With this year’s World Cup concluding in Moscow on Sunday, preparations are already well underway for the next World Cup in Qatar. But the emirate – which won the rights to host the 2022 tournament eight years ago, via a controversial process that raised serious corruption concerns – is entering the home stretch of construction with a serious handicap.
Qatar sent more than 100 experts from various fields to the World Cup in Russia to learn lessons on how to run the tournament – not just the sporting event itself but, primarily, how to host the tens of thousands of fans, tourists, television crews and dignitaries who will flock to the Qatari capital of Doha.
Qatar and soccer’s governing body, FIFA, still haven’t made a final decision on whether the 2022 tournament will feature 48 teams, like the 2026 event in North America, or only 32 – as has been the case since 1998.
This decision will significantly affect the number of hotel rooms the city will need to provide, the number of access roads, the number of visitors crowding into the capital, and the water and electricity infrastructure.
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Qatar is currently building four stadiums (FIFA says it is aiming to build nine new stadia in total) and, according to FIFA auditors, the infrastructure work is progressing on schedule.
Criticism of the harsh working conditions endured by the migrant laborers brought in especially for the project has waned in recent years, and the problem of the scorching heat was solved by moving the tournament from its traditional summer date to the winter.
Doha, which initially budgeted close to $20 billion for the preparations, slashed the budget by almost half last year. But this won’t hamper the preparations, because, according to senior Qatari officials, their initial budgetary estimate was much higher than necessary.
What remains unknown is how many supporters are likely to attend the tournament. Doha isn’t Moscow – not in terms of size, and certainly not in terms of the entertainment it can provide. Drinking alcohol is forbidden, except in specially designated hotels. Bars and nightclubs don’t exist, at least not officially. Restaurants do exist – both local ones and international chains – but they probably can’t even hold, much less feed, the thousands of likely visitors.
Unlike Russia in general, and Moscow and Sochi in particular, Qatar isn’t really a tourist destination – or, to be more accurate, it’s horrendously boring. Anyone planning to fly in for the World Cup shouldn’t expect an enticing package tour of the kind Moscow offered. Moreover, anyone who wants to include Dubai or Saudi Arabia in their soccer pilgrimage will find themselves in a diplomatic minefield.
A year has passed since Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt imposed a suffocating economic boycott on Qatar. Qatar’s land and air links with these countries were almost completely severed.
Its national airline, Qatar Airways, was forced to cancel dozens of daily flights to these countries and slash the number of destinations it serves. It suffered enormous losses, but since it is a state-owned company can expect a bailout to extricate it from the crisis and keep it alive.
Maritime traffic also suffered a severe blow and all imports now come through either Iran or Turkey, or via a lengthy sea voyage through the Persian Gulf. This has caused the costs of building Qatar’s World Cup infrastructure to soar.
The blockade was meant to force Doha to change its policies: end its alliance with Iran; stop supporting the Muslim Brotherhood; and muzzle the state-funded Al Jazeera television broadcaster, which, over the years, has become Qatar’s most effective whip over other Arab states. If the blockade isn’t lifted, aerial and naval access for soccer fans will suffer, which will upend the tournament’s revenue projections.
Qatar has petitioned the International Court of Justice against Saudi Arabia and the UAE, charging that they violated international law. It’s also trying to get FIFA to pressure Riyadh to stop defining Qatar as a state sponsor of terrorism.
But not only has Saudi Arabia remained unmoved, it recently pulled a new plan out of its hat – one that, if implemented, would turn Qatar into an island with no overland access.
The plan would replace the land border between Qatar and Saudi Arabia with a canal 60 kilometers (nearly 40 miles) long, 200 meters wide and 20 meters deep. The canal would be entirely in Saudi territory, so Qatar won’t be able to claim its sovereignty has been violated. But while the eastern side of the canal would be lined by military bases, Riyadh plans to build a resort on the western side that could steal Qatar’s few tourists away from it.
Saudi Arabia has so far proven unable to solve the Middle East crisis and conflicts through diplomatic means. And in this case, too, it is turning instead to its principal source of leverage: with a $750 million investment, it seeks to complete Qatar’s isolation. It sought bids for the work of digging the canal last month, and this month is expected to announce which company or companies won the enormous job.
Some people are already seeking to adopt this solution for the Gaza Strip as well. A few years ago, Petah Tikva’s municipal museum hosted a fascinating exhibit that showed Gaza as an island in the sea, completely severed from Israel. It described Gaza as a flourishing industrial center and resort with waterskiing, yachting and hotels. A real dream. Even Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz embraced the concept when he proposed building a seaport for Gaza on an artificial offshore island.
It seems unlikely that either Saudi Arabia or Israel will realize their dream. But the historic precedent now beginning to take shape in the Persian Gulf may yet be exported to our region.