There have been some two years since Qatar won the right to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022.
Everything from alleged bribery claims and worker’s exploitation to alcohol use and searing summer heat and gay rights have been dragged through some parts of the international media with as much cynicism and as little optimism as a veteran grave-digger going to work on a rainy, cold and extremely windy winter’s night.
In many cases, it has been stereotypes galore. Instead of looking for simple solutions, problems have been made to look insurmountable.
Now let’s give Qatar, the country where I was born and which I have seen develop into an international sports hub at an astonishingly rapid rate over the past two and a half decades, a fair chance. A sporting opportunity to deliver, as promised, an event that will unite East and West and change perceptions of an entire region. After 9-11, the West and East moved apart with the forcefulness of a Teutonic shift. An earthquake in international relations. Now, Qatar 2022 provides an opportunity to move together through the power of sport.
To get an impression of just how rapidly change has taken place in the country, take a look at an example of a single football lifetime and the associated shifting societal perceptions. I came across one of the first football players in Qatar while conducting research for my forthcoming book on football in the country.
“In the beginning, when I went out to play football with my friends, my father was not happy,” he remembered. “I had to hide that I was going to play football. One day he got very angry and went to the father of my friend. There he told him that he should not allow his son to pick me up for football anymore.”
Hosting a major sporting event like the World Cup can certainly propel a nation to greater heights. In the year in which England won their only title, the 1966 World Cup final at home against Germany, Khadab first pulled over the maroon uniform of Qatar to play for his beloved national team.
“Later my father and grandfather came to matches where I played and I think they were proud to see me playing. I played in the Qatari national team from 1966 to 1970. In 1969 I was voted Player of the Year in Qatar.”
Change, at micro and macro-cosmic levels inevitably takes time. But Qatar is a country where it takes place quite openly on a daily basis. For 2022, a whole nation is united in trying to make a positive impression on the world. In 1995, Qatar had just a few weeks to prepare for the FIFA World Youth Championships, won by Argentina, which I watched from the stands. Now the richest GDP per capita country in the world has 9 more years. Much will change in the country of my birth until then.
Of course I don’t expect a World Cup to work miracles. Take a look at the societal implications of the last event in South Africa.
Former Al Jazeera International television anchor Imran Garda (a member of the Your Middle East advisory board), who lived in Doha and is a resident of Johannesburg, said that: “South Africa has a mixed record since the World Cup. I guess the world-class aspects of the country have been upgraded while the poorer aspects are the same.”
But: do expect improved working conditions for low-paid migrant laborers from Asia. Not just in 2022 projects, because that would be rightly picked apart by Western media as hypocrisy. More than that, Qatar can act as an example for the entire Gulf region. In an interview late last year with the Guardian, Qatar 2022 Chief Hassan Al-Thawadi confirmed that Qatar is willing to take a lead in improving migrant worker living and working conditions by saying that Qatar 2022 will be an agent for change. "The World Cup is a catalyst. It will be addressed. We're making that commitment."
Do expect gay rights to be guaranteed and the media to open up further and freedom of expression to evolve as it is already doing on a daily basis.
Do expect a great deal to change but one thing to remain the same: Qatar’s great warmth, inherent Arabian charm and limitless hospitality as a host nation.