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This Persian Gulf state has spent tens of billions to make FIFA’s big show run smoothly – and to prove the worth of its soft power, tourism trade and the monarchy that oversees it all

David Beckham may have not played professional football for almost a decade, but he’s everywhere in Doha ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Whether appearing in press conferences, on billboards, or hosting a 30-minute travel spot for the country’s tourism board, Qatar is eking out all the value it can from the reported tens of millions paid to Mr. Beckham to be a cultural ambassador.

His contract is just a rounding error, however, when it comes to the billions spent in getting Qatar ready for the tournament, which kicks off with a match between the hosts and Ecuador this Sunday. As well as the official budget of around $10-billion, Qatar has pumped a further $290-billion into infrastructure projects in the past decade, building new roads, shopping malls and subway stations.

David Beckham talks with guests in Doha last year before a dinner at the Museum of Islamic Arts.QM via Balkis Press/ABACA

Officials in Doha, the country’s capital, insist most of this spending would have happened without the World Cup, as part of efforts to diversify the country’s economy away from a dependence on fossil-fuel exports.

But the tournament is nonetheless a major test, both of Qatar’s ability to host the kind of big events that it wants to occur more regularly and to persuade millions to travel to this tiny, arid peninsula sticking out into the Persian Gulf, which is better known for hosting the Taliban than foreign tourists.

“It is very, very important for them to make this a huge success,” said Pat Thaker, Middle East and Africa regional director at the Economist Intelligence Unit. “The whole world is watching.”

So far, that attention has been nothing but a headache. From the moment Qatar’s name was read out by then-FIFA president Sepp Blatter in December, 2010, the selection of the Arab nation has been widely criticized.

Human-rights groups raised concerns over Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers and its criminalization of homosexuality, while others questioned how a country where it regularly reaches 40 degrees in summer could host a football tournament without hospitalizing players with heat exhaustion. Then there was the environment: Qatar promised the first “carbon-neutral” World Cup, but few trusted the world’s greatest emitter of CO2 per capita to deliver on this.

Solving the heat issue was relatively easy: Qatar and FIFA agreed to move the competition to winter, and install air conditioning at pitch level in all the stadiums, most of which were being built from scratch for the World Cup. Technological innovations, it was insisted, would make the environmental cost of this negligible, while the rest of the estimated 3.6 million tons of carbon dioxide produced would be offset by carbon credits, including funding solar and wind projects in Serbia and India.

This has been dismissed as “greenwashing” by experts, including Gilles Dufrasne, policy officer at Carbon Market Watch, a civil-society watchdog specializing in carbon markets and carbon pricing. Mr. Dufrasne was the lead author on a report commissioned by a consortium of environmental groups earlier this year, which found most measures being taken by Qatar were “unlikely to have a meaningful and durable impact” on overall emissions, misleading fans and players about the cost to the climate of the tournament.

A man prays along the Doha waterfront; a screen shows the temperature outside the stadium in Lusail; England’s players pose for pictures with migrant workers at Doha’s Al Wakrah Stadium. Matthias Hangst/Getty Images; John Sibley/Reuters; Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

Observers are willing to give more credit to Qatar when it comes to reforming how the country treats migrant workers. The much-criticized kafala system, whereby labourers were essentially indentured to their employers, has been scrapped, while improvements have also been made to worker safety and freedom to switch jobs.

In a report this month, the International Labour Organization praised Qatar’s “significant” efforts that have “improved the working and living conditions for hundreds of thousands of workers.” But it added, “there is universal acknowledgement that more needs to be done to fully apply and enforce the labour reforms.”

Human-rights groups have also called for Qatar and FIFA to do more on compensation for the thousands of workers injured or killed in recent years, both before and after the reforms kicked in.

But despite this, Qatar is arguably a leader now among Persian Gulf nations when it comes to worker rights, however low that bar might be.

Nader Kabbani, director of research at the Doha-based Middle East Council on Global Affairs, said Qatar “has made substantial progress in improving the standing and rights of its migrant workers.”

“The post-World Cup period will be an opportunity for Qatar to demonstrate the degree to which its labour reforms will be sustained and improved,” he added.

Nasser al-Khater, CEO of Qatar 2022, defends how his country has prepared for the tournament.Mohammed Dabbous/Reuters

Certainly, organizers believe they deserve more credit than they’re getting. Speaking to Al Jazeera last month, Nasser al-Khater, chief executive of Qatar 2022, said with regard to labour he didn’t think “any country can claim to have done as much as Qatar has done in the last 10 years.”

“Qatar has been a trailblazer in the region,” Mr. Al-Khater told the state-owned broadcaster.

The country’s emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, told lawmakers last month that Qatar has “faced an unprecedented campaign that no other host nation has received.”

This criticism, he said, had “reached an amount of ferocity that made many wonder, unfortunately, about the real reasons and motives behind this campaign.”

In the run-up to the tournament, multiple teams have released statements calling on Qatar to do more in particular on LGBTQ rights.

Homosexual acts are illegal in Qatar, and Doha has largely shrugged off criticism over this as cultural differences, while reassuring LGBTQ fans that they are welcome to attend the World Cup.

Activists protest against the World Cup outside the Qatari embassy in Paris, where they paid tribute to workers who died building the infrastructure for the tournament.Francois Mori/The Associated Press/The Associated Press

Organizers are counting on the clamour around human rights to die down as the tournament begins, just as it largely did with the Beijing Winter Olympics earlier this year. The biggest story out of that event was of alleged doping in figure skating, not the diplomatic boycott that dominated headlines in the run-up.

Of more concern for the Qataris is the potential for scandal or controversy involving foreign fans. In the coming weeks, some 1.2 million people are expected to travel to a country not much larger than Prince Edward Island.

Already there have been complaints about the vast expense for visitors travelling to Qatar, due to pricey flights and a lack of affordable accommodation, as well as concerns around how police in the conservative Muslim country will handle visitors. Alcohol isn’t illegal in Qatar, but World Cup organizers have sent mixed messages about how freely fans will be able to drink. One thing that is clear is that any beer on offer will be very expensive – 50 riyals (about $18.30) for a Budweiser in fan zones.

“It’s all tinged with a bit of wariness. People are scared that they’re going to get arrested, that they can’t get drunk,” said Paul Corkrey of the Football Supporters’ Association Cymru. “The facilities are perfect, but the transport infrastructure isn’t great. I don’t know if it can cope.”

A match between Saudi and Egyptian teams in September, designed as a test of World Cup infrastructure, was less than auspicious. The 78,000 people packed into Lusail Stadium, one of the largest venues in Qatar, found themselves without water by halftime and facing a 2.5-kilometre line when it came time to leave.

Officials said the game was designed precisely to identify such issues ahead of the main event, and promised they would be ironed out, but the logistical challenge ahead will be an order of magnitude greater than anything Qatar has ever dealt with.

Guards mass outside a stadium in Doha.KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images

At least when it comes to policing, the country won’t be in it alone. Some 3,000 Turkish riot cops have been flown in, while British police officers are also being deployed to act as “cultural interpreters” between fans and local law enforcement to prevent “unfortunate misunderstandings,” according to the BBC.

Canada will not have as large a deployment, but a spokeswoman for the RCMP, Kim Chamberland, said the force does already have a small presence in Qatar that liaises with the local authorities.

Organizers have also promised that, while fans need to “show respect,” they should not be overly concerned about drinking or rules on dress, which are less conservative than neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Last month, FIFA president Gianni Infantino said “everyone will be welcome to the tournament regardless of their origin, religion, background, gender, sexual orientation or nationality.”

Even so, a scandal involving foreign fans could distract from the football, particularly if it occurs early on during qualifying stages. This might also spoil Qatar’s efforts to use the World Cup as an advert for tourism to the country, as Doha seeks to compete with Dubai and other Gulf cities in the future.

“Sports diplomacy is unlikely to change the international perspective of Qatar,” said Ms. Thaker. “However, what it does do is put the spotlight on a country that has previously been viewed through a very dark lens.”

The World Cup, she added, “is a perfect opportunity to showcase Qatar’s development, the massive investment over the last decade.”

In Doha, a Morocco fan visits the Flag Plaza; a shop features traditional Arab headdresses in international team colours; Qatari flags and portraits of the Emir hang in a market area. Marko Djurica and Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters; Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images

Doha, like other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), is seeking to diversify its economy away from reliance on fossil fuels, and big sporting events are a major part of this. Qatar has a considerable head start, and thanks to China’s strict COVID rules will also be hosting the 2023 Asian Cup – but this will only pay off if the country can show it can handle such mega-events.

If it truly pays off at all. Researchers Johan Fourie and Maria Santana Gallego, who have studied the effects of sporting mega-events on tourism for years, said that while “politicians often make bold predictions about the likely tourism effects” of hosting such tournaments, the actual effect is debatable.

“While we still find a large and positive effect on hosting the Summer Olympic Games … most other events reveal zero or even negative change,” they said in an analysis of more than two decades of sporting events.

The true soft-power wins will likely come regionally, with Qatar’s often hostile neighbours. Already, other Gulf countries are seeing the benefits of having the World Cup on their doorstep: Dubai alone is expected to play host to around a million fans for the tournament, taking advantage of its more extensive and established hotel infrastructure.

“There’s a huge spillover effect across the Gulf, particularly in Dubai and Oman,” said Ms. Thaker, adding that for most governments in the region “this is a win-win.”

“Qatar pulling it off without any major incident will be a feather in the hat for them” with the rest of the GCC, she said, helping to further repair relations after a boycott of Qatar led by Saudi Arabia over allegations of Doha’s funding of terror groups finally ended last year.

Dr. Kabbani, the Doha-based analyst, said that, as well as the economic benefits the tournament was bringing Qatar’s neighbours, “there is genuine enthusiasm for the first Arab World Cup across the Middle East, including a shared sense of ownership and pride.”

Nowhere will that pride be stronger than in Qatar itself, where the tournament is expected to boost support for the government and the monarchy, potentially easing pressure for political reform in the near future, particularly as growing demand for natural gas boosts the country’s economy. And that, more than anything else, may prove to be worth the hundred-billion-dollar price tag.

“Never forget these are monarchies who are highly insecure and will do everything they need to do to stay in power,” Ms. Thaker said. “A huge success will amplify national pride among the Qataris and domestic support for the emir.”

With a report from Reuters

Foreign correspondent James Griffiths will be in Qatar reporting on the tournament, including how foreign fans are experiencing the World Cup. If you have a story and want to get in touch, email James at jgriffiths@globeandmail.com.

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