Qatar 2022: Huge challenges still ahead for the desert nation to get ready for the World Cup

One year out from the big kick-off and Qatar is already looking to extract every ounce of glamour from the World Cup on which it has lavished an estimated £5.3billion. 

Neymar’s image promotes the Qatar National Bank on every escalator and walkway in the Metro station at the Lusail Stadium, where the final will be held. Robert Lewandowski features prominently in the state-owned airline’s latest safety video. Qatar ambassador David Beckham is expected to be in heavy promotional mode when he arrives here for the Qatar Grand Prix next weekend.

‘The excitement is about to begin. Are you ready?’ is the sign-off message from the video on continuous loop near the Harrods store — Qatar-owned — at Doha’s Hamad International Airport.

Qatar still has a long way to go for next year’s World Cup as shown by the Lusail Stadium which sits in a sea of sand

Yet a Mail on Sunday investigation into Qatar’s state of readiness for the tournament has revealed the huge challenges that this tiny country, which is the size of Yorkshire, still faces, as it tries to cram in what is estimated to be more than one million fans. We can reveal that:

  • Immigrant construction workers have been told that they must leave the country by next August with only cleaning staff and gardeners allowed to remain.
  • Swathes of the city are currently dug up, as Qatar battles to install a drainage system and build accommodation.
  • Tour operators anticipate sky-high hotel prices, with only 130,000 rooms available and up to 1.3 million fans expected.
  • Operators of ‘glamping’ tented venues in the desert are hoping to make £150 a night from fans.
  • Qatar has leased two cruise liners to house 4,000 fans in ‘floating hotels’.
  • 10,000 European hospitality staff are being flown in to service new apartment blocks.
  • Qataris admit that cheering does not come naturally and that noisy fans might have to be ‘rented’ to get behind the host nation.

It is 11am on a Thursday morning and the sun is savage as an Indian worker we will call Hamad heads out towards the JCBs at the site of the Lusail Stadium, with two others. Their uniform bears the name of LandWorx, a Qatar- registered private company, for whom he undertakes a daily routine which he details.

Up at 4am to catch one of the convoy of buses which leaves his living compound at 5am, reaching this site at 6am. Work until sunset, before another one-hour bus journey. He is back at the compound by 6pm, 14 hours after his day began. He earns £10 a day — the precise cost of two coffees at one of the new places in the West Bay malls.

Hamad is philosophical about the salary and the fact there is no pay for the two hours’ travel on one of the filthy workers’ buses which we later see rumbling north in front of the setting sun, windows wide as those on board try to evade the gross interior stench. He accepts the fact that he is locked into his £10 daily pay for a year, prevented by unspecified rules from changing jobs. But it is the enforced departure which unsettles him.

Qatar’s immigrant construction workers, currently working around the clock in the huge building site Doha has become, have been told they must clear out of the country by next August, so they will not be visible during the tournament build-up.

Scores of workers told The Mail on Sunday that they are to be put on what is being called five months ‘lieu’ from then — widely understood to mean unpaid leave — with gardening staff and cleaners among those permitted to stay when Qatar welcomes the world.

Picture of people who work on the streets near one of the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup

Picture of people who work on the streets near one of the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup

Immigrant workers have been told to leave Qatar by August before the World Cup

Immigrant workers have been told to leave Qatar by August before the World Cup

‘They have not explained it to us but I have payments to make and do not know how that can happen if we have to leave and wait to be called back,’ Hamad says. ‘They haven’t told us the details of this.’

As Hamad speaks, men in hi-vis jackets head across — site foremen, it seems — and the conversation breaks up. This happens every time we speak to workers. There is a sense of surveillance here. We receive one call while in Doha saying one of us has been recognised and asking what are we planning on reporting.

Those ‘payments’ Hamad describes are likely to be the ones he makes to the money-lenders back in India. Many workers like him have taken out £1,500 loans to fund a ‘recruitment fee’ they had to pay to work out here, based on 12-month contracts. Some even sold land back home, to be here.

‘To date it is not clear under which conditions these migrants will be made to leave and whether they will be able to return to their jobs afterwards,’ says May Romanos, Amnesty International’s Gulf Researcher for Migrant Rights. ‘We know that many workers tend to pay thousands of dollars in illegal recruitment fees to secure their jobs in Qatar and take out high-interest loans to pay them. Those who will be made to leave the country could find themselves in huge debt.’

Qatar Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, which is coordinating preparations for the World Cup, referred our questions on the forced departure of the workers to the Government Communications Office, as it said it did not have oversight on this issue. The Government did not respond.

There is not much football heritage in the desert nation which is the size of Yorkshire

There is not much football heritage in the desert nation which is the size of Yorkshire 

With huge areas of Doha currently dug up, there is clearly a huge amount of work to accomplish in the nine months to the departure date. The Lusail Stadium sits in a sea of sand and will not form part of the Arab Cup, the World Cup test event, which kicks off on November 30.

The Government did not explain why so much of this city is under excavation, so near to the tournament, though anxiety about Doha’s drainage system appears to be a factor. There is very little rain here but it was chaos when almost a year’s worth fell in one day, in October 2018. A flooding problem during the World Cup would, of course, be a calamity.

Building enough hotels is the more immediate challenge. The notion of staging the world’s second largest sporting event in a minuscule country always did seem a tall order and even the scores of new hotels now under construction — mostly currently half-built skeletal steel structures — won’t be enough.

The World Cup begins a year from Monday of next week, with the host nation kicking off at 1pm. For a vision of how Qatar intends to pack in all the fans at the tournament, you need to make a straight half hour’s drive from the £443million Al Janoub Stadium, the most southern of the eight tournament venues. Out in the desert, just beyond the chemical works, the electrical substation and the gas plant of the Sealine Beach Road, are the tent camps where rich Qataris head to fire up the barbecues, ride camels and live out the old Bedouin ways.

The assumption down here is that football fans will be happy to settle for a few weeks under the same canvas, though it certainly won’t come cheap at the Sarab camp site, owned by the Supreme Committee. Brand new steel structures with canvas fastened to them have just gone up, complete with double beds and in-built shower units, arranged around barbecue pits. ‘These have gone up with the World Cup in mind,’ says a manager at the Sarab. ‘Perhaps they can charge more for the World Cup.’

He says the cost is already £150 a night, including breakfast. Fast food options — a motley collection of mobile food vans — are currently extremely limited, though recreational possibilities include camel riding, paint balling, a zip wire and five-a-side pitches.

It is thought that a more mass market form of the ‘desert experience’ will be going up much further north, near the completed Al Bayt stadium. There’s no sign of that happening. But it is anticipated that two tented villages will accommodate between 10,000 and 15,000 visitors each. Glastonbury and the Coachella festival in California have not commented on whether they have offered advice to Qatar on how to create the facilities.

David Beckham will be in attendance for the Qatar Grand Prix where he is expected to heavily promote the World Cup

David Beckham will be in attendance for the Qatar Grand Prix where he is expected to heavily promote the World Cup

There’s no evidence yet of the cruise ships that are meant to be serving as ‘floating hotels’ at Doha Port, either. But a deal to lease two cruise liners, with 2,000 capacity each, has been signed with Swiss-based MSC Cruises. Officials at the Port say traditional wooden dhow boats are also being earmarked as an upmarket alternative to two weeks on deck with the hordes.

‘There will be boat buses to take the fans from cruise ships towards the stadium,’ one port official says confidently. ‘It sounds crazy but it’s Qatar. Money talks around here.’

Prepare for tents and ships, then, because it seems that hotel costs will be prohibitive. Tour operators say that they have only been able to book apartments so far, with the World Cup Local Organising Committee block-booking all hotel rooms. ‘It will be expensive and they are all asking for a ridiculous minimum stay. Up to six months for some of them,’ says one operator.

To handle the volume of visitors to a country which comprises a mere 300,000 Qataris and more than 2.3million ex-pats and immigrants, Qatar has signed a deal which will see French hospitality operator Accor providing 10,000 staff to service 60,000 apartments and villas.

Even so, it is difficult to see how Qatar can possibly fit in the supporters of 32 countries. Fans may decide to stay in Dubai and take the 70-minute flight into Qatar for games.

The Qataris are promoting their small size as a way of getting to multiple games on the same day — another factor which will contribute to this being the weirdest of World Cups. Our test run of the new Metro system established that a fan could attend virtually all four games each day in the group stage on public transport, with a little help from shuttle buses and a decent pair of running shoes. A daily Metro pass currently costs just £2.

The four kick-off times are staggered so, with the World Cup’s second day as the test run, the schedule is a leisurely breakfast before a 1pm kick-off at Al Janoub. Then, various combinations of the Metro’s red, green and gold lines, plus shuttles at either end, will just about deliver fans to the 4pm kick off at Education City Stadium, a 7pm game out on the waterfront at Ras Abu Aboud Stadium, then a 10pm start in the Lusail, at the northern terminus of the red line.

It seems a measure of the social hierarchies of this city that uniformed Metro staff ask us to move away from a section of the platform reserved for ‘gold seat’ first-class passengers, even though the train is virtually empty and there’s not a single soul in the posh seats, with their leather head and arm rests. Good luck with policing the gold carriages when the World Cup comes.

It's difficult to see how fans of 32 countries can fit into Qatar when the tournament kicks off

It’s difficult to see how fans of 32 countries can fit into Qatar when the tournament kicks off

For many, the quintessential daily World Cup experience has always entailed watching one game and spending the rest of the time drifting around the sights, savouring the build-up or aftermath. Doha would have been an attractive venue for a pan-Middle East tournament. But impressive though the gardens of The Corniche, the historic narrow walkway of the Souq Waqif and airy new squares at Msheireb actually are, it just doesn’t seem enough for tens of thousands who won’t fancy heading back to the boat or tent very early.

Concerns about Qatar’s ban on alcohol seem overstated. There will be cheap beer at fan parks and most of the hotels serve it anyway. The West Bay Crowne Plaza already offers the novelty of you pulling your own pint. Heat won’t be a problem, either. December temperatures will mirror Britain’s in June and there may even be that rain which is causing concern.

But the Hilton Hotel, in the wealthy West Bay, provides evidence of what an alien and unsettling place this is for those who don’t fit in with the Qatari world view. The world’s LGBT community is well acquainted with the warnings about Qatar, where homosexuality is illegal. Don’t divulge information on your sexuality to a stranger. Don’t make any public displays of affection. Use a VPN connection if using certain gay network apps. A casual attempt at Hilton reception to book a dining area table for two males — this correspondent and The Mail on Sunday’s photographer — at the hotel’s Trader Jack’s bar is revealing. The hotel initially refuses. After our challenge, some excruciating phone calls ensue from the front desk manager to his superiors. ‘There are two gentlemen here. Together. What should I do?’ he asks. We are reluctantly granted entry.

The outside world’s negative perceptions do seem to matter to the Qataris. Several recent changes at the top of government here demonstrate the fact. A dedicated Ministry of Labour has just been created, with Dr Ali al-Marri, well known in human rights circles and viewed as a progressive, becoming the nation’s first Minister of Labour. Mariam al-Misnad, known for her work in helping establish a shelter for women fleeing abuse, has become Minister of Social Development and Family.

Yet even as Qataris trumpet their modernity, the place still lacks a fundamental humanity towards the immigrant workers on whose backs their big event has been built. Two years ago, The Mail on Sunday reported on the desperate conditions at Al-Sheehaniya workers’ camp, 10 miles away out of Doha. We saw 10 Indian men crammed in a stinking room with children’s bunks for beds. Al-Sheehaniya is still there. So is that type of existence.

Though one ex-pat in the media industry describes a five-a-side football group in which both Qataris and immigrant workers do mix, the unmistakable impression is one of parallel lives and worlds. The Qataris do not even supervise the manual work. It does not help that some of the immigrants’ tasks seem utterly pointless.

Alongside the Lusail Stadium is a new cycle track which runs in a straight line up towards central Doha, with an electronic counter to tally the number of people who have actually used it: 238 this year, or 0.7 per day. At the Lusail Stadium Metro terminus, a worker runs a dusting mop across an immaculate floor which is barely walked upon.

Nowhere are the parallel existences more manifest than at the match between Al-Duhail and Al Sadd — the country’s two top club sides — who are playing each other in a top-of-the-table clash.

There is serious noise from the Al Sadd contingent, though it all comes from a section of their immigrant fans, mainly African, who are packed into one area. The 1,000 or so Qatari Al Sadd contingent sit quietly and self-segregated in their own section. It is the same for Al-Duhail, with robed Qataris grouped together leaving the immigrants to make all of the noise at the match.

The raucous Al Sadd Africans are only really here for Andre Ayew, the French-born Ghana international signed from Swansea City earlier this year. They all wear Ayew replica shirts and they started flocking here in numbers after Ayew’s uncle, who says he works for Qatar Airways, posted to the Doha’s large Ghanaian WhatsApp and Facebook groups to encourage support for his nephew.

The World Cup will take place in the winter of 2022 with France looking to defend the trophy they won in 2018

The World Cup will take place in the winter of 2022 with France looking to defend the trophy they won in 2018

‘We are very patriotic,’ says Martin Dzediku, a commercial manager who is one of the organisers. ‘There are more than 7,000 Ghanaians and they love Ayew. Before we came along, there was no noise like this.’ The same seems to apply to the Al-Duhail African contingent, whose only focus is Michael Olunga, a journeyman Kenyan forward signed by the club last year from Japanese side Kashiwa Reysol.

The Qatari fans find a more muted form of self-expression, creating ticker tape by ripping white post-it notes out of pads, and seem bemused by all the singing, though pleased with it.

‘They are comedy,’ says one of the Qatari fans — Saoud, 24, who is sitting among the Al Sadd Qatari supporters and motioning towards the Africans. ‘It is true, that group have made noise but you see, this isn’t for us. We are calm. We are just not like that. We are not natural Ultras.’

Saoud, who says he works in ‘contracts’ for the Governmental Department of Housing, does not agree that the Qatari fans are self-segregated. ‘No I don’t think so. Fans can sit where they want,’ he says. However, the scenes in the stadium very much suggest otherwise.

Even the teenage Qatari fans agree that singing and dancing at football matches is not for them. ‘We are shy,’ says Faris, a 15-year-old. ‘We need to find some fans for the World Cup.’

This game has a deep significance. It is Al Sadd coach Xavi’s last game before heading home to Barcelona as their new manager, though few present seem to appreciate this. Briefly, someone with a loudspeaker chants World Cup-winner Xavi’s name and others join in. It all quickly peters out.

The game lives up to its billing — a 3-3 draw with Olunga scoring an 89th-minute equaliser — yet only 3,000 witness the action. The stadium is half empty.

This raises the question of whether Qatar is going to fill the stadiums it has built at such extraordinary expense and actually create an atmosphere, when the biggest tournament in football kicks off 12 months from now.

The answer, as with all things around here, seems to reside with money. ‘There is talk about the Qatar Football Association renting Ultras to create the noise,’ says Saoud. ‘That would be an answer. Yes, perhaps they will need to do that.’

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