A one-man protest late last month by gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell provided an early test for Qatar’s World Cup policing policy.
The security officers who arrived at the scene in central Doha quizzed the British activist, who was seeking to highlight Qatar’s intolerance of LGBT rights, and held him by the side of the road for an hour. Tatchell later said that, while their questions were asked “politely”, he was advised to head to the airport and left in no doubt that he was not welcome to remain.
The calculated police response to the protest, illegal under Qatari law, was instructive. It marked a dress rehearsal for the host nation’s playbook of how to deal with “soft” security incidents at the Fifa World Cup that begins in Doha on November 20.
The multinational force formed by Qatar to maintain security during the month-long tournament includes policing elements from Jordan, Morocco and Turkey, as well as delegations from participating nations. The Jordanian police have been in Qatar for a year, and provided security at last year’s Arab Cup event.
“The idea is to let these things go, to ignore the raising of a rainbow flag or gently assist a drunk back into the fan zone,” said a government adviser. “The big worry is how effective the chain of command and communication will be. That’s where there could be potential problems.”
Officials said police had received “sensitivity training” on how to deal with incidents, although language barriers and confused reporting lines between the various components of the security force remain a concern to western officials.
The Turkish, Moroccan and Jordanian police will be working as uniformed officers under Qatari command, backed by Pakistani soldiers. None of these forces are known for progressive policing.
Qatar has to balance the potential for protests criticising its human rights record, such as its poor treatment of migrant workers, with a domestic political culture that is uncomfortable with protests.
Yet its limitations were exposed by a disturbing incident at Doha’s international airport in 2020, when passengers awaiting take-off were disembarked at gunpoint and forced to undergo intimate medical examinations as security officials searched for a woman who had left her newborn baby in the airport lounge.
A governmental review of the event concluded that officials failed to escalate the incident up the chain of command, exposing how poor communication can trigger a regrettable series of events, the adviser said.
After Tatchell’s protest, Qatar said the heightened media attention around the World Cup was always going to offer the opportunity for people to promote their own profiles. “We are always open to dialogue with entities that wish to discuss important topics,” it said.
Qatar is also preparing for the threat of violent hooliganism, installing thousands of security cameras equipped with advanced facial-recognition technology.
All eight stadiums will be constantly monitored by a high-tech facility using 15,000 cameras that can zoom in on to every seat and sensors that detect changes in ambient temperature or sudden crowding. Doors and exits can be operated remotely and crowd footage handed over to the authorities in the event of any transgressions.
English supporters, who have a bad reputation for hooliganism abroad, are of particular concern. The UK government has barred more than 1,300 fans from England and Wales with a history of football-related violence from travelling to Qatar.
British police will also be on the ground to assist, led by Mark Roberts, chief constable of the Cheshire force and head of the UK police delegation. They have already provided training to the Qataris on using real-time “spotters” to identify troublemakers, said officials.
“We will have officers in Qatar and we are working with Qatari police to support a safe and trouble-free tournament,” said Jon Evans, the UK communications lead for football policing.
The UK is also sending officers to Dubai to work with local police and advise on the large contingent of English and Welsh fans planning to stay in the region’s tourism hub through the tournament.
Tens of thousands of expatriates in the Gulf are expected to form a major contingent within the cohorts of English and Welsh fans who will travel to Doha. Their better understanding of the regional culture will help assuage fears over hooliganism.
Crowd control is not the only area of co-operation. Qatar, a longstanding western partner, is also leveraging its strategic relationships to build a stronger defensive cordon against military and terrorist threats, according to officials.
A joint Qatari-UK squadron of Typhoon fighter jets has been deployed to support “air security operations” for the tournament. The UK contingent was involved in air defence around the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
Turkey, Qatar’s closest regional ally, is contributing soldiers to boost land-based defences, alongside Italian forces.
The US, which has a strong presence via its regional military headquarters outside Doha, is part of naval efforts to ward off seaborne threats.
David Roberts, associate professor at King’s College London, said Qatar’s small size and population presented a human resource challenge at the best of times, “let alone at such a moment of acute attention as with the World Cup.”
This was why Qatar had “for so long sought to leverage international allies — in whatever ways possible — to play a role,” he said.