Qatari assurances in Russian charm offensive fail to assure


Qatari assurances in Russian charm offensive fail to assure

Khalid Al-Naama was in Russia to assuage fears about the Qatar World Cup

by Asif Burhan

As the final whistle of the 2018 World Cup quarter-finals ended with Russia’s elimination, the intensity of the competition’s first three weeks gave way as the football took a two-day break before the semi-finals commenced without the usual suspects from Argentina, Brazil and Germany.

At this moment, attention already began to move forward to the next World Cup, a tournament already mired in controversy in both its selection and its execution away from the traditional summer months of June and July.

A first World Cup in a majority-Muslim country would be noteworthy in itself but the choice of Qatar, one of the 50 smallest countries in the world, a country that has never qualified for the finals will continue to make as much front-page news as back-page due to its surprising selection over the United States and its questionable record on human rights.

For Russians, who know all about pre-tournament misconceptions, these concerns seemed a million miles away as their people, heady on the World Cup experience, lapped up a Qatari charm offensive offered all over Moscow and St Petersburg in the final week of the World Cup.

A series of interactive portals allowed World Cup fans to connect with people in Doha, while in the capital’s Gorky Park, a dazzling Majlis installation had Muscovites queuing around the block to get a glimpse of the potential “desert experience” that awaits them in four years time.

“There is no better opportunity for us to promote our preparations, plans, what Qatar has to offer to all fans than being here in Russia” said Organising Committee spokesperson Khalid Al-Naama as Russians drank karak chai and danced to traditional Arabian music with Qataris wearing ghutrah head-dresses in air laced with the smell of incense.

“I think the Russian World Cup was a huge success, there are so many areas that we can learn from.

“We have a similar situation to Russia in that we are hosting the World Cup for the first time, that’s why I think the fan experience is the key, we have so many things to offer, especially being the first Arab World Cup, it’s about time for us to showcase the right side of our culture and our deep roots and traditions”.

If their lack of hosting experience was comparable, the two countries size and infrastructure is not.

Accommodating the influx of visitors generated by the greatest sporting event in the world was no problem for the largest nation state in the world but how will Qatar cope?

Last week FIFA revealed 7.7 million fans watched matches in 11 Fan Fests during the 2018 World Cup in Russia, three times the population of Qatar.

Al-Naama admitted that his country may have to be more innovative to meet the demand for rooms.

“We are making sure we provide different options for different fan groups. We are also thinking of providing some unique experiences such as living in the desert and also cruise ships because it’s very important thing for us not to overwhelm the country with some extra hotel rooms that we find ourselves stuck with after 2022.

“That’s why we are providing the same three, four and five star experience in different means other than the traditional options which are already there, hotels and apartments”.

The legacy for facilities in such a small country is paramount to Qatar’s bid.

“It’s very important for us to have a sustainable tournament. That’s why we always think about beyond 2022. For each stadium we have an initial plan that took in consideration the feedback and the requirements of the local communities. We admitted those ideas for the precinct and the surrounding of the stadium.

A stadium for us is not just for a sporting event but it’s for a whole hub of activities to ensure some kind of daily usage for these venues so schools, hotels, public parks, horse riding tracks, running tracks some Olympic swimming pools are being installed in these areas”.

“One additional thing is that we are downsizing some of our stadiums because the local need does not require 40,000 spectator-stadiums. We have produced the first-ever fully demountable stadium (the Ras Abu Aboud Stadium in Doha) this won’t remain as a stadium after the tournament. The core element of this stadium will be shipping containers. We will recycle those shipping containers in different areas of the country after 2022. It’s very important for us that, for every penny we spend, there is a return after 2022″.

For many, Qatar 2022 will be a tournament they watch on television, no different to any other when the whistle blows on the pitch. Yet for visiting fans, it may seem very different, the first in a country with a constitution based on Sharia law which outlaws adultery and homosexuality.

Al-Naama was quick to assuage fears about the country’s reputation.

“Qatar is a multi-national country, it has 85% expats. Such statistics showcase our acceptance for people all around the world. For anyone who has been to Qatar, they should know Qatar is one of the safest countries. Qatar is ahead on the world safety index of the UK, the US, France and Germany. Safety is absolutely not an issue.

“We are very welcoming and we are a very hospitable nation, it doesn’t matter the orientation or gender of an individual as long as they abide by the local law. For any LGBT community individuals, they are welcome, as long as they are abiding by the local civil law in Qatar”.

With the sale of alcohol in stadiums and Fan Fests such a money spinner for FIFA and its official sponsor Anheuser-Busch, Qatar’s tee-total Muslim population may not appear a fertile market but for visiting fans accustomed to drinking a beer while enjoying their World Cup football, provision will be made.

“Alcohol is available in Doha while we are speaking now, but in designated areas”, explained Al-Naama.

“You can’t find alcohol around every corner, like you can in England but there are well-known designated areas for people who want a drink. We insist the local culture should be respected. Qataris don’t drink and we don’t even like to see it in public shops. However, it is available and this will be the case during the World Cup. There will be some dry activities and there will also be some designated activities involving alcohol”.

Following a World Cup which proved to be nothing like as terrifying as feared by the press, it was easy to get swept along by the enthusiasm of a country determined to sell itself as an exciting and viable host country.

Looking back on 2018, Al-Naama concluded that:

“especially with Russia being sometimes misrepresented in the media, all of us enjoyed our time here. Once the tournament began, everyone started thinking about what really brings us together, which is the love of football. That’s why I invite everyone to come to Qatar to try to embrace the culture. There is so much to offer in Qatar, in terms of local food and beverage, clothing and traditional music I think everyone will have a unique experience in Qatar especially with a compact World Cup, any spectator will be able to visit more than one match in one day”.

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