Qatar's World Cup legacy | FT Scoreboard
The FT looks at what the football World Cup means for the country, and what will happen to the stadium infrastructure and the future of the Fifa tournament
Produced, filmed and edited by Petros Gioumpasis. Additional Footage by Getty Images, Reuters, Supreme Committee. Colourist Peter Wilson. Dubbing Mixer Matt Jones. Graphics by Russell Birkett
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The winner to organise the 2022 Fifa World Cup is Qatar.
How did they win this? Could they pull this off? Could they actually be ready to organise one of the biggest sporting events in the world?
This has been arguably a kind of construction and infrastructure project that's been unlike many other World Cups.
$200bn has been spent on infrastructure. There have been plenty of controversies. The question is, what comes next?
Qatar until the 1990s were just another anonymous Gulf state producing modest amounts of oil, in the 90s invested big in gas production. This made it a geopolitically important state. That was doubled down upon when it decided to host the Americans' regional military base.
But as well as geopolitics, it's also been pursuing a policy of diversification away from hydrocarbons, developing a world-beating airline, Qatar Airways, developing tourism, looking to find its post-oil future.
And in 2010, Qatar won the rights to host the World Cup. This is the first time the World Cup has been hosted by such a small nation. Qatar has a population of 3mn, around 380,000 of whom are nationals. This tournament is expected to attract 1.5mn fans, peaking up to 200,000 a day at some point.
Qatar has been barraged by questions about its suitability as the host for this festival of football, a game close to the hearts of billions around the world. There has been a relentless focus on its poor human rights record and the conservative Muslim society's intolerance towards LGBT rights. It has been a public relations disaster.
While the world has focused on the various controversies, Qatar wants the tournament to prove transformative for its domestic agenda. This was not only about becoming the first Middle East nation to host the World Cup. This was also about a national development plan, accelerating infrastructure requirements to host the tournament, and then using that infrastructure going forward to plan for a time when the hydrocarbons run out.
Qatar in 2022 is not Qatar in 2008. Every metric speaks to that, not just the physical infrastructure, but the bureaucracy, the regulations, the organisation of the state. The World Cup vindicates the rule that says modernisation, reform, and rapid development can be achieved if energies are focused around a broader, grander goal so to speak. In this case, it happened to be the World Cup.
The whole process of launching this World Cup was made more difficult in 2017 when Qatar's neighbours, led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, launched an embargo against the country, cutting diplomatic trade and travel ties with Doha, accusing Qatar of funding and supporting Islamism in the Middle East.
This really complicated supply chains and the ability for Qatar to get this World Cup ready in time. But here in Doha people also say that it concentrated minds and made the country more resilient and, in the end, helped them achieving their goal.
Qatar's successful World Cup bid has also been subject to several allegations of corruption and bribe taking, none of which have been proven. But in 2016, Fifa announced a major package of reforms that it said were needed to help rebuild and restore trust, including an overhaul of the bidding process for future World Cups.
You walk around Doha and it's a massive construction site. They're building towers. They're building whole cities around the stadiums. The stadiums, the core infrastructure, is all done. It's been complete for a year. These stadiums had to be air-conditioned. In fact, they're almost all air-conditioned because at the beginning of this process the World Cup, as usual, was going to be in summer when temperatures reach 50 degrees centigrade.
Since then, a few years later, it was decided that was going to be impossible, even with air-conditioned stadiums. And they moved it to the winter.
We have a cold layer of air, which remains, and I'm recycling that amount of air. The air that we live in now has nothing to do with the air outside. It's completely different environment. And I use that separation between the two types of densities, which is the hot air outside and the cold air inside, to make sure I have a microclimate inside, which is separated completely from the macro climate outside.
So how sustainable is it to host a World Cup in the middle of the desert? Qatar has one of the world's worst carbon footprints, even as it targets, like many of its western allies, net-zero position by 2050. It's still lagging behind renewables, even though renewables are being used for these stadiums, in particular for the World Cup.
Sustainability is at the heart of Qatar national vision. So we didn't want to put solar panels next to each stadium. The stadium is a monumental piece. You want that to be clean. PV panels that are industrial by nature, so we put everything outside. And we channel through the national grid.
And, like all the Gulf states, has always relied on cheap, manual labour imported from south Asia, traditionally treated really badly, paid really poorly, and bossed around by their Gulf employers. This tripped up the country badly, as they went through the process of this huge $200bn infrastructure investment plan.
The headlines mounted up. There were reports. Human rights groups and NGOs criticised Qatar for the way it was treating the workers. This has been one of the major controversies that the country has had to deal with.
The advantage of labour from Asia, among other things, was that it avoided the potential political risks of having workers from other Arab nations, who might be in a position to bring perceived dangerous ideas, whether those were religious or political views, that could influence the nationals, the Gulf nationals. There might be concern about leftist views or particular religious perspectives.
So there was an advantage in many ways to recruiting cheap workers from south Asian countries, who don't speak Arabic, who don't, in many cases, share the Muslim religion, and also would be easier to segregate off from a local population.
We publish in our annual reports, that's there on the table, three fatalities have occurred since the beginning of construction. And we have 37 non-work-related deaths. All of these deaths have been extremely tragic. I recall each and every one of them.
Now, any number outside of that, that may be floating around, whether it's 6,000, or 4,000, or 2,400 maybe the most recent one, you're talking about a population, expat population, that comes from the subcontinent, that comes from North Africa, that comes from the Middle East, that comes from all over the world, that have deaths. They've recorded deaths. There's no doubt about this.
And you're talking about students. You're talking about doctors, lawyers, clerks. And the list goes on and on. And the deaths include everything from heart attacks to traffic accidents to a host of other issues that is documented within the system, that has no relevance or no correlation to what the World Cup was carrying out at the time.
Many of these deaths are people who collapse either at the workplace or in their place of residence. They are of normal working age. Those circumstances need investigation, given the proportion of deaths that occur in this way. They need proper investigation with a view to compensating people.
We've tried to learn from each and every case. In the case of the fatalities I mentioned, we've leverage on experts to try to ensure that this doesn't happen again. In the case of non-work-related deaths, what it did in so many ways of these 37 is it prompted us, in 2018, to start mandating comprehensive medical examinations.
This was probably the most important policy decision we took. Many workers come to Qatar without comprehensive medical examinations. There are pre-existing conditions. This is a fact.
So whilst we don't have the data to properly assess the numbers of deaths that are due to certain causes, we do know that this is a really, really serious problem that the government has absolutely not gripped. So anyone, any country, who wants to bid for the World Cup now, has to present a human rights plan.
They have to assess what the risks would be and say what they would do about them. And so the 2026 World Cup went through that process. It's still yet to be seen what impact that has on the ground. Obviously, we will see how things go in Mexico and the US and Canada. That is, obviously, is a step forward because something that didn't happen before was any consideration of human rights risks, when awarding World Cups. But as ever, the challenge is in the implementation.
It's changed a lot for Qatar. But it's caused some controversies, domestically as well. Qatar is a very insular and conservative Islamic population of 300,000. And they are facing an invasion quite unprecedented for them. They're going to see fans of all types will be arriving into this highly conservative society.
It's proving too much for some. Many Qataris are saying they're just going to leave because it's going to be too much hassle. Others will no doubt remain and be excited about what will be an experiment in intercultural communication and coexistence. There is definitely within the country now an anticipation that is also laced with a fear that things might not go 100 per cent according to plan.
A lot of the media attention is coming from, what is the west going to think when it comes to Qatar? And what is a western football fan going to think when it comes to Qatar and realises that certain measures are taking place, i.e. limiting alcohol, i.e. limiting certain freedoms of expression? Not a lot of people talk about what it's like to be a Qatari living in Qatar and hosting the World Cup.
Typically, Qataris feel that the country is making a lot of compromises for a three-week tournament. I a lot of people, my family included, that are going to be travelling during the World Cup. They don't want to face the frenzy, what they call, of having people on the streets, yelling, shouting, drinking. They don't want to face a lot of gay, lesbian, trans folks who want to come here.
And yeah, I mean, personally, I have no problem with any of that because I think that if your morality and if your Islamic identity is strong enough, that shouldn't faze you. You know, I'm not sure if I can stand here and say that in 2021 we would have put in a minimum-wage law, which is the first of its kind in the GCC region, without the World Cup.
I don't know whether women's involvement in football stadiums would be as big and as popular as we've seen during the Arab Cup. If it wasn't for the World Cup, if it wasn't for hosting major sporting events, if it wasn't for building these incredible stadiums that fit way more than what we could have imagined, so I think for women, this has been really excellent, in terms of neutralising spaces that are typically male-oriented.
At $200bn Qatar is the most expensive World Cup of all time. The question now is, what happens to these eight stadiums after the last ball is kicked?
Welcome to Stadium 974. This is a unique stadium with a unique design, using shipping container and steel structure, which we believe would serve the temporary nature of the temporary stadium that we were looking after to avoid white elephants, as legacy was the core of our planning to the World Cup.
This stadium gives us the flexibility in which we can recycle most of the components used for this venue, in term of the containers. And which we can repurpose and recycle those components to build the same venue in different locations and different location, either in Qatar or different country in the world. Or we can just rebuild smaller venues with the same components in different locations.
The reuse of stadia post tournament is a challenge that faces any country which hosts a major sporting event, like the Olympics or the World Cup. Unless there is a regular club tenant playing at a stadium, which there will be at five out of our eight stadiums, one of the conceptual plans is to re-use and redesign the interior of the stadium to house other kinds of civic uses, like retail, possibly affordable-housing units, maybe even a school.
Qatar has won the right to host the Asian Cup 2023, has won the right to host the Asian Games 2030, and is bidding for multiple other events in between. So this stadium could continue its life as a sports venue.
I think they should be bidding for every major, international tournament. Now that you've built the infrastructure, you've tested the model multiple times. What better way of maintaining and sustaining and giving meaning to this over time than to ensure that you are a major international hub for every sporting event?
In my opinion, when you host the World Cup it means you have the opportunity to host any tournament because this is one of the biggest. I've been fortunate enough to be a player in four World Cups, 2006, '10, '14, and '18. Prior to this World Cup, we've hosted over 600 events.
We've had the Arab Cup. We've had the Lusail Super Cup. We've had Club World Cups, Asian Cups. 2015, I won the final in Australia. 2019, Qatar won the final. So when you look at it, there is a legacy of creating that winning culture. When you host the World Cup, and you're fortunate enough to think about the bigger picture, it's not only football. There are other events. There are other sports.
And we've had a lot of auditions when it comes to preparing for World Cup. Think about the Arabs Cup, how big that was. Stadiums full, the whole region was here, the energy, the excitement after a pandemic. And now going into the biggest show on Earth. But you look into tourism. You look into hospitality. You look into the country.
There's no doubt that sports and events form an integral part of Qatar's future economic plan. After this World Cup, through which they hope to develop a lot of expertise in how to hold a tournament such as this, they're looking at hosting other events. There's talk even about an Olympics bid at some time in the future, despite all the problems that might face with having a Summer Olympics in Qatar.
But nonetheless, this idea of sports fits into their diversification narrative because, although, they are going to increase gas production by up to 65 per cent, they are also looking for ways in which to develop the economy, so they can fill this infrastructure of roads and buildings which have been built for the World Cup.
A lot of the infrastructure surrounding the World Cup is what is making me super excited to have the World Cup here and super proud to be a Qatari and see Qatar move forward. I think Qatar is doing tremendously for such a small size and because of the geopolitics of the region, in order to make such strides to improve its future.
Qatar will continue to rely extensively on the production of export of LNG. That's one bet they've made that has worked so far. I don't expect a dramatic transformation in the economic base. And so I don't expect major changes in how state-society relations will evolve. If anything, I would say with all the insecurity in the world, what is working for Qatar now looks to be, and will continue to be seen, as the best bet.
Qataris have long grappled with the question, was it worth holding the World Cup for those controversies or those bad headlines? What is clear is that this World Cup allowed them to develop their infrastructure and develop the city to a point, where it is able to move forward and try to diversify away from its former addiction and dependence on hydrocarbons.
As we go forward, we'll have to see how far they develop the economy, how diverse it becomes in the forms of services and tourism. What is clear though, whether or not they regret or adore the World Cup, they're never going back to the old days, when they were just known as a small oil and gas producer.