Six years and counting to Qatar World Cup

It may may go unnoticed as a footballing landmark, but this week marks the halfway point between the controversial awarding of the World Cup to Qatar in December 2010, and the tournament kicking off in the tiny but wealthy Arab state in November 2022.

On this day in six years’ time many of us will be looking back on the opening matches from the 2022 World Cup finals and, if the organising committee are to be believed, most of us will be wondering what all the fuss was about. Certainly Hassan al Thawadi, General Secretary of the Supreme Committee responsible for winning the bid and delivering the greatest sporting event on Earth, has no doubts it will be a ‘fantastic World Cup”.

Al Thawadi is not only the brains behind Qatar’s World Cup vision, he is the face of it, addressing the multiple concerns and allegations that have dogged the gas-rich emirate since that shocking day in Zurich six years ago when the likes of England, Australia, and the US lost out to Russia and Qatar for the right to host the next two World Cups. Fifa’s decision was portrayed widely as a victory for money and corruption over traditional football values, and subsequent events have reinforced the notion that the whole bidding process is flawed, going back to the awarding of World Cups to Germany and South Africa.

The spotlight on both Russia and Qatar has been intense, going beyond corruption allegations to criticism of their records on human rights, particularly in the latter’s case, its treatment of the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers, who are not simply building the stadiums and infrastructure to host a month-long tournament, but constructing a 21st Century country almost from scratch, creating a multi-billion dollar oasis in the desert, the likes of which we have never seen before.

I’ve travelled to Qatar half-a-dozen times, since my first visit in 2006, to see the Asian Games, which is second only to the Olympic Games in terms of numbers of participants. I’ve seen the capital Doha grow from a modest city with only a handful of hotels into a teeming metropolis on a par with Manhattan for skyscrapers, with all the trappings of wealth: Luxury shopping, king-size malls, five-star restaurants and bars, where you can eat fabulous food, and drink fine wines, despite the popular notion that this Islamic country is alcohol-free.

That has been one of the hottest topics or debate, raised by everyone from fans planning to attend, through to Dave Richards, the former Premier League chairman who caused a stir with his remarks about “having a pint at the game” back in 2012.

It is one of the first things that al Thawadi is keen to clarify when we met in Doha last week, as Qatar showcased its readiness to host major sports events during the 21st General Assembly of the Association of National Olympic Committees. Delegates gathered from 206 Olympic nations to hear presentations from those cities bidding for the 2024 Olympic Games: Budapest, Los Angeles, and Paris. It is a fair bet Doha will be submitting a bid to host the 2028 games after IOC head Thomas Bach enthused about its suitability.

First things first, though, and 2022 will be a huge opportunity for Qatar to present itself as a modern, sophisticated society with a warm welcome. Al Thawadi is the perfect figurehead for this mammoth project. A lawyer who spent his formative years studying law and business at university in England and the US, he can walk the walk and talk the talk in an impressive range of languages.

He has a lawyer’s respect for due process, a planner’s eye for detail and possesses the passion of a true football fan, forged in the steel town of Sheffield, where he watched and played the game at a far more humble level than the tournament he will be in charge of in six years’ time.

“I spent three years at Sheffield University studying law,” said al Thawadi.

“Before that, I spent a year in Scunthorpe, doing my A-levels. Initially when I went there, I thought: ‘What am I doing here?’

“It’s only claim to fame was that Kevin Keegan started there. When I got the bus, the driver asked what stop I wanted and when I said Scunthorpe, he replied: ‘That’s the twilight zone!’

“So I thought: ‘Whoa’ in those first few days, but do you know what? I really value that experience, because I got to see and meet real people.

“London is a fantastic city, one of the top three in the world, but in my humble opinion, to really understand England you have to get out of London, go up north and different places, meet different people.

“So, I wouldn’t swap that experience in Scunthorpe for anything else. I admit I had a limited football experience, but I loved going out into the parks on Sunday mornings, kicking a ball about with my friends, and then catching a game here and there when I got the chance.”

From there, it was to law school in Sheffield.

“I got to know people and love the city, and got to understand a society that was totally different to ours in Qatar. I could understand an open society, with its extremes as well, and that has given me a valuable experience in terms of what this World Cup could mean.

“The average individual is not a racist or a bigot and, even if you find those extremists, you can open the minds of half of them if you speak to them.”

It is with this zeal that he is on a mission to explain what Qatar is doing to counter the multiple criticisms it has faced since that day in Zurich. It is a huge task, as he readily admits.

“I don’t know if we are convincing the cynics, per se, but I think we are gaining the respect of the cynics, whereby people are considering us as something worth looking into a bit deeper.”

There has certainly been no shortage of scrutiny, with the majority of focus on the plight of migrant workers. Qatar’s population is 2.3 million, but barely 350,000 are Qatari nationals, with the rest made up of expatriate professionals, semi-skilled workers, and almost 750,000 construction workers, mostly from the Indian sub-continent.

Human rights groups have condemned many facets of the situation: Workers’ rights and living conditions, deaths caused by working in extreme heat and dangerous situations, the kefala law that forces them to give up their passports and restricts freedom of movement and employment.

Far from it being a taboo subject, it is something al Thawadi is only to happy to discuss, believing Qatar has made huge strides in remedying the situation.

It is important to make it clear at this point that the World Cup is not the be-all and end-all of Qatar’s aims and ambitions. The bigger picture is its National Vision for 2030, which was launched in 2008, and aims to transform Qatar from a hydrocarbon economy to a knowledge-based economy. The huge gas reserves may not run out for many, many years, but Qatar is planning for a future which does not rely on fossil fuel, so this former British colony has a massive rebuilding job on its hands, in terms of infrastructure and adapting the mentality and traditions of the people. The vast majority of construction has nothing to do with the World Cup; a Canadian contractor estimated 2022 projects represent only 10% to 12%, “a blip”, so the stories of worker deaths and mistreatment are drawn mainly from non-World Cup projects. The first ‘official’ death of a worker on a World Cup project was announced recently and al Thawadi said: “It is regrettable and avoidable, but we are determined to learn from it.”

The Supreme Committee has been in constant dialogue with human rights groups and last week signed an agreement with the international trade union BWI. Kefala law comes to an end in December, a year after it was repealed by the Emir, as tradition demands.

“Our strategy over workers’ welfare started before the criticism began, and we’ve always been open to discussions. Our workers’ charter was put in place in 2012. We spoke to BWI, told them what we thought was pragmatic. We want them to help with the second tier of four levels of auditing our standards, to look at our health and safety inspections, and to help us and to train the trainers.

“There is always room for improvement and BWI can assist us. I am very proud of this agreement and it is a significant step in our journey. We are learning from mistakes made in the first phase and have had discussions with a number of NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Humanity International, the ILO, BWI, Engineers Against Poverty, as well as talking to industry participants and construction companies.

“We’ve also appointed an independent auditor this year, Impact, who have significant experience of the conditions of workers worldwide.”

Al Thawadi admits scrutiny has driven the pace of reform.

“Workers’ and civilians’ rights are enshrined in our constitution and they are also a cornerstone of our National Vision for 2030. An environment of respect for every person in Qatar is very important for that vision. We have put in place well-respected laws. Qatar has developed at a breakneck speed from 1995 to where we are today, and laws will inevitably fall short of enforcement on the ground. The World Cup came along, people realised there were a lot of areas that needed improvement and that is what we are working on and legislation has been accelerated. There are issues, no doubt, because we are a developing nation. That process has been accelerated by the spotlight on us.”

I visited one of the first workers’ villages last week and, while it houses 60,000 men in ideal conditions, with a cinema, shopping centre, and even a cricket stadium, there is a long way to go for the rest of the workforce.

Another seven are planned, and like the changes in legislation, are not just window-dressing for westerners. “We are committed to this. Our religion, our principles, our values make us commit to this, not the criticism that is coming from the outside world. But that is helping us see where the blindsides are, and helping us accelerate the process.

“Remember, there are developed nations, with all their infastructure, legislation, and traditions, that have issues on this front.”

The heat is another bone of contention, with summer temperatures rising to 50 degrees, but the move to a winter schedule, when the weather is more pleasant, is combined with innovative cooling technology. I have sat in the Al Sadd stadium with the air conditioning on, and can testify that it is no worse than watching football on a balmy evening in southern Europe.

“The cooling technology we have will make it comfortable for fans and players, and will be at most stadiums and some fanparks,” said al Thawadi.

What won’t be on offer at the venues will be beer, though alcohol is freely available in hotels and restaurants, and al Thawadi says: Our position has never changed: Alcohol is available in this country, maybe not as freely as in most western countries, but people can have a drink.

“It won’t be available in the streets or public places, but those restrictions apply in many western nations, where you can’t walk down the street drinking alcohol... Anyway, we believe the focus should be on the football.”

Ah, the football?

However many teams take part, the tournament is likely to take place in eight stadiums with kickoffs at 1pm, 4pm and 7pm local times (which are three hours ahead of GMT).

“We are still in discussions and are confident our plan for eight stadia is sufficient.”

The benefit of such a small country hosting the tournament, for both fans and players, is that they will not have to travel around.

“It will be a compact World Cup, where fans will not have to worry about lots of travelling and hotel rooms. They can take in more than one game in a day, for example.” More ambitious fans can try camping in the desert - “lots of my expatriate friends love it” - and al Thawadi says this will be Qatar’s chance to showcase itself – and the Middle East – to the rest of the world.

“Fans can experience our fabulous beaches, entertainment, cuisine, life in the Middle East in its entirety. Many countries are only an hour away — Dubai, Bahrain, Lebanon, Egypt. We are known for our hospitality, and we believe this can help break down the barriers and stereotypes that the Arab world has about the rest of the world and vice versa. It’s a great opportunity.”

Qatar has had to contend with much criticism since it was announced as the 2022 World Cup hosts, but organising committee chief, Hassan al Thawadi, feels their efforts are gaining the respect of cynics


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