The most controversial World Cup ever? Mohammad al-Kuwari dismisses 12 years of international cynicism and scrutiny with a shrug.
“We don’t care that much,” the Qatari national says from his office among the luminescent skyscrapers of Doha’s palm-lined West Bay waterfront. “They say if you don’t have enemies you’re not successful. Every successful person has people jealous of them.”
With hours until arguably the world’s biggest sporting event kicks off, Qatar is witnessing a spree of grand openings: new roads, restaurants, stadiums and theme parks, in addition to a brand new city, Lusail, erected in time to host the World Cup final . “We used to have malls, but now we have many malls, even malls I haven’t been to yet,” says Mohammad al-Qassabi, 22, a recent university graduate.
More than a dozen interviews with Qataris over the past week have shed light on a society eager to welcome the world (“They’ll see we’re actually very nice people,” al-Kuwari says) but a little anxious at its presence, counseling their children in the unfamiliar things they are about to see and hear.
“With my kids, for example, I’m telling them: soon we will be seeing the people we always see outside of Qatar, inside of Qatar,” says Reem al-Bader, who works in healthcare. “We will be going to matches, maybe some people will be sitting next to you. If you see them doing any weird actions, just ignore them. Don’t shout at them, don’t disrespect anyone – they’re our guests.”
Above all, though, Qataris say they are enraged at how one of the most important moments in their country’s 51-year history is being portrayed by some western governments and the media.
“It hurts me,” says Shaikha al-Marri, a graphic designer living in Doha. “And what hurts me the most is, it’s coming from – what do they call themselves? Developed countries. Countries that lecture the world about tolerance, about peace.”
“The things the west is allowed to do, we’re not allowed to do,” says a businessman in the gas industry, who asked not to be named. “We’re not allowed to be richer than them, we’re not allowed to be smarter than them, we’re not allowed to be more advanced. It is a way of staying ahead in the game.”
“It is no longer about Qataris,” says Noora Fakhroo, who works in telecommunications. “If we fail, the Arab world will fail, and if we succeed it’s a success story for everyone. The equation is like that now, especially with the attacks we are receiving.”
Qatar wanted the world’s gaze. Instead, it has received its glare, in the form of critical media coverage of it conservative social laws, substandard conditions for low-wage workers and the circumstances surrounding its successful World Cup bid. But while the scrutiny of foreign governments and the media stings, increased visibility is precisely why Qatar wanted the tournament.
The peninsula state has the second-largest proven natural gas reserves in the world, but those who see only its fabulous wealth can miss the country’s deep sense of insecurity. Its citizens number fewer than 350,000, a fraction of the country’s nearest neighbor, Saudi Arabia, which has long considered Qatar either rightfully part of its own territory, or a vassal state that should toe the Saudi line, says Paul Michael Brannagan, an international relations scholar who has co-authored a book on the 2022 World Cup.
This threat is neither abstract, nor past: as recently as 2017, Riyadh led an effort by allied Gulf states to freeze out Qatar, brand it a supporter of terrorism and blockade its airspace and ports, offering relief only if Doha agreed to a set of demands that amounted to surrendering its independence.
Qatar outlasted the campaign thanks to a decades-long strategy of building energy and security ties with larger countries, including the UK – which broke from the Trump administration to call for an end to the blockade – and by carefully raising its profile in the world as an international destination for ending wars, seeing art and watching sports.
“For small states like Qatar, their biggest hurdle is invisibility and survival, and they tend to be linked,” Brannagan says. “The World Cup is really about, first and foremost, showcasing Qatar’s sovereign independence and separating itself symbolically from Saudi Arabia.
“Long-term, it doesn’t matter if the world has a negative perspective of Qatar now. Behind the scenes, this event is going to do so many things for the country that it couldn’t have done without it.”
Embracing the world has bought Qatar some security, but it has also transformed its close-knit society at whiplash speed. “When I was young, the community was very small, everyone knew each other,” says Mubaraka al-Marri, 54, a businesswoman and social activist. “Life was very quiet.”
Qatari women are subject to guardianship laws that gives men control over who they marry, if they can work or study and whether they can leave the country. But many women are also eager to point out their rate of participation in the workforce has become the highest in the regionand that they now graduate from Qatar’s best universities at far higher rates than men.
“We did have tribal aspects that affected how women were treated, affected her rights,” says Fakhroo. “[But] when you walk into any workplace right now you’ll see the majority are women who are working, and they’re part of management. They’re part of ministries and they’re successful.”
For every opening, there has been pushback. “People aren’t afraid of change, they’re afraid of their identity,” says Mubaraka al-Marri. “We have values, we have traditions.”
She points to art exhibits in Doha that have sparked some outcry, including a recent show featuring the flamboyantly dressed British artist Daniel Lismore (“Why do we bring these strange people?”) and fears among some that the widespread adoption of English is diluting the quality of young people’s Arabic.
“We have to be careful about what is coming into our society,” she says. “Not to accept everything because others accept it, especially just because westerners accept it … Why do they want us to be a copy of them?”
The World Cup has been a catalyst for faster, deeper changes, including to the country’s notorious labor sector – too late for the at least 6,500 South Asian migrant workers estimated to have died in the country over the past decade.
For many Qataris, the workers’ issue is hazy and contested. Several pointed to Fifa’s official count that just three people perished on construction sites for World Cup stadiums. “I’ll be honest with you, I don’t know if there were a lot of deaths or injuries,” says Aisha a-Maadeed, 28, an environmental activist. “Because you don’t believe anything on social media or on the media or in the news.”
Under the supervision of the International Labor Organization, Qatar has taken steps towards improving the system – with significant room for progress – despite the grumblings the reforms have sparked.
“Things have changed a lot in the last 15 years and any worker now has the freedom to change jobs,” says al-Kuwari. “It’s changed to the point where it feels like the opposite […] Imagine, you bring someone who’s working for you, and you teach him and make him learn the job,” he says. “Before, if he wanted to change jobs, he needed a no-objection letter. Now, he can leave you and go. And people are like, ‘Fine. It’s no problem’.”
The prospect of gay and queer people being allowed to openly participate in festivities over the next month has been a harder sell, sparking consternation and homophobia within Qatar’s raucous social media circles. Influencers have been among those trying to calm the public mood.
“For a long time, [gay people] have been in our country,” Mohammed al-Dosari, a popular Qatari personality, says in one video responding to the discontent. “They’re already here. Both boys and girls. Does it change anything? Focus instead on looking after yourself, the people around you, your family, and trying to make sure this kind of thing doesn’t reach them.
“Think about how you can change the ones who are coming,” he adds. “That they see our traditions and how we live and maybe something will change in them. But if you carry on this way, nothing will change, in them or in you. The opposite: you’ll make them hate you, hate the religion and hate the country. Try to change them [by your example]and if you can’t change them, shut up.”
Qataris travel widely, but the prospect of encountering rowdy fan behavior and public drunkenness at home – where it is harshly policed, but will be tolerated to some extent for the course of the tournament – is another bracing thought.
“I am concerned, but I’m also expecting it,” says Fakhroo. “I’m telling myself, ‘Noora, stay realistic. This is happening’ … My only concern is that my kids are attending some of the games, and making them aware that some of these things might happen in front of them – for them not to be shocked.”
The tournament has prompted careful conversations with her football-mad eldest son, aged nine, she adds. “He’s seen it online and we’ve spoken about it. He knows what’s acceptable and not in our religion. He’s aware of people being drunk and stuff like that. He’s also aware of the LGBTQ community and how we don’t get affected by them, and so on.”
For others, the arrival of the world’s fans will mean more practical adaptations. “Before the World Cup, we could easily leave our cars open and go to the store and come back,” says al-Qassabi. “Or leave our laptops in a food court or restaurant and go and come back, or leave our front doors open.
“But during the World Cup we expect people from different backgrounds, different behaviors. So, we have to be more safe.”
Most say they are at ease with what is about to erupt in their city, reassured by a belief that it is ultimately temporary. “It’s like when you have a party,” says Mubaraka al-Marri. “Your house isn’t used in the way you know, because there are people inside. But when they leave, you organize it again as you like.”
Shaikha, her daughter, agrees: “January 2023, I think the rules will be back, maybe even more strictly when it comes to drinking. And I know my European friends, they’re used to drinking in designated areas … and they are OK with that.”
But unwinding the transformations of the next four weeks may not be so simple. Beer tents can be packed up and bans on public displays of affection reimposed. But for those pushing for a more relaxed kingdom, the memory of what is transpiring here may not be so easily erased.
“They hired David Beckham to be the face of the Fifa World Cup,” says al-Maadeed. “So, after the World Cup, if a Qatari guy comes and shows his tattoos, no one can speak. And if a Qatari lady comes with her tattoos showing, no one should speak because, two or three months before, you were advertising this guy whose tattoos are virtually everywhere.”