DOHA (Reuters) - The questions began almost as soon as Qatar won the right to host football’s 2022 World Cup. How will a tiny, gas-rich Gulf Arab state cope with an influx of hundreds of thousands of football fans? How will the fans cope with the searing summer heat? What about drinking in a conservative Muslim society?
For most Qataris, the world’s most watched sporting event represents a chance to offer a new image of their homeland and the wider Middle East.
“This is not just for Qatar, but for the whole region,” Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al Missned, wife of the country’s ruler, told Reuters in an interview.
“This is an opportunity to eradicate misconceptions, not just about Qatar, but about the wider Islamic and Arab world. We are a very welcoming country, a young nation. And we are not just dreamers, we are achievers.”
But the questions are likely to continue right up to the World Cup itself.
Take alcohol, which many fans see as part of the football experience.
Although not “dry” like neighboring countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, alcohol is served only at elite hotels in Qatar, and public drunkenness is prohibited. Will the rules be relaxed in twelve years time?
Bid organizers have promised that some concessions will be made.
“The bid committee has done its homework. We recognized that there would have to be some allowances in (alcohol) availability. It’s not especially looking forward to hordes of drunken football fans behaving in an antisocial way, but no country welcomes that,” said Mike Lee, a consultant who advised Qatar on the bid and helped London win the 2012 Olympics and Rio those in 2016.
“Qatar is an environment where Westerners are welcome, and already has a large expat population. Not only is alcohol readily available at hotels, but for the period of the World Cup it would be offered in other areas as well.”
Expats currently comprise about 80 percent of Qatar’s population of 1.7 million.
Consumption of alcohol is likely to be largely ignored by the country’s predominantly young population, as it is swept away with the euphoria of hosting the competition, many believe.
“Around 50 to 60 percent of the population are aged in their 20s or below, so they are more tolerant and I think they will embrace the event as a whole,” said Sultan al-Qassemi, an Emirati social commentator based in the United Arab Emirates.
The number of outlets serving alcohol in Qatar is likely to increase over the next 12 years, Qassemi said, while a planned $3 billion 40-kilometer causeway to Bahrain, where alcohol is more freely available, may also make it easier to bring drink into the country.
Importing alcohol into Qatar is currently illegal. Government and bid officials have not said whether this will change prior to the tournament or for its duration.
“I imagine that they will set up areas for conspicuous alcohol consumption; a bit like how they divide off restaurant areas in Dubai malls during Ramadan,” said David B. Roberts, a researcher at Durham University in the UK.
“(Qatar’s Emir) came to power largely, though not exclusively, by successfully courting younger generations. Sport played a significant role in this. His calculation is that Qataris will be proud enough of Qatar hosting the World Cup to forgive him the liberalizing of the laws.”
Then there’s the heat, which in summer can soar to above 50 degrees Celsius, making even crossing the street a challenge.
Although the tournament will be played during the two hottest months of the year, bid organizers say the heat inside the stadia will not be an issue thanks to climate-controlled, zero-carbon-emitting stadiums.
The country plans to harness solar-powered technology to cool stadiums to about 27 Celsius on the pitch — a system that has worked on one small stadium in Qatar but is yet to be proved on bigger buildings.
How fans will cope outside the stadiums, however, is another matter.
“The bid committee and government have been very astute about bringing in engineers, architects and designers. Given the technology they’ve already developed, it could very well also be possible to air condition fan zones, not just the stadia,” Lee said.
Though World Cups are traditionally held during the northern hemisphere’s summer months after the end of domestic league competitions, some have suggested that the event take place in January, when temperatures are a comfortable 25 degrees.
“Plans for the biggest leagues would have to change for 2022, but that would not be a major undertaking,” FIFA Executive Committee member Franz Beckenbauer said recently in comments to German newspaper Bild.
Bid committee and government officials are yet to comment on such a move.
In its technical report, FIFA cited Qatar’s intense summer heat as a potential health risk for players and spectators.
“In my view, FIFA has sold out the heritage of the World Cup — their coffers might be full at the end of it, but morally they have bankrupted themselves by totally ignoring what their own inspectors said about the unsuitability of the place to host the tournament,” said one UK-based soccer analyst.
The decision to award the event to Qatar, made amidst allegations of collusion, drew much media criticism, particularly from the British press.
Two FIFA executive committee members were banned and fined over allegations they had offered to sell their votes in the vote to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.
But FIFA’s ethics committee, which investigated allegations of collusion, found no evidence that Spain and Portugal’s joint bid, which lost out on the right to host the 2018 Cup, had cut a deal with Qatar.
Qatar says it will prove it is a worthy host. Over the next five years it plans to build a $25 billion rail network, a $5.5 billion deep water seaport and a new airport for $11 billion which will be connected with big new residential and commercial projects in the northern part of the capital, Doha, by a $1 billion crossing. It will also spend an additional $20 billion on new roads.
For the World Cup, plans are in place to complete a metro system connecting each stadium by 2017 with venues no more than one hour apart from each other.
“The Qatar team made a very conscious decision to bid for 2022 and not 2018, whereas several bidders put themselves into both. They knew they were going to need a decade to deliver everything,” Lee said.
Blessed with abundant hydrocarbon resources — the country contains the world’s third largest gas reserves and is the largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG) — it has poured much of the windfall from LNG exports into education and cultural projects.
It hosts a cluster of elite Western universities, a scientific research park filled with blue-chip energy companies and a much-lauded museum of Islamic art. It plans a host of other museums, including one designed by famed French architect Jean Nouvel.
“What struck me about Qatar was that they really do want to put these resources to very good purposes. It’s not a question of just letting the oil and gas flow,” Lee said.
“The international and media interest in Qatar will now be tremendous. Rather than focusing on the political troubles in the region, the win is an opportunity to talk about what a country can achieve if it uses its resources in the right way.”
“With the world watching, Qatar will want to send a clear message: we deserved this, we’re going to make the most out of it, and we’re going to show everyone a different side of the Arab world,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at Brookings Doha Center, the Qatar branch of the Washington think tank.
To this end, Qatar’s bid committee put a woman, Sheikha Mozah, at the heart of the final presentation, a move which some analysts believe impressed the committee. The only other bid to do that was Russia, winner of the 2018 tournament.
Bid CEO Hassan Al-Thawadi also promised that Israel would be welcomed to compete. FIFA would not have entertained a bid from Qatar if there was any suggestion that Israel, shunned by most of the Arab world, would not be allowed to compete if it qualified.
FIFA president Sepp Blatter recently suggested that Qatar could host the event with neighboring Gulf countries. But observers in the region say that it is unlikely the Gulf state will share the glory.
“Obtaining the World Cup is the apogee of Qatar’s policies in the past decade, where they have shown a single-minded determination to publicize themselves as much as possible, primarily to boost Qatar’s soft power,” Roberts said.
“The Gulf is a competitive place. Hosting the World Cup, the publicity it will bring, the contacts that will be made, the money on offer, the kudos and respect that hosting a successful event will bring, may prove a massive competitive advantage.”
Additional reporting by Jason Benham in Dubai and Ben Klayman in New York; Editing by Simon Robinson