Qatar - In the spotlight of the World Cup | DW Documentary
Every morning here in Qatar, camels are taken out for their daily exercise. The small Gulf emirate on the northeastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula prizes its traditions. These men are not Qataris.
They come from Oman or Saudi Arabia. Up until the past two generations, the Qataris were themselves desert nomads. Now their country is wealthy, and most Qataris aren’t willing to do jobs seen as more menial. During the 1990s, Qatar rose to become one of the wealthiest countries in the world, thanks to its oil and gas reserves. In the last 30 years, it has developed faster than any other country on the planet. A glittering, ultramodern world has emerged from the desert.
Qatar is currently hosting one of the world’s biggest and most prestigious sports events the men’s soccer world cup. It generates record income in television rights and is a huge money spinner for FIFA, football’s world governing body. The World Cup final is watched by a Billion people, that’s more than one tenth of the global population. The Corniche is the waterfront promenade in the capital Doha.
When I arrived here at the beginning of October the countdown for the World Cup was already on although the temperature was still around 40 degrees Celsius. I found the hot, humid conditions difficult to cope with. But for the migrant workers charged with getting everything ready in and around Doha, the conditions were now relatively pleasant. In the summer, Qatar sees temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius or more.
Heat-related accidents and illness are not uncommon, and can range from fainting to strokes, organ failure and death. Following international pressure, Qatar has taken action. In summer, laborers are no longer allowed to work outside during the hottest part of the day.
Climate now is good climate now. And in summer? Before, summer, too much problem And in summer you’re working also? Yes, working. In summer when it’s really hot? Hot, but summer three month...half night, half day. 12 o’clock, three o’clock stop, nobody working here.
Now sometime the climate will be change here, since September 1 now, they will change our duty. Depend upon our climate. Now for three months from June 1st they will change our duty timing, for three month. After that they will decide how is climate here, after that they will change. They come from poorer countries like India, Pakistan, or Bangladesh. Qatar’s population is just under three million of which two and a half million are migrant workers! That’s almost 90 percent of the population, a world record.
These laborers earn less than 28 euros a day. You get accommodation and food from the company? Yeah, yeah, from the company. And you share a room with others? Yes. How many people are in one room? Six, eight people And how much is it for a room, how much money for a room? This on company. The company pays for it? Yes.
The laws designed to protect laborers in the heat were recently expanded. The ban on outdoor work now goes from 10am till 3:30pm. Qatar is ready. Since 2010, when the Gulf state was controversially chosen to host the World Cup, preparations here have been underway. Seven new stadiums were built.
The Lusail Stadium is the biggest, seating 80,000 people. It took five and a half years to build and cost nearly 700 Million euros. The World Cup organizing committee has invited well networked young people from around the world to serve as so-called “Fan Leaders”. It’s their job to help fans from their respective home countries arriving in Qatar.
The fan leader program was started from two years ago, where Supreme Committee were collecting the people from around the world. And they start to give them educated workshop, how they can manage the crowd, how they can talk to the media, what they want them to bring from Qatar to the rest of the world. I have one friend that say, Oh I save money to buy one car, I am working for four years but I will spend all my money for the flight tickets! Welcome to Qatar! The Qataris are especially proud of the 974 Stadium. It was built out of recycled shipping containers, in a nod to sustainability and innovation.
It will host six group matches and one match in the round of 16. The modular design with containers and prefabricated sections rather like Lego pieces meant the stadium was relatively cheap and quick to build. This venue is due to be dismantled straight after the World Cup and the land used for other purposes. Many are already questioning how building an entire stadium for just 7 matches can be described as sustainable. The whir of air conditioning systems is audible everywhere. Even in the fall, with temperatures around 40 degrees Celsius, the grass needs special care.
Huge fans help to cool the air to improve growth. But this stadium has no outdoor AC unlike the other venues that have to be kept cool all the year round. Mohammed Al Atwaan is the stadium’s facility manager.
He’s a Qatari, easily recognizable from the traditional clothing that all Qatari men wear. We used 974 containers in total, that’s why even the name of the stadium is Stadium 974. And it represents the international dialing code of Qatar as a sign that Qatar is welcoming communication and welcoming everyone to join us in the first Middle Eastern, Arab, World Cup. What will happen to the containers afterwards? We have the flexibility in the design to repurpose or recycle most of the components so those containers can be used to build the same stadium with the same capacity in a different location in the world in Qatar or a different country in the world, with the same capacity as 40,000 seats. Or we can build smaller venues with a smaller capacity, so we can build 20,000 seats two venues in different locations. The World Cup mascot marks the way to the next venue.
The Al-Janoub Stadium was designed by Iraqi-British female architect Zaha Hadid. It took five years to build and cost almost 600 Million euros. We filmed workers on the glistening roof, until an angry security guard ordered us to switch off our cameras, even though it’s a public area. It was the third time we’d been stopped by security and prevented from working.
German journalist and Qatar analyst Florian Bauer knows all too well what happens if Western journalists try to report on things that Qatar’s secret service deems off limits. When he went to a district known as the Industrial Area, to film the conditions that millions of migrant workers are living in, he was arrested. The police, the military, and the secret service all came, and they interrogated us for 14 hours.
At 4 o’clock in the morning, we were released by the public prosecutor. When we asked if we could leave the country, we were told no, not at the moment. The public prosecutor even told us that he had no say in it anymore, it was the secret service, and if they don’t want you to leave then you won’t get out. And what’s your trip been like this time? You can see the Qataris are very cautious. They keep trying to caution us and even influence our reporting to a certain extent. Just today we were in the Industrial Area again and we had a car follow us, which I’ve never experienced.
It was a white four-wheel drive with a Qatari man. It’s clear we were being monitored by the secret service. It sheds a bad light on the country, at a time when it ought to be more open.
I think they should just say We’ve tried to change a lot, in some areas we’ve been successful, and others not. And that’s understandable. I’ve never known a country to advance so quickly as Qatar has in the past 12 years. And I think the Qataris would do well to highlight that in their media campaign. The Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, and his father, the former Emir, Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, have led Qatar into the modern age, using the profits from oil and gas. And they haven’t only focused on the economy.
The state-owned news network Al Jazeera, modelled on the BBC, has been something of a revolution for the Arab world. It was the first Arabic broadcaster to air not just government spokesmen but alternative views as well. The opening of Western universities is also part of Qatar’s modernization plan.
I’ve come to the renowned American Georgetown University in Doha. Here I meet Gerd Nonneman, a Professor of International Relations and Gulf Studies. He’s lived and worked here for more than a decade and is well acquainted with Qatar’s political vision. While staging the World Cup in the desert seems absurd to many, he says for the Qataris it makes perfect sense.
The basic idea was always that this was going to bring visibility and a measure of soft power, by persuading the world that Qatar is not just about camels and sand and oil. But also, the key aim was to make this part of their developmental strategy, the strategy for long-term development. So, the World Cup was one of those things that fits in that strategy.
So, it’s both a question about visibility and long-term economic development. That development is visible everywhere. Areas that were just desert back in the 1980s now boast skyscrapers, office towers and luxury hotels. The futuristic skyline has all developed in the last 30 years.
Society has also changed and not all Qataris are happy about it. Some parts of society this has gone very fast. Some people have felt very uncomfortable with literally everything’s changing in two generations. But again, the top of the ruling family have been on the one hand very clear where they want to go which is modernize without losing authenticity and identity but on the other hand they’ve implemented it in ways that try to bring in consensus. Although some people are unhappy, Qatar’s emirs have won over many, with state benefits that are second to none.
Qatari citizens receive generous allowances and salaries. Education and excellent health care are all provided for free, and there are no taxes. I’ve arranged to meet Maria again, the Fan Leader from Argentina. She’s lived in Doha for eight years and works for a company that helps South American businesses who are looking to gain a foothold in Qatar. She says Argentinians both here and back home are very excited about the World Cup.
Right now we are over 600, 700 that we are living here in Qatar. And we are expecting more than 70,000 Argentinians. Yeah it will be crazy! What will you say to the Argentinian fans when they come over? First if they can read a bit or if they can be in touch with someone that is living here, it’s nice to know a bit about the culture it’s different to our culture of course. We have like a dress code here in Qatar and you should cover your shoulders and knees. But it’s not everywhere if you see we are here in the Corniche, you will see men or women with shorts or without sleeves. And of course, with alcohol, they will not be able to buy alcohol at the supermarket, but they can drink a beer or any alcoholic drink in bars or pubs and even in the fan zones, in some of them, they will find.
So, I think it will be fine. And do you think there could be problems with unmarried couples? No. Here in Qatar no one asks you about anything. Well I’m married, but if I want to go to a hotel and book a room with a friend, I can do it, they will not request a marriage certificate.
And for the World Cup I’m sure they will not request it. Foreign tourists may not face such questions, but a Qatari woman certainly would. Sexual relations outside of marriage are banned for women. If an unmarried woman gets pregnant, she will not only be ostracized, she’s likely to end up in prison. And she can’t access medical care either. If a woman goes to check up on pregnancy issues and so on, you have to be married.
So that’s true. That’s absolutely true, so that’s problematic. If you deliver a baby, again if you aren’t married, if you can’t show you’re married, then you’re in trouble. And these are things that are problematic, and that stem really from a society that is still in large parts pretty conservative about these kind of moral, gender questions and so on. And this is not just true for Qatari women, this is true for anybody. So that’s why you hear these stories about sometimes domestic staff that have a relationship or whatever, and they’re in trouble.
It’s not as if they’re going to get mistreated, but they will often be arrested and have to be detained. Women are second class citizens in Qatar, and subject to their male relatives. They’re not free to make decisions about their own lives. Whether they want to marry, study, work or travel they’re dependent on the goodwill of their father, husband or brother. There are some limitations. There are official limitations on travel under a certain age.
You have to have permission from a male figure of authority in the family. If you are a Qatari woman and you marry a non-Qatari, then your children will not get all the benefits of a Qatari citizenship for instance. Whereas if you’re a Qatari man and you marry a foreign woman, then your children will have citizenship. So, these are the sorts of things that you find a lot of young Qatari women and not just young Qatari women agitating about, publicly. It’s also a subject of debate in “Education City”, a vast campus linked by tram that includes satellite institutes of renowned US, French and British universities.
Seventy percent of the students in Doha are women. Unlike the men, most wouldn’t be allowed to study abroad. There’s growing opposition here to the practice of male guardianship over women, and the fact that Qatari men can still have four wives at the same time. The former Emir, for example, has three wives and 27 children. But not a single Qatari woman was willing, or perhaps allowed, to speak to us on camera. I’ve come to Qatar's National Museum, which boasts impressive architecture.
It takes visitors on a journey through the history of the small desert state. Until the 1930s, the pearl trade was Qatar's biggest source of income. Britain’s Queen Elizabeth was later given a pearl necklace when she visited Qatar.
The decline of the pearl industry was followed by a period in the 1940s known as the 'years of hunger'. But in the 1950s, Qatar began producing oil on a significant scale. Then in the 1970s, the world’s largest natural gas field was discovered, most of it in Qatar’s territorial waters.
And from the mid-nineties, Qatar began selling liquified natural gas all over the world. It was the income from that gas that financed Qatar’s unprecedented modernization drive under the leadership of then Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani. He was also the one in 2010 who saw Qatar awarded hosting rights for the World Cup. His son, the current Emir, Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, has continued his policies. But he came under pressure when rival Arab states slapped a blockade on Qatar that lasted several years. We don’t accept anybody interfering in our sovereignty.
Our sovereignty is a red line. To safeguard that sovereignty, Qatar has excelled in networking and become an international mediator. Doha’s Sheraton Hotel has served repeatedly as a venue for talks between various warring parties. From the U.S. to the Taliban, Qatar has made its foreign policy as broad as possible.
The strategy is first of all complete pragmatism. There’s no ideological element to this. It’s been a decision right from the beginning let’s say the early 90s onwards when Sheikh Hamad they call him Father Emir, the father of the current Emir set out to secure Qatar’s visibility and security, anchored of course in the prime security guarantor, the United States, whom they gave this huge airbase Al Udeid Air Base. So they became very useful for the US, when they want to talk to Iran, very useful to the US also when they wanted some place to connect to, to send messages to, and ultimately have conversations with the Taliban. So Qatar then responds and says fine, they can come and set up an office here, and you guys can meet each other. Each week, men flock to the national Grand Mosque for Friday prayers.
The emir also prays here; accessing the building via his own underground entrance. Most Qataris are Wahhabis, followers of a particularly conservative form of Islam. Both private groups and government organizations have provided lavish donations to promote conservative Islam in countries, also in Europe, which has caused considerable tensions. But there’s evidence that Qatar is scaling back its activities.
Some of that money went not just to mosques and so on, and dodgy preachers, but to basically jihadi types around the Arab world. So the Qatari government clearly saw this as not something that they wanted and they’ve been cracking down very hard on that with new laws and very stringent controls to the extent that any kind of very innocent, charitable collection, you actually have to clear with the government first. Next I want to try out Doha’s new metro. Like many infrastructure projects, it was built as part of the preparations for the World Cup.
All the stations and trains have good air conditioning, a necessity in Qatar. Because of the heat and because gasoline is dirt cheap here most Qataris go everywhere by car. Public transport still needs to catch on more widely. This metro, unlike other countries, is a very new concept in the Gulf region. And we plan on integrating the metro into the daily lives of all the residents of Qatar, which includes the Qataris and all the workers.
So, it is a challenge, but I believe we are succeeding going forward. We have plans and we have implemented some plans to integrate all the residents to using the metro. As usual, another official is present during our interview whether to provide support or to monitor the conversation, is unclear. We continue to get stopped regularly by police and security officials, who question us, scan our passports and compare them with databases. The authorities here are very suspicious of journalists. Like everyone arriving in Qatar, we were required to download a Covid app on our cellphones at the airport.
This means we can be tracked at all times and our phones monitored. Building work is underway all over Doha. Qatar owes a lot to migrant workers, many of whom are poorly paid and not well treated. But under international pressure, some things do appear to have improved. This building houses the office of the International Labor Organization. In 2018, Qatar opened its doors to the ILO and began cooperating with labor law experts.
The ILO says reports that more than 6,000 workers have died while building World Cup venues are false. Six thousand five hundred is the total number of South Asian nationals who died in Qatar over a 10 year period. It doesn’t distinguish between whether these are work-related deaths or non-work-related deaths. It doesn’t even distinguish between whether these are workers or non-economically active people.
We commissioned our own piece of work to collect data from different hospitals, emergency departments, ambulances etc. to come up with a more accurate figure on work-related injuries and deaths. And in that we saw that there were 50 work-related deaths in 2020, 506 severe injuries, and 37,000 mild and moderate injuries. Safety standards have since improved, the ban on working in the heat has been expanded and a minimum wage introduced. The notorious kafala program, which gave employers complete control over their workers, has been scaled back.
But these improvements are not being applied everywhere. The new laws need to be enforced. Poor working conditions harm Qatar’s reputation and limit further economic development.
I think those of us coming from the West can’t even imagine what life is like for many of the migrant workers here. They work twelve hours a day in the heat. They live with 6, 8 or 10 other workers in one room that is just 14 or 16 square meters in size. They work six days a week, 12 hours a day plus one hour travel there and one hour back. That doesn’t leave much time for themselves.
But that’s not only typical for Qatar, it’s the same in other parts of the Gulf, and the world, and that should be reported on too. But OK, other parts of the world aren’t being allowed to host the World Cup. So are Qatar’s residents actually interested in football? Mohamed from Egypt heads a school here.
Unlike migrant workers in the low-wage sector, qualified workers with a good salary can bring their wives and children to Qatar. I’m very excited, I’m waiting for all teams to come, watch and enjoy. Also I’m waiting for my favorite team, Brazil, second team, France, I like especially Brazil is a very good team.
And you like who in Brasilia? Junior Vinicius? What’s your favorite team? Liverpool. What does it mean for you that the World Cup is for the first time hosted by an Arab country? The first time in Arab world, very exciting, I like this. And I think Inshallah Qatar, she will make something amazing. And we are waiting for this, all of us, all Arabic people who are supporting Qatar.
Back on the seafront, soccer also dominates the conversation. It’s a Friday, when workers have their day off. These young men all support South American teams. Argentina, Argentina. Argentina is very good! Messi very good playing! I like Messi.
What is your favorite team? Argentina, Argentina. All of you Argentina. Brazil! For those who have to work even on Friday, 5pm is shift change. While some are arriving for work, others wait for buses that will take them back to their accommodation on the edge of the city.
Many have since left the country. Qatar decided to send them home to create space for hundreds of thousands of fans. But even here, there’s no criticism of Qatar or the working conditions perhaps because people are afraid of repercussions if they talk.
One thing seems clear, Qatar says it will not provide a compensation fund for the families of those who died on the construction sites, something many have called for. As the sun goes down and the temperature becomes more bearable, more Qataris can also be seen out and about at the bazaar. The women wear the long black abaya, while the men are dressed in white. This part of the market sells birds and other pets.
Even though the bazaar is newly built and just made to look old, it very much reflects traditional Arab culture. Many Qataris were planning to leave the city before the hordes of foreign fans descended. Not all of them are happy about the mega-event and the Western influence that goes with it. By the standards of the West, much is not right in Qatar. But some consider the tiny emirate a model of success by Gulf region standards. The World Cup has highlighted the struggle in the Arab world to find a balance between tradition and modernity, between authoritarianism, human rights and the desire to play a role on the world stage.