans, inconsistent enforcement of rules had been a real problem, said Ronan Evain, executive director of Football Supporters of Europe. “What we see in the end is that FIFA has lost control of its tournament.”
He said there had been staggering inconsistency over Iranian slogans, saying fans had worn T-shirts declaring support for the protests at some games while getting into trouble for wearing them at Iran’s matches. He saw similar inconsistency when it came to shows of support for LGBT+ rights, for which Qatar has faced heavy criticism because of its ban on homosexuality.
While rainbow flags are in theory allowed, “in practice we see that this is very different”, he said. “This inconsistency…is putting fans at risk,” he said.
A FIFA Qatar World Cup stadium code of conduct prohibits banners, flags, fliers, apparel, and other paraphernalia of a “political, offensive, and/or discriminatory nature”.
A FIFA spokesperson said it was “aware of some incidents where permitted items were not allowed to be displayed at stadiums” and continued to work closely with Qatar to ensure full implementation of regulations.
Iranian American Saeed Kamalinia said he wore a T-shirt declaring “Women’s Life Freedom” to six games but concealed it on his way through security for two of Iran’s matches and decided against wearing it to the United States game, fearing a crackdown.
By contrast, symbols of support for the Palestinians have been widely seen. “I felt welcomed by the Qatari people and by all present here … people greet us with ‘Palestine Palestine’,” said Palestinian fan Saeed Khalil.
Maryam Alhajri, a Qatari member of Qatar Youth Against Normalization, a vocal group opposed to Arab normalization with Israel, said pro-Palestinian sympathies showed “that Palestine remains the primary Arab cause”.
Arab states including the United Arab Emirates and Morocco – cheered by many Arab fans for making it to the last 16 – normalized ties with Israel in 2020. For Qatar, allowing shows of support for the Palestinians was part of a “hedging strategy”, said Mehran Kamrava, a professor of government at Georgetown University Qatar.
Qatar was allowing fans to vent their anger and symbolically demonstrate their support for Palestine, while at the same time the government is working on the ground to improve relations if not fully normalizing them.