DOHA, QATAR—Nasser al-Khater glances out his window across Doha Bay. The view is far different than it was eight years ago, when al-Khater served as part of the team that helped Qatar pull off a staggering upset to land the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
In the distance the bare bones of Ras Abu Aboud Stadium are being laid, perhaps the most audacious and innovative of the eight venues that will play host to the biggest tournament on the planet.
Four years out, everything appears to be running on schedule, from stadium construction — including at Ras Abu Aboud, which will incorporate 1,000 shipping containers while offering a sweeping view of Doha’s downtown skyline — to finding the right grass that can both meet FIFA’s exacting standards while also providing a long-term benefit to the Arabian Peninsula.
Yet logistics are only a portion of Qatar’s story.
The small country of 2.7 million — only 300,000 of them actual Qatari citizens — has spent the better part of a decade grappling with the white-hot spotlight landing the World Cup provides.
The construction boom that accompanied the winning bid has been built on the backs of migrant labourers from India, Pakistan, Nepal and other Asian nations, much like it has in other oil-rich sheikhdoms in the region. As oil prices crashed below $30 a barrel in 2016, construction firms in Qatar and elsewhere in the region suffered. Some stopped paying staffers on time, if at all. Others seized workers’ passports or otherwise abused Qatar’s “kafala” system that ties expatriate workers to a single employer.
In recent months, Qatar ended a requirement for some workers to seek their employers’ permission before leaving the country. It also required contractors who bring in workers from other nations to reimburse employees for any recruitment fee they paid to an outside agency to facilitate their placement.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other activists say more needs to be done. There have been two reported deaths at Qatar’s World Cup projects.
While al-Khater, deputy-secretary general of the World Cup organizing committee, understands “this is an area we’re going to have to do a lot of work,” he points to the headway made since 2010 as proof the World Cup has already made a lasting impact.
“I think we should be very proud of ourselves,” al-Khater told the Associated Press from his office in the 33rd floor of the shimmering glass-ensconced Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy building in Doha’s West Bay. “And I think people should take a look at everything that’s happened here in the past eight years when it comes to worker’s welfare. Look at the progress and I think it’s a case study.”
The questions about worker’s rights are one of many Qataris have grown accustomed to addressing. They stress they are taking great pains to answer them one by one. Do that and Qataris believe the conversation will turn away from “should Qatar be hosting the World Cup?” to “can Qatar pull it off?”
On that front, the answers are far less nebulous. Qatar is intent on putting on a show, but doing it creatively and financially responsibly.
In an era of bloat where budgets for big ticket events like the World Cup and the Olympics are calculated and then blown up, Qatar is determined to prove it can dazzle without saddling itself with hulking stadiums left unoccupied once the party ends. The majority of the venues used in the World Cup will have their capacity diminished from 40,000 to 20,000 after the tournament, with the sections taken out then put up for sale. What’s left will serve as the home pitches for the local professional teams.
Ras Abu Aboud won’t exist at all. After a champion is crowned, it will be meticulously taken apart and dismantled to make way for a mixed-use area that will feature housing and shops.
Other innovations could lead to more far-reaching changes.
Yasser Al-Mulla oversees a turf farm a few miles west of the city centre, where he’s tested 36 different kinds of grass, exposing them to various amounts of shade, sunlight and other forms of treatment to see what works. The turf isn’t designed simply for the games but for the open recreational areas that will surround the venues after the World Cup is gone. The strain of grass it believes it will use for the World Cup could possibly signal an opportunity for other arid countries to introduce their own public green spaces.
Qatar is taking these steps despite being under an economic boycott by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates since June 2017 over a political dispute. That has seen its air routes affected and other regional airlines cut their flights.
Regardless, Qatar continues to forge ahead, intent on making sure that its promise to “Deliver Amazing” is not broken. What once felt like a far-off goal is becoming more tangible — and Qataris believe — more attainable by the day.