DOHA, Qatar — Last December, Qatar triumphed over heavily favored contenders Great Britain and the United States when it landed the 2022 World Cup, the planet’s most popular sporting event.
But the real challenge still lies ahead as this religiously conservative country now prepares to host a month-long event that draws fans — many of whom are accustomed to drinking heavily and canoodling in public — from all corners of the world.
It is the latest turn in a tricky slalom the country has been navigating between tradition and reform in recent years as its star rises around the globe. And it may also prove to be the most problematic.
“We feel this is brilliant,” said Adil Albuainain, general manager of Dolphin Energy, a natural gas supplier based in Qatar. “We worked hard to convince the world that we have the right to host this tournament. Now we will need to bring about a major shift in our mentality, not just in Qatar, but in the entire region.”
A teardrop shaped spit of land about the size of Belgium, Qatar and its 1.6 million inhabitants have been punching above their global weight since its ruler Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani founded the Al Jazeera network here in 1996.
Five years later the name of the Qatari capital echoed around the world as it hosted the eponymous Doha Round of the World Trade Organization’s negotiation on tariffs. More recently, Doha has been the site where peace accords signed between warring factions in Chad, Sudan and Lebanon have taken place. Qatar maintains good relations with Iran — its neighbor just across the Persian Gulf. But it also enjoyed trade relations with Israel until that country’s 2008 offensive in Gaza.
“Qatar has set itself up as an arbiter of regional politics,” said Matthew Lorimer, an English-born event organizer who helped Qatar plan the opening ceremonies for the 2006 Asian Games. “It has already hosted major peace talks, economic summits, and the like. World Cup 2022 fits in with what is essentially their global capability statement.”
The 2022 tournament will be a new chapter in Qatar’s global foray. The country’s previous diplomatic coups were high level but exclusive events; public and media access were limited. The World Cup is a vast spectacle that will attract massive media attention and hordes of visitors, something for which the former British protectorate is ill prepared.
“There are many people who think these World Cup people are coming here to change our culture, our way of life,” said Muhammad Blushi, an official with Qatar’s Ministry of Culture. “Many people, particularly the old people, are afraid.”
Qatar’s straddle on the Arab Spring is emblematic of its cautious approach to change. It was the first Arab country to assist NATO in establishing a no-fly zone in Libya, and has a permanent U.S. Army and Air Force presence on its territory. But it also sent troops to buttress the embattled monarchy in neighboring Bahrain.
The country is equally ambivalent in domestic affairs, offering its citizens generous welfare benefits and greater social license than most of its Gulf neighbors, but keeping a firm grip on free speech. The hereditary monarchy still has no political parties. Alcohol, homosexuality and most public displays of affection are forbidden. Even Al Jazeera, known for reporting critically elsewhere in the Middle East, treads lightly when reporting on its home soil.
“When you come here from somewhere else, you have to remember you’re on their territory,” warns Lorimer, who recalls having to bail out several foreign co-workers for having alcohol on their breath in 2006. “And that you have to do things their way, whether it’s their licensing laws, their visa requirements, even the way they shake hands. If you try to do them your way, you won’t last five minutes.”
At an estimated cost of $65 billion, plans for Qatar 2022 include nine brand new stadiums, a new airport and seaport, a bridge to Bahrain, and a new city for the World Cup final. One proposal envisions modular stadiums that can be dismantled and shipped to developing nations after the tournament. Another hypothesis floats the idea of mechanical clouds hovering over stadiums during matches to shade players and spectators in the 100-plus degree Fahrenheit summer heat.
But it might take more than imagination and public works to shield this still traditional society from the culture shock the World Cup will likely bring. Yet the same specter of foreign invasion that frightens Qatar’s elders sparks hope for political and social reform among Qatar’s youth, many of whom participate in online forums and blogs, wear Western fashions and attend university in Great Britain, Canada or the United States.
“If you open the country to people and ideas from other cultures, there’s going to be more freedom,” said Khaled al Jabar, a former journalist completing a Ph.D. in political science in Leicester, England. “It’s already happening with the internet, with satellite TV, with global economy. Now with this World Cup they can’t play the old game anymore. They have to open up for democracy and respect for human rights.”
Qatar’s enormous wealth — due almost entirely to massive reserves of natural gas — enables it to import talent and materials from anywhere on the globe. Organizers for the 2006 Asian games purchased steelwork from Macedonia, costumes and wigs from China, and lighting equipment from France and the United States.
Barring revolution or war, the country’s new stadiums, roads, and other infrastructure projects should be completed well before the June 2022 kickoff. Readying the domestic population and foreign visitors for the clash between cultures is another matter.
“You’re talking about hosting a huge number of people,” says Dolphin Energy’s Albuainain. “About transparency, about customer service, about changing the way we think. For some things, 11 years is a long time. But in reality, it’s not a long time. It’s a very short time.”