DOHA, Qatar — The signs of progress are impossible to miss. And that's the point. Four years out from hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup, Qatar wants you to know it's growing. Evolving. Not just physically but politically and — this small Muslim nation tucked into a corner of the Arabian Peninsula insists — culturally.
Scan the skyline in downtown Doha and you'll find massive construction cranes sprinkled every few blocks in an attempt to keep pace with demand in a country expanding at a seemingly frenetic pace. Look down and everything appears to be covered in a fine layer of dust, the kind you see while walking into a new home not quite ready to go on the market.
Eight years after FIFA stunned the soccer world by promising to bring its crown jewel to the Middle East for the first time, what once seemed impossibly far-off is becoming decidedly tangible.
The eight stadiums scattered in a 30-mile radius that will host 32 teams from across the planet are in various stages of development, most of them trying to walk the treacherous line of paying homage to the region's history while simultaneously avoiding becoming an expensive and unused relic once the party ends and everyone else goes home.
Scientists refine genetically engineered grass to withstand the parched desert conditions as engineers tinker with massive air conditioners. The ideas to deal with the anticipated influx of over 1 million soccer fans range from the creative — think cruise ships doubling as Air BnBs during the tournament's 28-day run — to pragmatic.
"This is our stamp," said Yasser al-Mulla, the Landscape and Sport Turf Management Senior Manager of Competition Venues.
Albeit a complicated one.
HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERNS
Logistically, the country that promised to "Deliver Amazing" when it landed the bid in 2010 remains intent on doing just that. Logistics, however, might be the easy part in a nation of 2.7 million — only 300,000 actual Qatari citizens — that's spent a large portion of the last decade adjusting to the white-hot glare that accompanied its surprise win over the United States, Japan, South Korea and Australia.
Human rights groups question Qatar's care of low-paid migrant laborers building stadiums in humid summertime heat of above 45 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit). Others wonder how alcohol sales will work in a conservative Wahhabi Muslim nation where bars routinely check passports before pouring pints. Then there's the ongoing boycott of Qatar by four Arab nations, which has thrown air travel in the region into chaos.
Qatar's physical makeover is one thing. It has the money, billions of dollars in fact, from its vast natural gas deposits. Navigating the political and cultural stakes the World Cup brings is another matter.
Hosting the tournament featuring the most popular sport on the planet is the largest and most audacious step of Qatar's plans to put it on the world stage . Doha has tried to model the success of Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, building skyscrapers and a large international airport to host a state carrier that provides a link between East and West.
That construction boom has been built on the backs of migrant laborers from India, Pakistan, Nepal and other Asian nations, much like it has in other oil-rich sheikhdoms in the region. As oil prices crashed below $30 a barrel in 2016, construction firms in Qatar and elsewhere in the region suffered. Some stopped paying staffers on time, if at all. Others seized workers' passports or otherwise abused Qatar's "kafala" system that ties expatriate workers to a single employer.
In recent months, Qatar ended a requirement for some workers to seek their employers' permission before leaving the country. It also required contractors who bring in workers from other nations to reimburse employees for any recruitment fee they paid to an outside agency to facilitate their placement.
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other activists say more needs to be done. There have been two reported deaths at Qatar's World Cup projects.
"We've identified that this is an area we're going to have to do a lot of work," said Nasser al-Khater, deputy-secretary general of the World Cup organizing committee, told The Associated Press.
Still, al-Khater stressed "we should be very proud of ourselves," calling Qatar's progress a "case study" that actually puts the current country's labor practices ahead of its Middle Eastern neighbors.
IF YOU BUILD IT, WILL THEY COME?
Talking from his office on the 33rd floor of the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, al-Khater glanced out the window across Doha Bay to where the foundation of Ras Abu Aboud Stadium is being laid. The view has changed significantly on many levels, all of them aimed at proving Qatar is a worthy host.
"People say ... 'They have zero football pedigree,'" al-Khater said. "That's not true. We don't have zero football pedigree. We have a football pedigree. You just don't know it. It might be shorter than England's or Germany's, but we still do. And you know what? Why do you need to have a football pedigree to host the World Cup? Why don't you use the World Cup to evolve the game and to promote the game."
Promoting it enough to make sure 1.5 million visitors will pass through Hamad International Airport over the course of four weeks in November and December 2022 is a daunting challenge.
Crowds for the Qatar Stars League, the highest level of soccer in the country, are modest, and that's for people who have to simply hop in their car or call up an Uber to get there.
The stands inside the Aspire Dome at the recently completed World Gymnastics Championships, where American star and Olympic champion Simone Biles won six medals, were half full at best for most of the 10 days of competition. Expectations are higher for the 2019 World Track & Field Championships, which will descend on Khalifa International Stadium next fall.
Yet getting to Qatar may prove more complicated than initially planned. Doha has found itself under a boycott by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE since June 2017 over a political dispute. That has seen its air routes affected and other regional airlines cut their flights. What should be a flight under an hour from Dubai now lasts far longer and requires a layover.
There are no signs of the crisis being resolved soon, an issue that makes FIFA president Gianni Infantino's quest to expand the World Cup from 32 to 48 teams in 2022 a delicate and likely doomed proposition. Infantino believes boosting participation could help ease the current political strain in the region because it would require Qatar to share some of the responsibility with its neighbors.
Qatar's response has been polite but skeptical. Given the time crunch Infantino faces — a new plan would have to be in place before qualifying begins in the spring — a 48-team tournament will likely have to wait until 2026.
HOSTS WITH THE MOST?
Regardless of the tournament's size, finding a place to sleep will be at a premium. Qatar has some 25,000 hotel rooms, according to government statistics. FIFA required Qatar to have at least 60,000 rooms by 2022. There are plans to make as many as 6,000 rooms on cruise ships available while also opening up any unused dwellings in Doha for rent before play kicks off on Nov. 21, 2022.
Locating somewhere to crash is only part of the issue. Officials stress food supply has not been disrupted by the economic boycott, thanks in part to the decision to bring in 4,000 cows to help deal with potential meat or dairy shortages.
Yet milk is not exactly the beverage of choice at the World Cup, which at times can feel like a monthlong party with the occasional soccer match thrown in to break things up. Grabbing a pre-match beer, however, could be a challenge in a country where access to alcohol is limited. To have a beer most nights you need to visit a restaurant affiliated with a hotel and then have your passport scanned before heading inside, an arrangement that simply won't be tenable given the wave of people expected.
There are tentative plans to permit alcohol use in certain areas during the World Cup, though al-Khater declined to get into specifics.
"It'll be very clear for fans that do arrive in Qatar, which areas will be designated for (drinking)," al-Khater said.
Officials are quick to point out there are other things to do than have a drink, throw on your country's jersey and go to the stadium. Take a stroll down the Corniche, the waterfront promenade that runs along Doha Bay. Browse at the Souq, a historical outdoor market, or visit a shopping mall like the Villaggio, which offers everything from indoor gondola rides to high-end shopping to rival anything you'd find in London or New York.
LEGOS ON STEROIDS
The hope over the next four years is to systematically address all outside concerns. Do that and Qataris believe the conversation will turn away from "should Qatar be hosting the World Cup?" to "can Qatar pull it off?"
On that front, the answers are far less nebulous. Qatar is intent on putting on a show, but doing it creatively and financially responsibly.
That's why Mohammed Abdulla al-Mulla and Mohamed al-Atwaan are standing in the middle of mounds of dirt and rocks that will eventually become Ras Abu Aboud Stadium in the East Bay and envisioning a finished product that could change the entire concept of what an athletic venue is, what it can be and most importantly, where it can be.
The two project managers have been tasked with putting together a 40,000-seat stadium that will feature 1,000 shipping containers in a project that's akin to playing with the most intricate Lego set on the planet, one that will also offer a sweeping view of the striking high-rises of the West Bay that will look good broadcast in high definition to hundreds of millions of televisions across the planet.
It's savvy marketing on both ends. In an era of bloat where budgets for big ticket events like the World Cup and the Olympics are calculated and then blown up, Qatar is determined to show it can dazzle without saddling itself with hulking stadiums left unoccupied. The majority of the venues used in the World Cup will have their capacity diminished from 40,000 to 20,000 after the competition ends, with the sections taken out then put up for sale. What's left will serve as the home pitch for QSL teams.
Ras Abu Aboud won't exist at all. After the World Cup ends, it will be meticulously taken apart and dismantled to make way for a mixed-use area that will feature housing and shops.
Other innovations could have a more lasting impact.
Al-Mulla oversees a turf farm a few miles west of the city center, where he's tested 36 different kinds of grass, exposing them to various amounts of shade, sunlight and other forms of treatment to see what works and what doesn't. The turf isn't designed simply for the games — though al-Mulla points out an entire stadium can be resurfaced in less than 13 hours if necessary — but for the open recreational areas that will surround the venues after the World Cup is gone. The strain of grass it believes it will use for the World Cup could possibly signal an opportunity for other arid countries to introduce their own public green spaces.
In case temperatures do spike, there will be vents surrounding the field and behind each seat in most stadiums designed to create a "cold bubble" that could shield players and fans from lighter, warmer air.
Dr. Saud Abdul-Aziz Abdul-Ghani, professor and assistant dean at the College of Engineering at Qatar University, came up with a system that doesn't blow air directly onto your body but instead diffuses it around you, creating a blanket of sorts. They're using dummies to mimic the effect of the fans on body temperature, and Abdul-Ghani is confident the only thing that will make fans uncomfortable in the stands during the World Cup is the pressure of the stakes.
The heat shouldn't be an issue on the pitch itself. The air conditioning vents surrounding the field at Khalifa International, for example, are so strong you can feel the breeze standing at midfield. Organizers, however, are confident they'll be able to keep the AC off and only use if absolutely necessary.
They understand the long list of questions they need to answer. They've spent the last eight years trying to take care of them one by one. There are still four more to go. The pace is picking up. What once seemed like some sort of vague goal far off is approaching rapidly. Qatar is attempting to embrace all the thorny issues that come with the responsibility.
"I actually think it's going to be something that really proves that ... the World Cup can go beyond football and beyond sports and beyond what it means for the athlete," al-Khater said. "But it goes toward real social and economic change and human change and I think that's the beauty of the World Cup."