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The 2022 World Cup will take place in a desert country beset by allegations of human rights abuse

Size really does seem to be everything for Qatar, when it comes to the 2022 World Cup tournament the Gulf state was so desperate to get its hands on.

No expense is spared when you have so much money to burn that you cannot spend it fast enough.

So since buying their way to staging the event, which will conclude three years from Sunday, the richest nation on earth has been competing with the FIFA ‘bible’ of tournament specifications. These include dressing-room seats which must be 60cm wide.

The former Emir of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani (L) and his wife Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al-Missned (C) in 2010 with FIFA president Sepp Blatter (right)

‘Ours are 80cms,’ declares Abdulaziz Al Ishaq, facilities director at the Al Janoub Stadium, which has already been built at a cost of £442million.

FIFA demand grass with 22mm roots. So the Qataris’ roots are 27.45mm, grown in nine hours and 45 minutes, apparently. FIFA demand a cold plunge pool in the dressing room. So Mr Al Ishaq is showing off the hot tubs which have been thrown in for good measure.

Estimated World Cup outlay by the time Qatar has finished: £5.3bn — the equivalent of a small European country’s entire GDP. It’s fair to say the ‘Supreme Committee’ tasked with delivering the tournament are feeling pleased with themselves.

FIFA’s notion that the midsummer tournament could be staged in desert temperatures which usually top 43°C has already been dismissed for the lunacy it always was and the World Cup has instead been moved to November and December. If the last week is anything to go by, fans can expect warm rain, grey skies, sunny periods and top temperatures of 23°C.

The Lusail Stadium is one of the many building projects being undertaken in Qatar

Yet Qatar is ramping up the air conditioning technology anyway. They trotted out their top specialist in the field, Dr Saud Abdulaziz Abdul Ghani, aka ‘Dr Cool’, at the Al Janoub to explain how cool air will be pumped out through 120,000 vents under seats and beside the pitch there. None will actually be needed, now that the tournament is in winter.

By Thursday, Dr Cool had popped up on the front page of Qatar News, the state-funded newspaper, beside a headline proclaiming him to be the air-con ‘mastermind’.

There are unlikely to be any of the usual World Cup scare stories about stadiums, roads and infrastructure not being finished on time ahead of the 2022 event. Three of the seven new stadiums are already completed architectural masterpieces. The late Zaha Hadid designed Al Janoub. Qatar reckons it is currently spending £390m a week on capital projects, including a new airport and hospitals to present the best possible image to the world when the big moment comes. But the deep concern is whether, having spent to put on the event — they have a big enough stage to accommodate it.

The entire tournament will be staged in a strip of Doha 46 miles in length and even the Supreme Committee acknowledge that squeezing an incoming audience which topped three million in Russia last year will be impossible.

The estimated World Cup outlay by the time Qatar has finished is expected to be £5.3bn

So Qatar’s immigrant workers are engaged in a frenzied building programme to create an entirely new metropolis at Lusail, the soon-to-be sumptuous stadium surrounded by a moat, which will host the final on December 18, 2022. The view from steps leading up to the facility — designed by London architects firm Foster and Partners — is currently a desert building site.

Qatar could easily afford to accelerate its already monumental hotel building programme to accommodate double the 70,000 beds it will have in place by 2022 but accepts there’s no point, as they’ll never fill the rooms beyond the tournament. So they’ve been consulting Glastonbury and Colorado’s Coachella Festival about creating a good vibe in tented villages. And they’ve just signed two cruise ship deals which will see fans in up to 5,000 cabins on vessels moored at this city’s marinas.

The idea is that compact can be beautiful and that the Qatar World Cup experience can entail watching more than one match a day, with fans moving between venues on the new Metro system — already built — which will link six of the seven grounds with sleek, driverless trains.

This correspondent ground-hopped three stadiums in two hours 20 minutes this week — leaving Lusail at 8am, reaching the Education City stadium by 9.15am and the Al Khalifa stadium by 10.30am, on an almost entirely empty Metro system.

The Lusail Stadium will host the final in 2022 but is currently a desert building site

All part of the surreal reality of a city being expanded beyond comprehension just to stage a 27-day football tournament. It will sell Qatar to the world and provide a display of soft power at a time when neighbours Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt — irritated by the fledgling nation’s largesse and ambition — have cut diplomatic ties and imposed a trade embargo.

But a World Cup is about more than leaving your cabin for a football equivalent of speed-dating. Perhaps inevitably in a country which sees spending as the be-all and end-all, the missing component is what money can’t buy: the cultural and social hinterland. Soul.

The Qatari experience is, frankly, soulless and beige, unless malls are your thing. This is perhaps not surprising for a land, still under British rule in 1971, which was a small desert state of fish and pearl gatherers when Mario Kempes was lifting the World Cup for Argentina in 1978 and only struck gold in the mid-1990s by developing technology to export the liquefied natural gas which has reaped it trillions.

But Qatar’s society and culture appears to be soulless and beige and unprepared for the event

The backdrop to the 1978 tournament was no bed of roses. Argentina beat Holland in a final staged a stone’s throw from a prison where many of the 30,000 supposed opponents of dictator General Jorge Videla’s regime were incarcerated. But that World Cup was, like most others, a journey of discovery.

Qatar lacks public spaces, surprises, spontaneity, streets with people in them. The touristique Souq Waqir, with market stalls and benches, provides unspoilt authenticity though it’s extremely limited: a five-minute walk.

The pulse hardly races at the Museum of Islamic Art or the recently opened National Museum of Qatar — more architectural tours de force built at monumental expense. Dune bashing in 4x4s and camel riding is the best of it.

There are benefits to having the games in a small space. No stratospheric last-minute outlay on hotels and flights when your nation progresses beyond the group stage. Good for the players. But Qatar’s capacity to cope with such an army of football fans massing in such a tight space is also questionable.

Security everywhere is tight. The one-hour time lag to get through Doha International Airport at midnight last Sunday was a consequence of a US-style fingerprinting system. But there are no visible police in a country where crime is negligible.

Security everywhere is tight but there are no visible police in a country where crime is minor

Asked on Saturday where the extra police numbers would be coming from, Supreme Committee Secretary General Hassan Al-Thawadi said his ‘security committee’ would be providing more details in the future.

The Metro station staff at the Al-Khalifa ground, on the network’s newly opened ‘gold line’, struggled to contend with 45,000 fans emerging this week from games at the Club World Cup. But vast, eerily empty, seven-lane highways laid through the desert up to Al Janoub, Al Bayt and Lusail stadiums reveal vast expense on transport, too.

The availability of alcohol — the commodity which has oiled the wheels of World Cup finals from time immemorial — remains another uncertainty. The Qatar ‘sin tax’ limits things to a £10-a-pint outlay at some of the best hotels, or membership of the Qatar Distribution Company, which sells it at the state’s solitary liquor store.

There has been a glimpse of the future at the Club World Cup, a 2022 test event which concluded on Saturday, with pints of draught (£5.20) and bottles of Merlot (£23) selling in the fan zone at the Doha Golf Club — one of the few non-hotel locations where alcohol is already served. But it was not a drink as we know it.

The zone was 12 miles from the stadium, with onward travel entailing a 50-minute drive on one of the 150 buses the Supreme Committee had lined up. It’s unclear if drink might be available within the city. Not all the fan zones will serve it. Al Thawadi promises ‘concerts and events’ will be staged to create an atmosphere.

Metro station staff at the Al-Khalifa stadium struggled to contend with Club World Cup fans

Nowhere, at the fan zone or stadium, was there any sign of the manual workers whose efforts have seen the infrastructure laid out at such an extraordinary pace. The locals watching Club World Cup games at the Al Khalifa stadium were either Qataris — who number 313,000 — or middle class members of the 2.3m immigrant and expatriate community: shop workers, accountants and administrative staff.

The people who have put their backs into doing the building in the desert heat — Indians, Nepalese and Africans — are on the margins. That is the most haunting part of this journey into the parallel universe of this tournament without limits.

Their extremely spartan living conditions — washing lines rigged up around concrete huts — were just about visible from the coaches which delivered journalists on a media bus trip to the Al Bayt stadium on Wednesday. The even grimmer reality for Indians living 10-to-a-room further out of the city is detailed on these pages on Sunday.

The people who have put their backs into doing the building in the desert heat are the workers

The casual lack of civility afforded to these people — both by Qataris and higher ranks of the immigrants — is dismal. There is the Ghanaian whose passport was thrown back at him as he is refused entry by a surly expat official at the airport; the Indian taxi driver, slow to respond to traffic lights, who is subjected to the horn of the car behind occupied by Qataris in the empty roads near the national camel racing track on Thursday.

When the vehicle, a beige Toyota Land Cruiser, accelerates past moments later, it transpires that the middle-aged man in the drivers’ seat has a child on his knee, who is steering. ‘No waiting,’ says the taxi driver. ‘They don’t like waiting. It is the Qatari way.’

Few of them are complaining, though. Everyone knows the deal. ‘We are here to work, find maximum strength and willpower while we are here,’ says the Indian taxi driver, who still shares a room with two other men six years after arriving here. ‘We can enjoy life when we return home.’

A Ghanaian driver, Mohamed, working the airport routes was midway through one of the 12-hour shifts which earn him £250 a month.

There are no immigrants sleeping on the streets. There is no physical threat late at night. The thousands of immigrants and expats who mingled on the waterfront Corniche for Qatar National Day on Thursday did so peacefully. A lack of alcohol has its benefits.

There seems to be no cynicism from immigrants towards either Qataris, many of whom employ house drivers and maids, or the 39-year-old ruling Emir, who was cheered through the streets on Qatar National Day and pictured 18 times in that morning’s edition of the patriotic Gulf Times. 

Indians, Nepalese and Africans are on the margins in Qatar but few are complaining

But attitudes towards LGBT supporters in this deeply conservative place again call into question FIFA’s decision to allocated Qatar a World Cup. Homosexuality is illegal here. Pressed on Saturday on whether an LGBT couple could engage in public displays of affection, Al Thawadi asked both gay and straight couples desist from doing so.

Qatar emphatically denies bribing FIFA to win the tournament, though that suspicion sticks, too. More than half of the 22 FIFA executives who cast votes in the 2010 ballot which saw Qatar secure its breath-taking victory were later accused of, or charged with, corruption and the entire bidding process remains under investigation by Swiss authorities.

Qatar can only hope that supporters will not be kept away by the negatives because the state does not have anywhere near enough of its own people to fill the stadiums it has built. The 45,000-capacity Al Khalifa was half full for the first of the week’s Club World Cup semi-finals — Flamengo v Saudi side Al-Hilal — and oddly fluctuating volumes of fan noise gave the distinct impression that some of it was being piped through the stadium sound system. FIFA have not responded this week to questions on that subject.

The thinking is that when it’s all over, the Gulf state will have vastly expanded, built a strong place in the global consciousness and changed global perceptions about what kind of country it is. ‘People have misconceptions,’ Al Thawadi said. ‘They assume things and stereotypes that they hear about. The vice of rhetoric is on the rise. We want to change attitudes about Qataris.’ The challenge is vast, considering the track record on workers’ rights and the initial bidding process have created so much suspicion. Qatar, needless to say, is confident.

Attitudes towards LGBT supporters call into question FIFA’s decision to give Qatar a World Cup


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