The night before the announcement, Hassan al-Thawadi sat in his car, overcome with emotion. As his driver whisked him away from Fifa’s extraordinary, mostly underground headquarters on a wooded hill in Zurich, he tried to take stock of what was probably the most consequential day of his career so far.
A year earlier, the young Qatari lawyer had been appointed chief executive of his country’s quixotic bid to host the 2022 football World Cup. Qatar was an unlikely destination for one of the world’s biggest sporting festivals. A city state with a population of just under three million people, it lacked the infrastructure to host hundreds of thousands of visitors at a time. Its conservative culture restricts alcohol sales and forbids public displays of affection. And summer temperatures in the Gulf Peninsula soar well above 40C, potentially lethal for players.
Qatar did have cash, vast amounts, generated by bountiful natural gas, and its ruling monarchy was determined to host the first World Cup in the Middle East in history. So Thawadi, an eloquent, multilingual diplomat’s son, had spent months criss-crossing the globe to drum up support for the bid, particularly among those outside of the traditional football establishment.
The process of selecting a host country was opaque. Every seven years or so, football’s global organiser Fifa invited members to put their names forward for future tournaments, typically a decade or so ahead of time. Countries then have about a year to finalise their bids, setting off a frenetic storm of planning, lobbying and backroom deals. The final selection was decided by secret ballot, voted on by 22 executive committee members, who happened to be all male. It all culminates at a grand announcement ceremony in Switzerland.
In December 2010, Thawadi’s final presentation took place at Fifa HQ in front of an audience that included prime ministers, royals and famous footballers as well as delegations from rival countries. As usual, the bigger countries pulled out all the stops. Former president Bill Clinton and actor Morgan Freeman pitched the US; supermodel Elle Macpherson championed Australia’s efforts. Then there was Qatar.
Thawadi took the podium and, in perfect American-accented English, made his bid one last time. In the delegation, sitting among those he was trying to sway and those he was trying to surpass was the man ultimately responsible for Qatar’s bid: Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, then the country’s emir. Thawadi promised that “heat is not, and will not be an issue,” citing cooling technology that would regulate temperatures even in massive open-air stadiums. Holding the tournament in the Middle East would, he argued, act as a bridge between the Arab world and the west. It would be a “bold gamble,” but there were “no risks”. Afterwards, when there was nothing left to do but wait, he felt completely drained.
The next day, Sepp Blatter, the Swiss football administrator who was Fifa’s president at the time, stood on a stage next to the World Cup trophy, opened an envelope and pulled out a card. “Qatar,” he said. The hall erupted with cheers intermingled with gasps. The emir lifted his large frame from his seat and, appearing close to tears, embraced his sons in celebration. Sitting nearby, Thawadi was shocked. “I didn’t know what was happening,” he said. “I’m standing there, statue-still.” At home, Qataris danced in the streets of the capital Doha.
The backlash began immediately. Then-US president Barack Obama complained that Fifa had made the “wrong decision”. European media joined in the chorus of disbelief. “The power of gas and oil,” declared the headline in Spain’s El Mundo. The Dutch daily AD went further, suggesting that Fifa’s Zurich headquarters would be “swimming in banknotes” after awarding the tournament to Qatar.
On stage in Zurich, Blatter too seemed somewhat stunned by what had just happened. Even for a tournament that had chosen questionable hosts in the past — Mussolini’s Italy in 1934, Argentina’s military junta in 1978 — this was unexpected. Some years later, after he had been disgraced, forced to step down and seen Fifa’s headquarters raided by Swiss police, he told the FT that the moment he pulled Qatar’s name out of the envelope was the moment that his troubles at Fifa began. “If you see my face when I opened it, I was not the happiest man,” he said. “We were in a situation where nobody understood why the World Cup goes to one of the smallest countries in the world.” Twelve years later, on the eve of the tournament, many people are still wondering.
The seeds of a Qatar-hosted World Cup may have been planted in England in the summer of 1966. The future emir, al-Thani, and his friend Abdullah bin Hamed al-Attiyah, were teenagers attending summer school in the UK. Back home in Doha, they enjoyed playing football in al-Bidda, a downtown neighbourhood. Sheikh Hamad, whose al-Thani dynasty has ruled Qatar since the 1850s, was captain. While they were abroad, England won the World Cup, which it was hosting. Sheikh Hamad and Attiyah wandered around a delirious London, unable to find a taxi or get on the underground. “And all these hooligans!” Attiyah recalls. “They are drunk … they are very happy and they mix happiness with destruction.” It dawned on the young men what the World Cup meant.
At the time, the country Sheikh Hamad and Attiyah hailed from did not enjoy the vast wealth it does today. For centuries, Qataris had depended on the pearl trade, but the collapse of the industry in the 1930s left many destitute. Their fortunes began to improve when western-led companies started pumping crude in 1949, but there was little semblance of a state. “When we received the first money, we had a ruler but no government,” Attiyah said. With a population of just 120,000, Qatar gained independence in 1971. Attiyah joined its nascent government and eventually rose to become energy minister, his childhood friend by then on track to become the country’s monarch. Compared with its larger neighbours in the Gulf, Qatar’s oil output was modest. It did, however, share the world’s biggest natural gas reservoir, the North Field, with Iran.
Beginning in the 1990s, a series of high-stakes gambles propelled the country’s transformation. First, in the energy market. Qatar’s rulers, with Attiyah as energy minister, decided to bet on gas, notably liquefied natural gas (LNG), despite abundant scepticism. Those who feared it would never yield suitable returns included BP, which pulled out of a project in 1992. In the end, one of the world’s most powerful energy companies had been wrong and the upstart nation right. A rapid, massive accumulation of wealth and Doha’s sudden global significance imbued the al-Thanis with confidence, particularly Sheikh Hamad, who in 1995 pushed aside his father to become emir and set about modernising the state.
Just a year later, Sheikh Hamad’s growing ambition led him to fund Al Jazeera, a satellite television network that bucked the Gulf’s status quo of sycophantic state media. The Arabic-language channel allowed criticism of other Arab governments, turning the small country from which it broadcast into a regional player to be reckoned with. By providing a platform for Islamists and dissidents, including a late cleric regarded by many as a spiritual guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, it would come to be seen by rival countries as a potentially destabilising force.
By the mid 2000s, Qatar was the world’s top exporter of LNG, and had set up a sovereign wealth fund that today is estimated to manage assets of about $450bn. This enabled a spending spree of western assets, such as London’s Shard and Harrods, which became, like its media experiment, another way for Doha to project soft power. This was the context in which Qatar bid to host the World Cup. “When I discussed it with Sheikh Hamad, he believed we have a chance,” recalled Attiyah. His sovereign simply asked, “Why not?” At the time, Attiyah added, “We believed Qatar could do many things.”
We were talking in a sprawling villa that epitomises the opulence enjoyed by the country’s elite. When I arrived, Attiyah ushered me to an office he called his “history museum”. It was filled with photos and artefacts, including pictures of him with the Obamas, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. In between the living and deceased former presidents, were photos of his friend the sheikh.
Over the course of the history collected in Attiyah’s museum, Qatar’s rise has rankled with its powerful neighbours. Under Sheikh Hamad, Qatar pursued an active and independent foreign policy that often went against the Arab mainstream and irritated other regimes, most notably backing Islamist movements that sought to capitalise on the chaos unleashed by the 2011 Arab uprising. Even after his surprise abdication in 2013, which handed power to his thirtysomething son Sheikh Tamim, its relations with neighbours remained strained. If anybody thought becoming the Arab world’s first host of a World Cup would help, they were wrong.
In April this year, construction was taking place in virtually every corner of Doha. The capital’s soundtrack seemed to be thudding jackhammers. To the north, work was being completed on Lusail, a new city where the World Cup final next month will be played in a flagship, 80,000-seater bowl-shaped stadium complete with air coolers. The stadium was already finished, as were six others built specially for the tournament, including one made out of 974 shipping containers that is to be dismantled after the final.
All around Lusail stood office towers, hotels and residences awaiting final touches, emblems of the relentless rush to complete preparations. Between clusters of glittering skyscrapers, congested highways and older, sandy-coloured residential areas, it was hard to know where the building stopped and the desert began. Doha has poured at least $200bn into infrastructure and megaprojects in the years since Blatter opened that envelope, including $6.5bn on stadiums and facilities.
All this construction has taken place over the course of a difficult decade for Qatar. It has been a period of friction with neighbours, including an extraordinary three-year embargo led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in 2017, and near ceaseless questions about the morality of holding the World Cup here. While Doha aimed to take a place on the global stage, Qataris didn’t anticipate their nation becoming a lightning rod. One consultant involved in the bid said it was run like an election campaign “with a disruptive message that they could show Fifa members not at the heart of the regime they had a voice”. But his immediate emotion after Qatar won was “absolute dread” at realising the lack of preparedness for what came next.
Within a few months allegations of bribery were made against members of Fifa’s executive committee that awarded the 2018 and 2022 World Cups to Russia and Qatar. The Sunday Times named two Fifa members who were allegedly paid $1.5mn (£916,000) by Qatar for their votes. The Qatari authorities denied the allegations. According to another person involved in the bid, “They didn’t bribe, but if the government was investing in sports stadiums or development in other countries that was OK.” This person adds that two lawyers travelled on every trip to ensure that lines were not crossed. An official probe launched by Fifa identified “conduct by Qatar 2022 that may not have met the standards set out in the FCE [Fifa code of ethics] or the bid rules”, but did not conclude that votes had been bought. The same was found to be true of other bids, including England’s for the 2018 tournament.
At the same time, scrutiny over the rights of workers who had been employed to build new stadiums and other infrastructure for the tournament grew. A 2013 report by Amnesty International found systemic abuse and exploitation of migrants who were working all day, every day in scorching heat, sometimes without pay, while living in squalid labour camps. The consultant said that the Qataris showed “absolute naivety” when, after the bid, he warned them it was time to focus on addressing the treatment of workers and the human rights issues. “I don’t think they had an understanding of how the world would perceive them. The result was them going into denial,” he told me.
Louis van Gaal, the Netherlands head coach, summed up the feelings of many in Europe’s football establishment when he bluntly told reporters this year that it was “ridiculous” that the World Cup was happening in Qatar. “We are playing in a country that Fifa says they want to develop football there,” he said. “That’s bullshit, but it doesn’t matter. It’s about money, about commercial interests.”
Education City is an island of western academia established by the Qatar Foundation that was set up by Sheikh Hamad’s wife, Sheikha Moza. Here, no topic is supposed to be taboo, said Danyel Reiche, associate professor at Georgetown University Qatar, whether it’s scrutiny of the World Cup or the treatment of workers’ and gay rights. A tall, lean German who leads a research initiative on the World Cup, Reiche insisted Qatar should be judged against its Arab peers, not by western standards. Many of Georgetown’s students are Qataris, including those expected to be among the next generation of leaders.
He recalled a recent debate among his students that began when young Qatari men were asked if they would allow their daughter to choose which sport she wanted to play. One said he wouldn’t want a daughter to perform any sport in front of men, citing cultural and religious reasons, while another would only consider what was “appropriate”. A third replied, “I couldn’t care less what she chooses, I will support her,” Reiche said. Though many outsiders assume the place is homogeneous, he said, “there are many different views.”
There’s a conspicuous pause when I ask how he would respond if a gay student approached him for advice. “Honestly, students are not so open to discuss personal issues with you,” he said. “But of course, we have homosexual community members. And what I hear is it’s not difficult if you’re homosexual to meet other homosexuals; there’s an app.”
Reiche is among those who think the World Cup accelerated change in Qatar. “There are many people here who want change, but maybe without being able to refer to the external pressures they would not have succeeded,” he said, citing improvements to labour laws.
Though some changes have been significant — notably alterations to the so-called kafala system which meant employers had almost total control over employees — shocking cases have continued to emerge. A 2018 audit of World Cup sites by consultancy Impactt, compiled for the Qatari entity responsible for delivering the tournament’s infrastructure, revealed persistent problems with worker treatment. One person had worked 148 days consecutively. “Wage theft”, from workers who often provide their families’ only source of income, was rife according to a separate report. The deaths and injuries of migrant workers have sullied Qatar’s image internationally more than any other issue, though exact numbers are hard to confirm. Doha insists only three workers have died on World Cup projects, while an International Labour Organization report says there were 50 work-related deaths across Qatar in 2020.
As the clock ticks down to the tournament, the focus on human rights has only intensified, with football stars, managers and national teams adding their voices to the concerns and promising to raise the issues throughout the World Cup. Football Associations such as France and Germany have supported the call for Fifa to provide a compensation fund for migrant workers of $440mn, the equivalent of the prize money on offer during the World Cup.
Labour advocates and rights groups who have been among Doha’s harshest critics cautiously welcomed the reforms but are wary about whether they will be properly implemented once the World Cup is over. One of those is James Lynch, a director at FairSquare, which advocates for the rights of migrant workers in Qatar. The “unanswered question is whether there was, and is, a real intent to implement it,” he said. “What jumps out is the continued lack of coherence in implementing legal reforms. Coherence would indicate the presence of a real political will from the top. But we haven’t seen that.”
Today, in his role as secretary-general of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, Thawadi is responsible for overseeing the finishing touches. Since the beginning, he has been the technocrat tasked with turning the country’s dream into reality and, in the face of western opprobrium, defending it. Fit-looking with a neatly trimmed beard covering his square jaw, Thawadi showed few signs of wear from the extraordinary journey he and his country have been on when we met in a suite in the pyramid-shaped Sheraton hotel in Doha.
One of Thawadi’s hopes is that the tournament will help break down negative stereotypes about the Arab world. When I suggested that the scrutiny on corruption and rights allegations around the run-up to the World Cup perpetuated the worst stereotypes about energy-rich Gulf sheikhdoms, he insisted fan interactions at the tournament will do far more to change perceptions than “reading something off a screen, or . . . something on your phone”.
There was a steeliness about him that I didn’t pick up the first time we met in 2010, shortly before Qatar was awarded the tournament. I asked him about the bidding process: how does he convince people that Qatar didn’t buy the World Cup? “Honestly, I don’t have to convince people. We worked hard,” he said. “The people that saw our bid saw that we deserved to win the right to host the tournament.”
I tried to interject, but he was not finished. “With all due respect . . . I’ll ask you this: had the US won, would you be posing that question to them? Would you be posing that question to any European nation?” Many Qataris and others involved in the bid I spoke to suggested the country has been unfairly picked on by European media because it dared to take on the football establishment. Though, in other areas, he accepts change was necessary. “The work that has been on labour reforms in itself is a moment of pride for me,” he said. “There’s a lot more that needs to be done.”
Our conversation turned to Qatar’s anti-LBGT+ policies, which have put some off travelling to Doha. Is his nation ready for a gay couple to attend the tournament, hold hands and kiss? “Everybody is welcome,” he said, unfazed. But “we do have our values” and “public displays of affection aren’t part of our culture. What we ask is, when people are in public, to be able to respect that.” He hopes visitors will “appreciate not just that aspect of the culture, but the other very rich aspects of our culture”.
I wondered if the World Cup gamble would pay off. Qatar has been able to use its gas riches to forge strong relations across the east and the west; the global energy crisis triggered by Russia’s war in Ukraine only reinforced its standing as a vital producer. Was staking its reputation on a football tournament that many in Qatar would no doubt do without, worth it? “We don’t back away from adversity,” Thawadi told me. “We have objectives, and we have overall goals this tournament will help us achieve, for Qatar, for the Arab world and for the Middle East.”
Before I left Doha, I returned to Education City’s new 40,000-seat stadium, taking a gleaming, spotless driverless metro that will also shuttle fans to and from matches. Qatar were playing Slovenia in a friendly match, and I wanted to gauge the local appetite for football. The crowd, which numbered hundreds rather than thousands, was a mix of locals and foreigners, men and women. Behind one of the goals, a group of men were beating drums. The group appeared to be the Gulf state’s version of the “ultras”, fanatical fans, although most looked distinctly non-Qatari.
I got talking to Masoud al-Talebi, a chatty banker, who exhibited the mix of pride and defiance about the World Cup that I found in other Qataris. He was keen to dispel any notions that the culture isn’t compatible with the tournament. “We are an open country,” he said. “But we are not like Dubai, we still value our traditions.”
As the match played out to a goalless draw, he told me his father took him to his first game back in 1976, when Doha hosted the Gulf Cup. “He regretted it because I loved football so much I wasted my studies,” he said. “We like football,” he added, attempting to debunk the widespread notion that Qataris aren’t interested in the sport. “All over the world it’s the first game, and it’s the same for us.”
Andrew England is the FT’s Middle East editor
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