Qatar world cup 2022

Qatar: Is the country prepared to host the World Cup?

Many of the designated sidewalks in Doha are amid rubble and construction, forcing pedestrians onto busy roads (MEE/Rayhan Uddin)

As significant dates go, 18 December is up there for Qatar.

It marks the country's national day, celebrating the unification of the tiny Gulf peninsula in 1878 when founder Jassim bin Mohammed al Thani brought together local tribes into a united entity for the first time.

On this public holiday, residents decorate their cars and houses with flags while a glorious fireworks display and parade occur along the Corniche waterfront in Doha, the capital. 

This year, the date also marks the final of the first-ever Fifa Arab Cup, the football tournament which Qatar has hosted over the past three weeks in preparation for next year's World Cup, the first edition of the quadrennial competition to be held in the Middle East. 

One year from now, memorial day will coincide with the World Cup final itself, putting Qatar center stage in what is likely to be one of the most significant and most-watched sporting events in history.

Fifa, world football's governing body, estimates that more than 3.5 billion people tuned in to the last World Cup, held in Russia in 2018. A global audience of 1.1 billion watched the final between France and Croatia.

But another poignant global observance takes place on 18 December: the United Nations' International Migrants Day, marking when the UN General Assembly in 1990 adopted a convention intended to promote and protect the rights of the planet's growing migrant workforce.

Foreign workers make up nearly 90 percent of Qatar's 2.9 million population.

With most of the stadiums and much of the infrastructure necessary to host the tournament built since it was awarded to the gas-rich emirate in 2010, there would be no World Cup without the toil of its migrant workers, some of which has come at a fatal cost.  

A year out from the final day of the first-ever World Cup in an Arab country, just how ready is Qatar?

From transportation to migrant worker conditions, gay rights, and footballing atmosphere, Middle East Eye went to Doha to determine how prepared the Gulf state is.

The smallest ever host braced for fan influx.

Walking around central Doha, it often feels like the World Cup is a lot further away. 

Large swathes of the capital are under construction. Drainage is being installed. New buildings are being completed, roads and walkways are being widened. The air is full of sandy smog, and it is hard to navigate the city.

Deciding exactly where to walk is tricky: do you slalom between the piles of bricks and concrete that crowd the pavement, or walk on main roads at the mercy of cars zooming agonizingly close to pedestrians? 

Doha is a city developed with the car in mind. But it's hard to imagine that such a situation would be functional - or tolerated - at a World Cup, where over a million fans are expected.

"There are a lot of infrastructure projects by entities within Qatar. All these roadworks will be finished in the summer," Fatma Al-Nuaimi, communications director for Qatar's 2022 World Cup Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy, told Middle East Eye. 

She insists that much of the work is already complete: major expressways have been upgraded and expanded, and areas such as the Corniche promenade have been made more pedestrian-friendly. 

But the roadworks and closures often create congestion, leading to complete standstills. The situation is frustrating for taxi drivers trying to get passengers to and from games at the Arab Cup. 

"They want to host these tournaments, but there is no organisation," says an Uber driver of Bangladeshi origin. "Where is the signage and communications telling us which roads to avoid, and where the best place is to drop people near stadiums?" 

Organizers are banking on a broader uptake of public transport ahead of next year's tournament to avoid congestion in the smallest country ever to host a World Cup. 

School holidays will also be brought forward, giving young people a chance to attend games and reducing the number of cars on the road. 

"For Qataris, everyone is used to getting their own cars, but we have launched a public behavioural change campaign for using more public transportation," Nuaimi says. 

To help fulfill that aim, the Doha Metro was inaugurated in 2019, and it is intended to be the main form of transport for fans next year. At the Arab Cup, the underground train system runs smoothly, aside from the odd inevitable long queue after games. 

Qatar's size - closer resembling an Olympic host city than a World Cup nation - brings challenges for transportation and accommodation.

Housing over a million football fans in a country with a population of less than three million was never going to be an easy feat.

"We don't want to build hotels that will remain like a white elephant, and more than the capacity that the country needs," Nuaimi says. "So we came up with innovative solutions." 

She mentions temporary floating hotels, with cruise ships, mainly providing 4,000 rooms. She also highlights the idea of "glamping" in the desert to give fans a taste of the region's traditional nomadic lifestyle.

Overall, Qatar aims to make 130,000 rooms available during the tournament, of which 60,000 will be villas and apartments managed by Accor, the largest hospitality company in Europe. 

With less than 30,000 hotel rooms in the country, floating hotels, apartments, and other "innovative" approaches will be crucial. 

A Qatari government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told MEE that the small size of the state would benefit the World Cup, reducing the need to take flights and making it easier for fans to attend multiple games. 

The longest distance between two stadiums, from Al-Bayt in Al-Khor to Al-Janoub in Al-Wakrah, is 70km and would take just 50 minutes by car. Seven of the eight venues are within a half-hour drive of central Doha, guaranteeing that the capital will be packed with fans of every team competing. 

"Fans will be arriving at different times throughout the tournament. We don't have any major concerns about the accommodation and transport. It's all been carefully planned, and is being tested and learned from at the Arab Cup," the official said.

Migrant workers raise concerns.

Qatar's readiness for hosting football's biggest tournament has centered not only on infrastructure and planning but also on those within its borders' rights and civil liberties. 

Hosting one of the world's most-watched sporting events comes with added scrutiny, and for the Gulf nation, the spotlight has focused on two issues: migrant workers and LGBTQ+ rights. 

Doha's approach to both issues has dominated headlines in the decade since it was announced as World Cup host and will continue to test authorities for the coming 12 months. 

The picture for migrant workers has long been troubling. 

Scores of construction workers in Qatar haven't been paid on time. Laborers have been subject to the exploitative kafala system that ties them to their employers. The conditions within which migrants work and live have been widely condemned, and there have also been reports of uninvestigated deaths linked to unsafe working environments.

International attention on these issues has prompted a response from Qatari authorities, with extensive labor reforms announced in recent years.

These have included ending the kafala system, introducing a minimum wage, preventing passport confiscation by employers, and limiting outdoor working hours during summer months when temperatures can regularly exceed 40C. 

"The World Cup has woken us up," the Qatari official says. "Ten years ago, some of the accomodation for guest workers was unacceptable. We would be the first to admit that." 

Nuaimi strikes a similar tone. "We're using this World Cup as a catalyst," she says. "There has been a lot of improvement for the last decade when it comes to workers' welfare."

But implementation of these reforms remains a problem. MEE spoke with numerous migrant workers who said that companies did not always follow these new policies.

Two workers, one in construction and another in hospitality, said their passports were currently being held by their employer, which is illegal under Qatar's new rules.

One employee at a hotel said that to earn the minimum wage, his employer was forced to work overtime hours for which he was not being compensated. He added that he attempted to leave his job, but his employer would not provide an adequate reference. 

Qatari officials told MEE that things would not change overnight, and it would take time for companies of all sizes to fall into line. They also stressed that the government had simplified ways to raise grievances.

When told about these complaints systems, several workers told MEE that voicing concerns was easier said than done and that they feared for their visa status when pursuing legal action.

Several migrant workers did feel that many of the reforms were beneficial, particularly the ban on working outdoors during the hottest hours in summer. Many spoke positively about the Qatari government, mainly free and accessible healthcare.

MEE was given an official tour of "Labour City" - a migrant camp that houses 70,000 workers on the outskirts of Doha. The rooms and communal areas seen by MEE appeared to be clean, well looked after, and compliant with government policies. 

The camp is highly securitized, with cameras fitted throughout the facility and several guards patrolling each entrance to the complex. Camp staff attributed this to safety reasons and sought to assure us that they have "nothing to hide."

While MEE found no infractions at Labour City, the testimonies of several workers around the country suggest that the reality on the ground has not always reflected the announced reforms.

"The vast majority of Qatar's migrant workers continue to suffer abuses at the hands of their employers," Hiba Zayadin, MENA researcher at Human Rights Watch, told MEE.

"Employers continue to evade accountability for violating the country's domestic labour laws and regulations, and the state continues to largely fail migrant workers when they do muster up the courage to seek redress for the abuses they suffer."

She said that real improvement would only occur once the kafala system was "dismantled in its entirety" and once workers were allowed to join trade unions and speak out about the abuses they suffered.

Publish : 2021-12-20 17:32:00

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