Qatar counts down to World Cup kick-off after $200 billion soft power bet

The sounds of construction and heavy machinery fill the air in the Qatari capital, and video ads are counting down the days until the prosperous Gulf state takes center stage in the sporting world.

In just over a month, Qatar will host the Fifa World Cup, the most prestigious event in international football, capping a journey that began in 2010 when the gas-rich country won hosting rights in a vote that is now widely discredited.

But doubts as to whether Qatar can deliver for Fifa, the 32 participating nations, the estimated 1.5 million fans in attendance or the billions who will be watching on TV have stubbornly lingered over these 12 years. Soft infrastructures such as accommodation and leisure facilities are seen as a particular weak point.

“We’re a month away from the event and some of these questions are still being asked,” said Tarik Yousef, director of the Qatar-based Middle East Council on Global Affairs.

Qatar marks a break in the traditions of football, a sport that upholds its heritage. It is the first time a World Cup will be staged in the Middle East and the first time a country with such a limited footballing history – Qatar’s men are ranked 50th in the world – has been chosen to host. The sport has also ripped up its schedule for the month-long tournament in the middle of the European club season because the scorching Middle East summers are just too hot.

Still, it’s a landmark moment for the small state, which has spent $200 billion on World Cup infrastructure to ensure the project’s success. Eight stadiums, seven of which are air-conditioned, have been built or renovated, along with a new subway system and an international airport.

“For Qatar, the World Cup became a catalyst to focus attention and resources and align everyone within the system and society at all levels to honor that commitment,” Yousef said.

The Lusail Stadium in Doha, Qatar
Lusail Stadium will host the World Cup Finals on December 18th. A football game played here last month was marred by queues, air conditioning problems and water shortages © Matthew Ashton/Getty Images

The World Cup is the culmination of Qatar’s petrodollar-driven soft-power strategy to project its global influence, but it has drawn an unwelcome glare of international attention.

Doha has been accused of bribery and not doing enough to improve conditions for the low-paid foreign workers who built the stadiums and infrastructure. Its questionable human rights record, including repression of LGBT rights, and an authoritarian system of government that tolerates little opposition or dissent were highlighted.

Amnesty International has urged FIFA to match the tournament’s prize money with a $440 million fund to compensate abused workers. “The past cannot be undone, but a compensation program is a clear and simple way for Fifa and Qatar to make at least some redress,” said Steve Cockburn, head of the economic and social justice advocacy group.

The influx of World Cup visitors will put unprecedented pressure on Qatar, a country of 3 million people, mostly expatriates, unaccustomed to mass tourism. Finding places for fans to sleep, eat and drink – football fans are notorious for consuming large quantities of alcohol around matches – has been a major headache.

“The stadiums are there, but the soft bottom could be the soft infrastructure,” said a consultant working on World Cup projects. “They’ve had 12 years to prepare, but they’re still tinkering with things.”

Contracts to set up restaurants and other attractions were awarded too late, the consultant said, because companies are unable to recruit enough new employees, cannibalizing an already tight labor pool.

Former England footballer David Beckham (right) and Qatar's Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani during a match in Doha, Qatar in December 2021
Former England footballer David Beckham (right) and Qatar’s Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani during a match in Doha in December © David Ramos/FIFA/Getty Images

Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad al-Thani, brother of Qatar’s ruling emir, has taken a leading role in overseeing final preparations through a trusted manager who will “write checks” and “intervene everywhere” to ensure timely delivery, he added Add consultant.

From November 1, offices across Qatar will largely transition to working from home as part of an ongoing lockdown to make more space for visitors. Schools will be closed permanently while non-essential workers are sent back to their home countries and vehicles are pulled off the roads to ease traffic.

The stadiums were completed ahead of schedule. The Lusail Stadium, which will host the World Cup final on December 18, hosted the Saudi Arabian and Egyptian champions last month but the game was marred by queues, air conditioning problems and water shortages, leading fans to the sweating.

A multinational security force under Qatari command was assembled to keep the peace, with thousands of police officers from Jordan, Morocco and Turkey and soldiers from Pakistan drafted. But their cooperation has not been tested, which is a concern for some Western officials.

The government has pledged to take a pragmatic approach to crowd control, e.g. such as how to deal with non-violent drunk fans, protests by activists with rainbow flags, or other political statements.

But many Muslim residents of Qatar have expressed concern at the prospect of daytime drinking coinciding with the call to prayer. Many families leave for the whole month to avoid chaos.

Qatar has said it has 130,000 rooms, equivalent to 3.64 million nights during the tournament, enough to provide both fans and teams with a “comfortable inventory”. What visitors will do when they are not attending games is another question.

The Gulf nation is not known for its tourist attractions, aside from its art museums, or the quality of its nightlife. Organizers will encourage fans to take advantage of the short distances between venues by attending more than one game per day. Sightseeing visits to neighboring countries like Saudi Arabia were also promoted as something to fill the hours.

Many fans are expected to settle down in more laid-back Dubai, which is an hour’s flight away. Qatar Airways will operate 16 daily special flights from Dubai to Doha in the first phase of the game until December 2nd.

As the clock ticks down to the opening game on November 20, when the hosts take on Ecuador, the task of converting the former Home Office on Doha’s seafront into a branch of the glitzy Ned hotel chain is underway. Dignitaries are expected to be accommodated there during the tournament.

Regular fans will be able to choose from apartments, villas and hotels, as well as cruise ship cabins and even tents in dedicated fan zones, although many potential visitors have complained about exorbitant prices and contractors said some are still under construction.

“Yeah, it’s all a bit last-minute dot-com,” admitted one official, before adding, “But Qatar has the money to make it work.” Qatar counts down to World Cup kick-off after $200 billion soft power bet

Adam Bradshaw

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