Four years out: #Qatar’s World Cup preparations come into focus

| December 5, 2018

It’s now a little less than four years until the start of the next World Cup, and despite controversy which has shrouded the tournament since it was awarded to Qatar in 2010, the infrastructure is rapidly taking shape. Vast construction works needed to deliver the tournament have provided a stimulus for the country’s wider economy, helping to ensure long-term sustainability and diversification beyond its vast natural gas reserves. What’s more, eighteen months after Qatar was blockaded by a group of neighbours led by Saudi Arabia, there is even hope that preparations for the World Cup may help bridge these divides.

Over the past eight years, critics of Qatar’s successful hosting bid have mounted a two-pronged attack. On the one hand, they have alleged that the bid committee bribed Fifa officials for the hosting rights, accusations which Qatar has vehemently denied. On the other, they have suggested that Doha is simply unsuitable for football’s biggest tournament, as its high temperatures would discomfort both players and spectators. To answer this charge, Qatar has deployed a series of new innovations, both on and off the pitch.

Grass for the pitches has been genetically engineered to withstand the desert heat in giant factories outside Doha, with scientists trialling 12 different variants in the hope of finding the perfect turf. This grass will grace eight brand-new stadiums, one of which, the Khalifa International, is already open to the public. Each of the stadiums will be air-conditioned using a system called district cooling, designed in Qatar, in which chilled water is brought from an external energy centre before being pumped out as cold air onto the field of play using movable nozzles.

These technologies are designed to be more sustainable than existing alternatives, and the organizers hope they will provide benefits long after the World Cup carnival is over. The solar panels which are expected to power the cooling systems in five of the eight stadiums (and harvest energy from the pavements outside) can help Qatar meet its target of securing 20% of its energy needs from solar in the near future. Likewise, the grass being grown in factories and rolled into sheets ties in with Doha’s long-standing desire to ramp up its agricultural production.

Indeed, the World Cup is a crucial stage in Qatar’s long-term diversification strategy. This is most evident in the tourism sector, which is receiving a $2.3 billion makeover – including the conversion of a fleet of cruise liners into giant floating hotels for 40,000 fans – as part of a $45 billion strategy to transform Qatar into a regional tourism hub to rival neighbouring Dubai.

Admit the clatter of construction work, however, there has been a rather uncomfortable backdrop. Qatar, like its other neighbours in the Gulf, has long been subject to criticism for its labour laws: for instance, the kafala system, under which foreign workers are tied to their employers, is an oft-cited concern among those who believe Doha should not have received the World Cup.

Here again, however, the Qataris are using the tournament as a spur for reforms. The International Labour Organization has been granted an office in Doha and, together with local officials, has mapped out a three-year project to address key issues. This has already yielded a raft of reforms; although foreign workers are still required to seek their employer’s consent before changing jobs, they can now leave the country without their boss’s permission. A temporary minimum wage has been established for those working on the tournament, and an insurance fund has even been set up for migrant workers cheated out of their wages.

While welcoming these advances, rights groups point out there’s still plenty to be done. Nonetheless, even the country’s staunchest critics may point out that progress has been made towards a fairer labour system at a more rapid pace than elsewhere in the region, and there’s still plenty of time to moderate remaining problems before the tournament kicks off.

Some optimists even hope the World Cup can help to end the long-running feud between Qatar and its neighbour, Saudi Arabia, despite the fact that Riyadh has led a blockade of Doha for the last 18 months. Fifa president Gianni Infantino has certainly made overtures in this direction; his push to expand the next World Cup from 32 to 48 teams is at least partly driven by a desire to ease regional tensions.

At present, the chances of Infantino getting his wish appear slim. While not totally ruling out the expansion, Qatar says it is still working towards a 32-team tournament, and has shown no sign of acceding to the raft of demands that accompanied the boycott, notably the gagging of broadcast network Al Jazeera. Nonetheless, senior Qatari figures – notably Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani – have been keen to stress the benefits of a regional World Cup. Ahead of the biggest event in Qatar’s history, it’s likely that they’ll push to end the impasse.

Of course, some critics will doubtless continue to express their concerns surrounding Qatar’s World Cup right up until the final ball is kicked in four years’ time. But, for Qatar itself, the signs appear extremely promising, both for the tournament itself and beyond. No matter how its team fares on the pitch, the country’s preparations have been a transformative exercise in and of themselves.



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Category: A Frontpage, FIFA, Sport, United Arab Emirates

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