Four years to go: Qatar on course for its improbable World Cup

David Conn in Qatar. Photographs by Tom Jenkins on 20 November 2018

It began almost a decade ago as the most unfeasible bid ever to host a World Cup: an outlandish proposal for “air-cooled” stadiums in the desert summer heat of a tiny, obscure-seeming Arab emirate with one city, Doha, populated by just 300,000 citizens. Qatar is though, the richest per capita state on earth, and on that cold Zurich night in December 2010 its bid succeeded in garnering a majority of Fifa executive committee votes, and claimed the right to host the 2022 World Cup.

Since then Qatar’s planned hosting of the tournament – its ubiquitous slogan in Doha is “Deliver Amazing” with its stated mission to unify people in the Middle East and project a positive Arab experience – has survived a hurricane of challenges. There have been waves of corruption allegations, which the secretary general of the “supreme committee” organising the World Cup, Hassan al-Thawadi, repeatedly denied, denounced and angrily dismissed as anti-Arab prejudice.

Intensive Fifa inquiries into the vote did not find Qatar’s bid more irregular than Australia’s – or England’s for 2018 and the FBI’s criminal investigation into American Fifa football barons has produced nothing solid against Qatar. There has been international condemnation of Qatar’s regime for migrant workers, now part of a reform process the government is conducting in partnership with the International Labour Organisation. In June last year, political hostilities erupted in the immediate region and Qatar remains subject to an actual blockade led by its much bigger, looming neighbour, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.

Yet preparations inside the country are continuing almost untroubled, and now Qatar looks most likely to also ride a late effort by the Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, to expand the tournament from 32 to 48 teams and have the country share some matches with other countries in the region. The footballing calendar has already been reordered – moving the World Cup from summer to winter for the first time, to escape the desert heat.

The envelope containing Qatar’s name which FIFA President Sepp Blatter opened in December 2010.
The envelope containing Qatar’s name which FIFA President Sepp Blatter opened in December 2010. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian
  • The envelope containing Qatar’s name which FIFA President Sepp Blatter opened in December 2010.

So, still somehow unbelievably, in four years’ time this week, on 21 November 2022, the World Cup really will kick off in Qatar, in one of the seven entirely new, all air-cooled stadiums, with the 80,000-seater in the newly built Doha district of Lusail the venue for the final on 18 December. And, as always intended when the supremely ambitious Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, then the country’s ruler, pushed Qatar to bid, it will play host to the most watched sporting tournament on earth. Amazing, purpose-built stages will have been built for the likes of Kylian Mbappé, 23 by then, Neymar, perhaps a veteran Lionel Messi and football’s other stars to captivate a global audience. And Qatar will broadcast its chosen image to the world.

Construction work continues on the roof structure around the main bowl at the Al Rayyan stadium.
Construction work continues on the roof structure around the main bowl at the Al Rayyan stadium. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian
A rendered look at Al Rayyan stadium.
A rendered look at Al Rayyan stadium. Photograph: Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy
  • Top: Construction work continues on the roof structure around the main bowl at the Al Rayyan stadium; bottom: a rendering of how Al Rayyan stadium will look once completed.

In a country grown rapidly rich beyond imagining because of its pioneering exploitation of liquid natural gas, the bonanza has created a Gulf city of skyscrapers and malls, which can put on a World Cup from scratch. The official budget for World Cup-specific construction is put by Thawadi at between $8bn and $10bn, although that is buttressed by the $200bn being spent more generally to have a new metro system and huge infrastructure ready for 2022.

In Qatar it is immediately striking how advanced the plans are, the improbable bid now solidly cemented with facts on the ground. The one World Cup stadium not being built from scratch, the Khalifa International stadium – named after the father Sheikh Hamad deposed in a bloodless palace coup in 1995 – had its reconfiguration completed last year. The Guardian photographer Tom Jenkins and I stood on the running track which will host next year’s World Athletics Championships, looking up at the vaulting stands and magnificent roof canopy, and we felt the air cooling work. Developed by a scientist at Qatar university, Dr Saud Ghani, it is like air-conditioning outside.

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Of the eight stadiums, perhaps the most symbolic is the 60,000-seat Al Bayt, which is in advanced, eye-catching construction at Al Khor, a currently dusty district 20 miles north of Doha. It is named and designed after bayt al sha’ar, tents used by the nomadic people of Qatar before the money rained in. Driving past it, we could see the televisual statement it will make for Qatar in 2022: look, world, we were tent-dwellers before, and look at all we can do now.

Hassan Al-Thawadi, Secretary General of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, looks out over the Arabian Gulf from his office on the 37th floor of Al Bidda Tower.
Hassan Al-Thawadi, Secretary General of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, looks out over the Arabian Gulf from his office on the 37th floor of Al Bidda Tower. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian
  • Hassan Al-Thawadi, Secretary General of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, looks out over the Arabian Gulf from his office on the 37th floor of Al Bidda Tower.

In his office on the 37th floor of the supreme committee’s Al Bidda Tower, with its view, like all Doha’s skyscrapers, of the turquoise Gulf and incongruous multi-storey skyline, we found Thawadi, a veteran of the bid launched in 2009, characteristically brimming with enthusiasm. He responds to questions about the latest hurdle, Infantino’s proposed format change, with a sharp reminder of all the work they are doing to host the tournament they bid for.

“We were always confident about our bid at the height of the criticism, and here we are,” he says. “We’re progressing with our current plans; our preparations for a 32-team format, with eight stadiums, state of the art, Fifa compliant, and all the infrastructure. Work is progressing very well.”

Infantino’s intervention was prompted partly by his idea that sharing matches will somehow ease relations between Qatar and their rivalrous blockading countries. In the summer the South American football confederation, Conmebol, suddenly proposed expanding the 2022 tournament to 48 teams, the same enlarged format now agreed for 2026. The Qataris, who could have insisted on their legal contract for 32, agreed to a “feasibility study” of its prospects.

Thawadi adopts a diplomatic stance to see the process through, but we found no enthusiasm in Qatar for sharing, least of all with Saudi Arabia, leaders of the blockade, seen as bullies, and now repellent to the world following the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi. When Thawadi and his equally long serving assistant secretary general, Nasser al-Khater, discuss the feasibility study, they seem to point only to the problems: are other countries ready with stadiums, training camps, accommodation, planning? How would 48 teams work with Qatar’s neat, one-city, logistically thorough preparations? Infantino acknowledged this month that the chance of expanding the tournament is “certainly small” but it will be an achievement for him if 16 more countries are involved in the World Cup, so he is still holding it out as a possibility.

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The blockade itself, and Qatar’s airy, defiant approach to it, is itself a route to understanding Sheikh Hamad’s ambitions for the country. Qatar, like the UAE, was a British protectorate until it gained independence under the Thanis’ rule in 1971. An outcrop of desert and coast stuck on the side of Saudi Arabia’s land mass, it was dominated by the Saudis for years, like a province. According to well-positioned observers in Doha, Hamad’s strategy for his country’s future was to escape Saudi subservience and carve out a distinct identity for Qatar, as a regional and world player. Marc Lynch, a George Washington University professor specialising in the Middle East, summed up Hamad’s strategic vision as “Why be under the thumb of the Saudis if you don’t have to be?”

A view across the city of Doha.
A view across the city of Doha. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian
  • A view across the city of Doha.

The modern work of nation-building has been as much a matter of brands as armies. Qatar Airways, then a small regional flyer, was relaunched in 1997 into a global airline, more recently placing its name on prestige football sponsorships: of Barcelona – a €171m deal from 2010 until last year – Roma, Bayern Munich and, of course, Fifa itself. Al Jazeera was founded in 1996 just a year after Hamad took over; the aim, to be a high quality, independent broadcaster in a region of state-controlled media, covering the Middle East’s tumult properly.

The pitch of the World Cup bid, propounded tirelessly by Thawadi and his team, followed his emir’s blueprint for the country’s image: that a Qatar World Cup would bring people together and be a proud showcase for Arab people. Hamad’s son Tamim personally pressed the case at the famous, decisive Paris lunch in November 2010 with the French president Nicolas Sarkozy and the then Uefa president Michel Platini, an influential Fifa voter. Platini, who took crucial European votes with him, always insisted he made his own mind up, but acknowledged that Sarkozy put pressure on him to switch from the USA and opt for Qatar. After the French backing, Qatar Sports Investments bought and poured millions into Paris Saint Germain. BeIN, the sports pay-TV branch of Al Jazeera, paid a vast uplift for French Ligue 1 broadcasting rights, and is also paying to broadcast the Champions League, Premier League, Bundesliga and Serie A in the Middle East and elsewhere. Qatar also concluded huge trade deals with France, including Qatar Airways commissioning a $19bn contract for 50 A-320 planes from Airbus’s factory in Toulouse.

The central claims of the blockading neighbours, that Qatar supported terrorism, has never stuck internationally. Qatar makes a case that its strategy is to be a mediator, a sympathiser with people’s movements against authoritarian regimes, a rare facilitator of dialogue in the Middle East.

Al Jazeera’s coverage of popular uprisings has enraged Saudi Arabia and the UAE – which in 2013 mounted its own internal crackdown, heavily criticised by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, against members of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Al-Islah movement. Among their list of demands when imposing the blockade, they called for the abolition of Al Jazeera, which Qatar has imperiously ignored. The Sherborne, Harrow and Sandhurst-educated Tamim, who succeeded his father as emir in 2013 aged 33, has gained diplomatic heft the longer he has defied the blockade and made his case, including at the UN.

An image on the side of the Al Kharaitiyat team.
An image on the side of the Al Kharaitiyat team. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian
An image on a parked car in Doha.
An image on a parked car in Doha. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian
Images on buildings in the West Bay area in Doha.
Images on buildings in the West Bay area in Doha. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian
An image on the outside of the Al Sadd Sports Club.
An image on the outside of the Al Sadd Sports Club. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian
  • Images of the current emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, around Doha.

In Doha, there was an immediate rallying, and a patriotic image, the “Tamim Al Majd” (“Tamim the glorious”) drawn originally by local artist Ahmed al-Maadheed, is everywhere; on cars, shops, and huge banners wrapped round Doha’s towers. People talk proudly of how, after Saudi Arabia stopped supplying food including milk, and closed its border, Turkey and Iran filled the gap first, then a local food company, Baladna, set up a huge dairy. True to Qatar’s custom of applying its money to produce the best it can, Baladna is no scrappy farm of necessity; they delivered amazing. A gleaming complex of 14,000 Holstein cows, complete with a visitors’ centre, restaurant and mini-zoo, it is a gentle, almost mocking symbol of defiance, this dairy farm in the desert: a World Cup of milk. Dr Ghani, the air-cooling expert, scoffed: “You can’t blockade a rich country.”

A cow-themed ride taking children around Baladna farm, north of Doha.
A cow-themed ride taking children around Baladna farm, north of Doha. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian
  • A cow-themed ride taking children around Baladna farm, north of Doha.

The staging of the World Cup, still a vague, ridiculous idea to many European football fans, is being designed, constructed and financed to “deliver amazing” of everything: breathtaking stadiums, platoons of towering hotels, whispering new transport system, bountiful restaurants.

Yet being in Doha even for a few days prompts the same scepticism which has always smothered the Qatar bid. It is a small, claustrophobic city of skyscrapers and malls, where people mostly do not walk because in the hot, impossibly humid summer, only the migrant workers, who built it all, spend any time outside. All societies are unequal and class-based to some extent, but in Qatar the divides are extreme. While the Qataris, many of them English or US-educated, have been blessed with most privileged lives, the 1.7 million migrant workers are mostly men from the Indian subcontinent, brought thousands of miles from their families, housed in camps, with no question of citizenship, and there is an atmosphere of subservience. The government denies that it institutionalises segregation, pointing out that workers are free to go to public places. But we saw uniformed security staff turning away Bangladeshi workers, on their Friday off, from even walking through the Souq Waqif complex of shops and restaurants, reserving it as a strolling haven for tourists and Qatari families.

Dr Saud Ghani, the scientist responsible for the pioneering “air-cooling” technology in Qatar’s eight World Cup stadiums, met us outside the Khalifa International stadium in the Doha winter warmth, and told us he lived for years in Dronfield, near Chesterfield. Originally from Sudan, Ghani trained in mechanical engineering at Nottingham university, then taught at Sheffield and Wolverhampton universities, before moving to Qatar in 2008; his wife and two student sons are still in England. 

He walked us into the great, reconfigured bowl of the stadium, demonstrating the air-cooling, like outside air conditioning, designed to keep the players cool on the pitch and, if needed, the supporters in the stands too.

“It has been a huge amount of work, for me and a team of researchers, but you can feel it now; it’s not a trick or an idea any more, it’s reality,” Ghani said.

He explained how interlinked the system is with the stadium’s architecture: the canopy roof had to be exactly the right size and shape to leave space and light, the “oculus,” for air and sun, to grow the grass but not allow too much warm wind in.

In the new stadiums the system is more sophisticated, vents beneath each seat will blow cool air to create a bubble around each spectator. Ghani says the system is 40% more efficient than indoor air-conditioning.

“This can be used in our stadiums all year round, and has a legacy for other outdoor spaces, which other countries can develop. This World Cup 2022 is a chance for Qatar to show we are very advanced, in science, in humanity, in infrastructure; that we have moved from a developing to a developed country,” he said.

It is a little difficult, too, to envisage what the prospective 1.5 million fans expected for 2022 will do with their leisure time; beyond the Corniche, Souq Waqif and a couple of cultural centres, Doha’s list of tourist activities runs quickly into shopping malls. The attraction of a Middle East World Cup is unarguable, but Qatar is so newly constructed, its purpose-built stadiums and infrastructure could feel artificial, the staging too manufactured.

It is a conservative Muslim country in which homosexuality is illegal, and notices, including at football stadiums, call for “modest” dress, particularly for women. Drinking alcohol is prohibited in public, allowed only in licensed bars and hotels.

Yet Thawadi and Khater exude confidence. They present the one-city tournament as a “compact” World Cup, the stadiums within easy reach, dispensing with the thousands of miles travelling necessitated in Brazil and Russia. The 60,000 hotel rooms Fifa requires will be complemented by accommodation on cruise ships and in all-mod-cons camp sites in the desert, still a favoured weekend recreation for modern Qataris.

On LGBT rights, Khater said: “We are a relatively conservative society and public displays of affection are not a part of our culture. We believe in mutual respect, however. Everyone will be welcome in 2022, regardless of their race, background, religion, gender or orientation. All we expect in return is for all our guests to respect our culture and traditions.”

A merchandise stall with replica World Cups in the Souq Waqif market.
A merchandise stall with replica World Cups in the Souq Waqif market. Photograph: Tom Jenkins for the Guardian
  • A merchandise stall with replica World Cups in the Souq Waqif market.

Alcohol will be available in designated areas, he said, but not in public spaces – he insists again – “out of respect for our culture and traditions”.

Given the record of some England fans when drinking in public spaces at tournaments, it is hard to argue too strongly against seeing how that goes. The organisers expect many visitors from the Middle East, even if the blockade is still in force, so fans’ traditional drinking culture may be diluted.

Almost 10 years into selling his vision, Thawadi can still brim with enthusiasm and believes the tournament itself will overcome any reservations: “The weather is going to be fantastic,” he says. “Sun, sand and beach, you can enjoy that. We’re adding the desert experience … a phenomenal, magical experience. And the simple fact is: the World Cup itself is a spectacle.

“The average Arab individual is a hospitable, funny, football loving individual. Being here in the Arab world, for people who would possibly never have integrated and interacted with an Arab, is a once in a lifetime experience, a bonding experience.”

And he acknowledges: “Of course it will be powerful as a projection of the Arab world, absolutely, no doubts about that.”

The former Fifa general secretary, Jerôme Valcke, one of many from 2010 now banned for ethics breaches, was exposed later for saying of Qatar that they “bought the World Cup”. Valcke hastily clarified that he had not meant with bribes, but through the financial effort they put into winning the bid. That same power has been concentrated for eight years since on staging the World Cup, and in four years’ time, amazing as it still seems, it will really, truly be happening, in Qatar.

• Wednesday – the story of Qatar’s World Cup workers

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