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Will Qatar be ready for the World Cup?

The sound of drilling echoes between the skyscrapers of the city center. In a desert camp, loaders kick up dust between rows of hastily erected beige tents. Newly planted palm trees, their branches still wrapped in brown paper, line the coastal promenade. And at the water’s edge, the minutes tick by on a bright red hourglass-shaped countdown.

With the World Cup just weeks away, Qatar is racing to be ready to host the tournament, which will draw millions of eyes and hundreds of thousands of international spectators to this tiny desert peninsula in the Persian Gulf.

Qatar, the smallest country to ever host the World Cup, has invested more than $220 billion in preparations for the event, erecting miles of highways, a metro system, a new airport, stadiums and skyscrapers.

For Qataris, the all-out push into the sports world is an effort to establish an image as a global player and fulfill the country’s leader, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani’s vision to develop the country economically.

So far, however, this bet has mostly drawn controversy and criticism.

The deplorable working conditions of migrant workers in Qatar have come under fire after dozens died on construction sites linked to the World Cup. The introduction of major labor reforms, hailed by international observers, has sparked private grumbling among Qatari businesspeople, and there have been criticisms that the rules have been applied unevenly. Advocacy groups have criticized Qatar’s human rights record, including laws criminalizing homosexuality and restricting freedom of expression.

And the influence campaigns of Qatar’s rivals in the region have amplified a deluge of critical press – stoking regional tensions following a three-year blockade of Qatar led by its larger Arab neighbors Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

As the event approached, Qatari officials became increasingly defensive in the face of critical reports from rights groups and others.

“Since winning the honor of hosting the World Cup, Qatar has faced an unprecedented campaign that no other host country has received,” Sheikh Tamim told a council session. of the country’s Shura earlier this week. This effort, he added, has “reached such ferocity that many, unfortunately, are questioning the real reasons and motivations behind it.”

Through it all, Qatari officials privately hoped that the decade of scrutiny would be eclipsed by the spectacle of a successful, spectacular and even over-the-top tournament. They have even enlisted fans in the effort, offering them free trips to the World Cup on the understanding that they will spread positive messages about Qatar while in the country.

And now, on the verge of that long-awaited moment, they have tried to send the message that Qatar is more than ready to take its place on the world stage.

When it comes to extravagance, in many ways Qatar has already delivered on its promise.

The country has produced eight new stadiums with football pitches covered in grass from the United States and outdoor air conditioning systems that can lower the temperature by more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius). Last month, Qatari officials announced the addition of 30,000 rooms to meet increased demand for accommodation, including some on cruise ships and traditional wooden boats called dhows.

They announced entertainment including beach clubs, carnivals, futuristic light shows and two month-long music festivals. One involves DJs performing on a 50-foot-tall mechanical spider borrowed from England’s Glastonbury Festival and reminiscent of a futuristic alien tank from the video game Halo.

In the not too distant past, this extravagance would have been almost unimaginable in Qatar, a sun-dried piece of country that for much of the 20th century was little more than a barren backwater for pearl divers and pirates. But as the country’s fortunes transformed with a natural gas boom in the 1990s, Doha’s landscape also transformed, as it sprouted skyscrapers, sprawling shopping malls and an artificial island into pearl shape off its ribs. Winning the World Cup bid accelerated this development at a dizzying pace.

“What does this tournament consist of for us? What does this help us to achieve? Hassan Al Thawadi, secretary general of the Qatar World Cup organization, Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, said in an interview. “We are using this tournament as a vehicle for change.”

But many international fans, teams and spectators remain skeptical about the resistance of this newly created infrastructure during the tournament. An estimated 1.5 million international visitors – around half of Qatar’s total population – will flock to the country during the month-long event, which is usually staged in several major cities. Qatar is about the size of Connecticut.

Some fans will be staying in basic accommodations, like refurbished shipping containers and glamping tents, built just weeks before their arrival. Motorcades for teams and VIPs, private cars and thousands of free buses to transport fans will flood the roads – bringing the specter of bumper-to-bumper traffic. The city’s new international airport won’t be able to handle the crowds on its own, so its predecessor has been brought back into service.

Housekeepers at a luxury hotel in West Bay, one of Doha’s uptown areas, will be tasked with cleaning 80 rooms a day, up from the usual 20, they say. When asked if he thought the newly created metro could handle thousands of drunken fans, the station attendant at a stop in the neighborhood smiled, shook his head and mumbled ‘no way’ between coughs exaggerated.

“It was just a cough! Nothing else!” the officer laughed. He said he was not authorized to speak to the press.

The sheer size of the event means there will be unexpected logistical challenges. But some have questioned Qatar’s preparedness even for the inevitable, after spectators who attended a game at a World Cup stadium in September complained about the stands running out of water in mid- time and huge queues outside the metro as people left the stadium.

Qatari officials and football’s governing body FIFA called the problems growing pains and assured people that despite the cranes, scaffolding and drilling still scattered around the city, the main infrastructure needed for the tournament was completed. But even they admit that with the setbacks and delays of the Covid-19 pandemic, the country has not been able to fully test its preparedness.

“The full stress test where you put everything under full power, to my satisfaction, hasn’t been done,” Mr Al Thawadi said. But he added that in the test events, “as problems started to arise, I could see that the teams were able to solve them quickly and react to them very quickly”.

Human rights groups have also raised concerns about how Qatari police will handle foreigners’ violations of local laws in a country that has criminalized homosexuality and sex outside marriage, and where victims of sexual assault are themselves likely to be charged if they report the facts. incident.

Unofficially, Qatari authorities say the country has started training police on how to respond to cases of sexual assault – the risk of which increases at any major sporting event – ​​and that police will not interfere with LGBTQ activists waving rainbow flags or holding small protests unless someone is at risk of physical harm.

But many fans say authorities didn’t go far enough.

“There has been very little concrete engagement” on these issues, said Ronan Evain, executive director of Football Supporters Europe, an umbrella organization for supporter groups.

Qatari officials are also under pressure from within. Many Qataris are more conservative than their country’s top leaders. Eyeing neighboring Dubai, the so-called Las Vegas of the Gulf, some Qataris have bristled at the emir’s grand economic development plan, which they say risks erasing Qatar’s cultural heritage.

On a recent evening at Souq Waqif, the city’s famous traditional market, throngs of locals and tourists thronged the winding alleyways lined with shops selling homewares, handcrafted jewelry, clothing and spices like saffron and cardamom. The souk was founded over a century ago but, like so much else in Doha today, the current building is new. Most of the market was destroyed in a fire in 2003 and later rebuilt to mimic the look of the old souk.

Abdullah Abdulkadir, 38, sat with a few friends on the wooden benches of a small shop tucked away in a narrow alley, the smell of tobacco filling the room. A few of the other men had bought tickets for a World Cup match or two, and they smiled as they imagined seeing football stars like Lionel Messi and enjoying their city-turned-carnival. A man said he bought a scooter to avoid traffic jams for fear of missing his match.

But Mr. Abdulkadir refused to join them. He clung to the traffic and crowds that flooded the otherwise sleepy town. But more than anything, the event had come to embody his grievances over the rapid pace of change in Qatar.

As a child, he said, he lived about a mile from the souk. When the neighborhood was invaded by new developments, her family moved to an apartment in Al Wakrah, a coastal enclave south of the city. Their new apartment was large; Since the gas boom, Qatari citizens have enjoyed some of the highest average incomes in the world, free land and comfortable jobs. But he missed the sense of community in his old neighborhood. Driving through it today, he says, is almost unrecognizable.

“Qatar is like another country now,” he said, taking a short puff from his hookah’s wooden pipe.

A few blocks away, a swarm of supporters of Tunisia’s men’s soccer team poured into the main thoroughfare, shouting club chants, their bright red shirts standing out against the beige walls of the souk. The decisive moment for Qatar had already begun.

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