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

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DOHA, Qatar — In a country whose wealth and ambition have often stirred questions about its identity — is it a mediator or instigator, a state bridging divides or a striver standing apart — Qatar’s national museum offers a succinct and shimmering self-assessment.

“Qatar has transformed from a state that some people could barely identify on a map to a major player in politics, the economy, media, culture and sports worldwide,” the country’s emir, Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, is quoted as saying, in words that are projected on a black background and hard to dispute.

For all Qatar’s progress though, it will be tested over the next month as it hosts the World Cup — an event that has invited a degree of scrutiny and criticism the country has rarely experienced and that threatens a global image carefully cultivated over the years through creative diplomacy, humanitarian work and commercial endeavors like sponsorship of sports.

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Recent weeks have brought renewed attention to the plight of migrant workers who suffered or died building the infrastructure for the event, and to concerns over how LGBTQ fans will be received in a country that criminalizes homosexuality. In the past two days, the debate shifted to outrage over a decision to ban beer at stadiums.

Qatari officials have bristled at much of the criticism, arguing that the country is being unfairly singled out in a manner that suggests an undercurrent of racism — and that ignores the pathbreaking nature of the tournament.

“Hosting football’s premier event in an Arab and Muslim-majority country for the first time is a truly historical moment and an opportunity to break stereotypes about our region,” Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, said in a text message. “Football has the power to build bonds of friendship and overcome barriers of misunderstanding between nations and people.”

And for Qatar, a successful tournament could serve to validate its myriad efforts over the years to raise its global stature, and amplify its clout.

Abdullah al-Arian, a professor of history at Georgetown University in Qatar and editor of the new book “Football in the Middle East: State, Society, and the Beautiful Game,” said the World Cup was “one component of a much broader strategy intending to position Qatar as a significant regional actor.

“It’s carving out space for itself outside the shadow of neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Iran. And it’s done this in part by investing in large-scale development projects, as well as media, popular culture, education, medicine. The World Cup fits right into that,” he said.

Not long before the tournament, Qatar faced a far more rigorous test. The story is told in the museum in Doha — an incubator of the evolving national narrative — in an exhibit about the “Ramadan blockade”: a siege of Qatar imposed by neighbors including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2017 that lasted nearly four years .

The blockade divided the Middle East, separated families from Persian Gulf states who had cross-border ties, and saddled Qatar — a country with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world — with an unaccustomed hardship, as it suddenly scrambled to provide citizens and residents with food and other supplies.

Saudi Arabia and its allies accused Qatar of terrorism, which it denied. Their anger stemmed from Qatar’s support for Islamist groups across the region, its sponsorship of the Al Jazeera news channel and its general refusal to fall in line with its neighbors. The feud ended last year, with Qatar refusing to comply with a list of demands made by the Saudi-led bloc, including that it shut down Al Jazeera. But the tensions persist.

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There was agreement in the region on “common threats,” Mohammed said. “Yet sometimes we don’t agree on the techniques” for countering them, he conceded.

For now, Qatar appears to have other priorities. Before it was overwhelmed with the demands of the World Cup, Qatar returned to its role as regional mediator, assisting the United States as a third-party interlocutor with Iran and the Taliban — including helping to evacuate US citizens and allies during the country’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Qatar hosts a major base for the US military’s Central Command and has largely avoided confrontation with the Biden administration, even as its neighbors, bristling at what they see as American disengagement from the region, have pursued closer ties with China and Russia.

The United States has other priorities. We cannot blame this on disengagement,” Mohammed said. Governments in the region, he added, “need to start taking more responsibility.”

Qatar’s “international role has matured over the past decade,” said Elham Fakhro, a research fellow at the Center for Gulf Studies at the University of Exeter. The blockade came as a “shock,” but Qatar still managed to pull off “several diplomatic victories,” she said, including brokering conflicts on behalf of the United States.

“The ideal scenario for Qatar moving forward will be one where it can balance between its international foreign policy ambitions, while avoiding another breakdown in regional relations with its neighbors,” she said.

As the tournament starts, Qatar is now hosting those neighbors, with thousands of fans coming from around the Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, which is competing in the tournament and is supposed to send one of the largest contingents of ticket holders — a stunning turnaround after the animosities unleashed during the blockade.

As fans poured in from all over the region, including Tunisians, Iranians, Moroccans and Saudis, it had lent the tournament a “unique flavor,” al-Arian said: the latest example, if it all goes smoothly, of Qatar’s mediating role.

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