Qatar was a World Cup of firsts. It was the first time an Arab country hosted the event and the first time an African-Arab country, Morocco, advanced to the semi-finals. The tournament featured the first air-conditioned pitch, and it was the first time the event was held in a single city, with all eight stadiums within a 55-kilometre radius of the city centre. The tournament was different in other ways, too. Alcohol consumption was curtailed, which may have led to fewer incidents of fan violence and arrests.[i] Social activism was banned unless it was “FIFA-approved.” The success of the Qatar World Cup, however, lies with the Qataris, who stayed true to their heritage by embodying the Arab hospitality the region is famous for.
In the 12 years since Qatar won the bid to host the World Cup, the tiny country encompassing an area of 11,437 square kilometres has pumped nearly $220 billion into development and added nearly 30,000 hotel rooms.[ii] Five Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) airlines—including the country’s national carrier, Qatar Airways—partnered to provide shuttle flights to and from Doha so that fans could fly in the morning, watch multiple matches, and return later the same day. This created economic benefits for Qatar’s GCC neighbours,[iii] who benefited from the unprecedented spike in demand. Besides the host country, Dubai, which operated 120 shuttle flights daily, is projected to be the largest beneficiary; Saudi Arabia also launched an advertising campaign in London offering hotel deals for ticket holders and set aside an entire airport terminal exclusively for Qatar flights.[iv]
The economic news was not all positive. In June 2022, the government projected the World Cup would contribute $17 billion to the country’s economy, down from their $20 billion assessment just a year prior. FIFA originally anticipated 1.2 million fans would visit Doha throughout the tournament, yet in the first two weeks during the peak period Qatar received only about 765,000 international fans. In response to the fewer-than-expected visitors, Qatar eased entry restrictions for GCC citizens and residents mid-tournament, possibly with the hope that their proximity to Qatar would boost last-minute ticket sales.
One City, Multiple Logistical Problems
Security was a greater issue: unlike previous World Cup destinations that had venues spread out across the host country, all of Qatar’s stadiums were located in the capital city of Doha. The government required all visitors to apply for a mandatory pass called the Hayya Card. This included complimentary metro and bus access, a local SIM card, and free emergency medical treatment. To receive the card, however, fans had to provide confirmation of either a hotel reservation or proof of an invitation from a Qatari resident. Organizers were unable to process the applications quickly enough, causing such long delays that some visitors were left scrambling to make it to games in time. “It shouldn’t be this difficult to go and watch a game of football,” one fan told The Independent.[v]
Initially, Qatar even paused entry into the country for international travellers throughout the duration of the World Cup if they did not apply for the Hayya Card, which dissuaded many fans without tickets from travelling there. This might not have affected the overall attendance but may have reduced the festive atmosphere that is part of such a large-scale sporting event.
Off the Pitch, a Clash of Cultures
In recent years, a flurry of headlines has tied Qatar to human rights violations relating to the primarily South Asian migrant workers who make up nearly 85 per cent of the population. The French advocacy group Sherpa described the workers’ cramped accommodation as “incompatible with human dignity.”[vi] Labourers can face heat-related illnesses,[vii] excessive working hours, unpaid wages, and extortionate recruitment fees that force many into debt before receiving their first paycheck. Over the past three years, the Building and Wood Workers’ International trade union has campaigned for the creation of a migrant workers centre in Qatar to help raise awareness of labour laws and offer legal assistance to migrant workers, many of whom fear retribution from their employers. The union claimed that they’ve been met with “deafening silence” from Qatari officials and have little hope that “that sustainable change is coming.”[viii]
In the months leading up to kick off, celebrities such as English artists Dua Lipa and Rod Stewart along with former German captain Philipp Lahm announced they were boycotting the World Cup because of human rights concerns. Across Europe, the slogan “Boycott Qatar 22” became a rallying cry; several cities across Spain and France announced they would not organise public screenings of World Cup matches. Paris-Saint Germain, the French football club owned by Qatar Sports Investment, reacted to accusations of hypocrisy by announcing their own boycott of public “fan zones.”[ix]
Defenders of Qatar point out that the inconsistency of media coverage, especially from the West, has reinforced stereotypes and longstanding biases against the people of the Gulf region. The BBC, for example, refrained from airing the 2022 World Cup opening ceremony. Early that year, however, it had broadcast the 2022 Winter Olympics from Beijing despite its own reporting that one million Uighur Muslims currently detained inside Chinese internment camps face physical and psychological torture.[x]
This double standard is also evident through comparison to media coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia, which were broadcast despite the signing of an anti-LGBTQ law by President Vladimir Putin just months before the Games.[xi] Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani noted that while some of the early criticism was constructive, it expanded to “include fabrications and double standards that were so ferocious that it has unfortunately prompted many people to question the real reasons and motives behind the campaign.”[xii]
Some in the Western media also claimed that the small country was not big enough to host such a large-scale event, even though Qatar successfully built seven stadiums, a brand-new underground line, an airport extension, and thousands of hotel rooms, a logistical feat that would have been a challenge for any country. Qatar was also called out for not being a “football nation,” despite winning the Asian Cup in 2019, and accused of “sport-washing,” a term that describes how the power of sports can be used to improve a perceived tarnished reputation. Dr Simon Chadwick, a sports and geopolitics expert at the SKEMA Business School, argues that the World Cup has highlighted differences in the ways in which the world is perceived: “The distinction between soft power and sport-washing is really important. It says something about the way we use language to characterise others, the way in which we use labels to either promote or condemn one another.”[xiii]
Qatari officials insist the spotlight cast on its nation during the lead up to the World Cup acted as a catalyst to push through much-needed reforms.[xiv] In 2017, Qatar, working with the International Labour Organisation, began abolishing its Kafala sponsorship programme, passed laws to better protect the rights of domestic workers, implemented a non-discriminatory minimum wage (the first of its kind in the region), and enhanced health and safety measures including protection for workers from Qatar’s extreme summer heat. Issues with the enforcement of these regulations remain, nevertheless government officials claim the reforms will be remembered as “the biggest social legacy of the World Cup.”[xv]
Government officials also had to balance their commitment to hosting an inclusive tournament with upholding the country’s traditional values. “Everyone is welcome in Qatar, but we are a conservative country and any public display of affection, regardless of orientation, is frowned upon,” a government statement said. “We simply ask for people to respect our culture.”[xvi] Acceptance of homosexuality, which is criminalised in Qatar, became another topic of discussion among the Western media and LGBTQ activists. Sheikh Tamim even went so far as to address the United Nations General Assembly in September 2022, stating his country is ready to open its doors to all football fans from all walks of life “without discrimination.”[xvii]
The reality on the ground for LGBTQ fans has varied. Some visitors who wore attire with the LGBTQ rainbow symbol reported that members of the public threatened them. Others claimed that stadium security had asked spectators to cover up or remove rainbow emblems, referring to it as a “banned symbol.”[xviii] During a match between Portugal and Uruguay, a protestor wearing a Superman shirt broke through security and ran along the pitch with a rainbow flag. The protestor’s entry into the country was later revoked. Qatar has its own underground LGBTQ community of locals and expats, most of who claim that they “blend in” to avoid persecution. The acts of defiance by visitors might have been welcome as a show of solidarity, but some are concerned that the protests might lead to a possible backlash after the World Cup is over.[xix]
A Carbon Neutral World Cup?
FIFA and Qatar’s announcement that the event would be the first carbon neutral World Cup in history caused a global backlash. Carbon Market Watch, a leading environmental lobbyist group in Europe, tagged the claim as “misleading.” “This [tournament] is not a harmless exercise,” the environmentalists argued in a report. “It misleads players, fans, sponsors and the public into believing that their potential involvement in the event will come at no cost to the climate.”[xx] The “net zero” goal was based on estimates of 6,000 to 8,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions for every day of the tournament,[xxi] with 52 per cent of these emissions resulting from the 500 international flights a day into Doha. FIFA and Qatar could purchase carbon offsets to reach their goal but marketing an event involving so many flights and so much construction as eco-friendly is an exaggeration at best.
The seven stadiums built from scratch for the event were the greatest contributor to the tournament’s overall carbon footprint,[xxii] which was 70 per cent higher than the World Cup in Russia in 2018. Unless Qatar hosts other major events, it is doubtful that the environmental costs will be justified. Two of the stadiums will be converted into hotels, while others will host various national teams and local professional football clubs. The country’s population of less than 3 million, however, is simply too small to fill up stadiums. During the 2020/2021 football season, for example, the average attendance of Al-Sadd, the top team in the Qatar Stars League, was only 1,056.[xxiii] While Qatar’s environmental scorecard might be less stellar than advertised, it did build the first dismountable stadium. Named after the country’s calling code, Stadium 974 was constructed out of 974 old shipping containers. The plan is to break it down and ship it to Uruguay so that the country can reuse it for its World Cup 2030 bid.
The Beautiful Game Stirs Up Arab Solidarity
With the successful delivery of the World Cup, Qatar will be able to step out from the shadows of its more affluent and well-known Gulf neighbours, laying claim to hosting the most watched sporting event globally. In 2018 alone, 3.572 billion viewers tuned in to watch the World Cup in Russia.[xxiv] FIFA anticipated nearly 5 billion viewers would be watching in 2022.[xxv] BeIN Sports, the Qatar-based sports broadcaster, announced that it had registered a record viewership in excess of 5.4 billion cumulative views throughout the tournament across its 24-country coverage in the MENA region, which constituted an increase of 135 per cent in comparison to the previous World Cup in Russia.[xxvi]
Another winner in this tournament was the Arab world. Fans could take pride in the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East and feel solidarity during Morocco’s historic run. After the Atlas Lions lost to France in the semi-finals, Dubai’s ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, sent a message to the team, thanking them. “Morocco raised the head of the Arabs in the biggest international sports event.”[xxvii]
Following their victory over Spain in the quarter finals, the Moroccan players and coaches posed for a celebratory group photo and held up a Palestinian flag. Although there is strong pro-Palestinian support throughout Morocco, the country normalised diplomatic relations with Israel in December 2020. Recent Arab public polling suggests there is a “growing lack of public support for the Abraham Accords in the Gulf”[xxviii] despite intensified economic and security agreements between signatories. Israeli journalists reported that some Arab fans even refused their request for interviews.[xxix] Saudi researcher Abdulaziz Alghashian, who studies the Kingdom’s foreign policy towards Israel, said: “Arab people, even those who are citizens of countries that normalized relations with Israel, still have their fair share of grievances with Israel, and that is not going anywhere soon.”[xxx]
Qatar after the World Cup: A Tiny Country with Huge Ambitions
Qatar has hosted major sporting events before: the 2006 Asian games, the 2011 Asia Cup, as well as the Qatar Grand Prix (Formula One motor racing) in 2021. After the success of the 2022 World Cup, however, the country’s post-tournament ambitions include a potential bid to host the 2036 Olympics, which would be another first for the Middle East.
In a recent interview, H.E Al-Hajri, Ambassador of Qatar to Belgium, stated that the infrastructure put in the place for the World Cup will ultimately “promote post-tournament sustainability, serving as strategic developments in non-energy sectors.”[xxxi] Developments in non-energy sectors may still need further work: hydrocarbons accounted for nearly 37 per cent of Qatar’s GDP in 2021, up 9 per cent from 2020.[xxxii] Regardless, the World Cup will serve as a symbol of the country’s capabilities in line with its National Vision 2030, which aims to transform Qatar into an advanced society capable of “sustaining its development and providing a high standard of living for its people.”[xxxiii]
“Qatar has worked diligently to ascend to a position of legitimacy on the global stage,” Dr Chadwick said. “It has won the hearts and minds across the Middle East and North Africa and in the eyes of many around the world, Qatar matters.”[xxxiv]