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All eyes on Doha as World Cup finally comes to town

Qatar World Cup Reuters/Hannah Mckay
The England team train in Qatar before the World Cup

Late autumn is typically a busy time in the Doha social calendar, as temperatures fall in Qatar and locals and wealthier expats return from cooler climes. 

This year the atmosphere is different. In one respect, the city has never been busier, as an army of labourers puts the finishing touches to the stadiums, hotels, malls, restaurants and other venues that will host an estimated 1.5 million fans for the Fifa World Cup.

Yet many residents have chosen to stay away for the event. Schools are closed, non-essential businesses are shuttered and the streets have been cleared of traffic in the weeks ahead of the opening ceremony on Sunday.

Is the tiny desert country ready for the World Cup? The organisers have grown weary of the question ever since Qatar won its bid to host the contest in 2010.

Privately, officials complain that concerns voiced about the country’s ability to deliver on physical infrastructure often mask a deeper cultural chauvinism towards the Arab country.  

Sure enough, as a string of giant stadiums and a “comfortable inventory” of 130,000 rooms have been completed ahead of schedule, foreign press coverage has turned from issues of outdoor air-conditioning to the country’s conservatism and record on human rights.

On social media sites Qataris express mixed feelings about the scrutiny: many resentful, others defiant, some even keen for the opportunity for debate.

“Qatar’s success in hosting the major event is a success for all Arabs,” tweeted Ebrahim Hashem, an Emirati fellow at the Asia Global Institute, reflecting a common view across the region.

“Because Qatar, as a host, represents all Arabs, the global propaganda machine is ratcheting up its negative coverage of Qatar.” 

Those involved in the preparations say the government has chosen to focus instead on delivery.

In terms of physical infrastructure, most essential building work was complete before the onset of the gruelling summer heat. More than $200 billion has been funnelled into showpiece projects and vital public works including Lusail, a purpose-built coastal city to the north of Doha on the Gulf peninsula.

Its centrepiece is an 80,000-seater stadium. Seven other arenas have been built or refurbished for the finals, including one stadium constructed from hundreds of shipping containers that will be dismantled after the event.

Lusail by night: a new city built from scratch

The accommodation on offer ranges from private villas and luxury hotels for dignitaries – Fifa’s delegation alone is expected to occupy more than 960 rooms – to more affordable fan villages of prefabricated housing, tent cities and cabins on cruise ships docked nearby.

Since 2010, the number of hotels in Qatar has grown from a few dozen to more than 150.

While some of these structures are temporary, there is a sense of long-term purpose to this building activity. A new driverless metro snakes along the coast between Lusail and Hamad International Airport.

Next week, it will ferry fans to and from the games. In a few years’ time, it is expected to serve a city of 450,000 residents and commuters, replete with marinas and island resorts as well as housing and office space. 

Seen on a time scale of decades, as Qatar’s hereditary rulers can afford to do, the World Cup is a passing chapter in a longer story of nation building.

Not everything has been built to a 2022 deadline. Authorities declared four years ago that 80 per cent of Lusail’s proposed infrastructure was complete.

There have been some hiccups. Fans attending a soccer match between Saudi champions Al-Hilal and Egyptian counterparts Zamalek at the Lusail Stadium in September reported problems with the heat and a lack of drinking water, though the balmy late November climate is expected to present fewer such difficulties.

Of greater concern is the “soft infrastructure” of the hospitality sector in particular, with many staff being recruited and flown in for the tournament late in the day.

Police and security forces have also been drafted in from Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey.

Alcohol has become an obsession for many foreign media outlets as the tournament approaches.

Qatar is not a “dry” state. Although it is illegal to consume alcohol in public places, it is served in licensed hotels all year round.

“A well-managed system of hotels and bars means those who want a drink can get one and those who disapprove can look the other way,” says a Doha-based foreign contractor. “I wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t.” 

However, just two days before the tournament begins on Sunday, Fifa announced that no alcohol was to be sold within the stadiums, apart from inside the hospitality zones.

“A decision has been made to focus the sale of alcoholic beverages on the Fifa Fan Festival, other fan destinations and licensed venues, removing sales points of beer from Qatar’s Fifa World Cup 2022 stadium perimeters,” a Fifa spokesperson said.

Major sponsor Budweiser was supposed to exclusively sell alcoholic beer within the ticketed perimeter around each of the eight stadiums three hours before and one hour after each game. It can now only sell its non-alcoholic beer throughout the stadium precincts.

A general perception of Qatar as too expensive or illiberal means many international fans plan to stay in the UAE, where Dubai World Central airport is preparing to operate 120 matchday flights to Qatar as well as private charters.

Which in turn begs the question not whether Doha is ready for the World Cup, but whether Dubai is. 

Qatar 2022 visitor accommodation

Qatar population2.9 million
Expected fans1.5 million

Estimated number of rooms

Apartments and villas60,000
Hotels50,000
Fan villages9,000
Cruise ships4,000

Source: Reuters

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