Pride and poverty: Qatar’s World Cup fever tempered by legacy of labour abuses

With a year to go, the new stadiums, hotels and roads are finished and locals are excited, but the low-paid workers who built them are ambivalent

When asked if he’s looking forward to the World Cup, Mohamed, an Indian salesman, grins as he casts his fishing line off the promenade in the heart of Qatar’s capital, Doha. “Very much,” he says. “I love cricket!”

With a year to go until the football World Cup kicks off, Mohamed’s response may have the event’s organisers worried. After all, about 70% of Qatar’s population are from the cricket-loving subcontinent.

But on a Friday evening in Aspire Park, filled with families enjoying picnics and children playing football, another Mohamed has a different take. “We’re all excited and supporting the World Cup. The stadiums are amazing,” says the Egyptian chemistry teacher. “All Arabs are proud. It’s already a triumph!”

The two Mohameds reflect the diversity and divisions – of nationality, culture and sport – in this tiny Gulf state of 2.6 million, where 95% of the working population are foreigners.

For Qataris and Arabic speakers, the overwhelming emotions appear to be pride and excitement to be hosting the first World Cup in the region. But for the low-wage workers the Guardian has interviewed, mostly from south Asia, the response is ambivalent: a mixture of a lack of interest, a focus on earning money and the knowledge that even if they wanted to watch a match, they could never afford a ticket.

Qatar’s diminutive size – organisers have called it the “most compact World Cup ever” – is evident on the final approach to Doha from the air. In just a few minutes you glide past Al Bayt Stadium, then the Lusail Stadium comes into view, like a giant wicker basket, and as the landing gear is lowered you pass by Ras Abu Aboud, a stadium made partly of shipping containers, which will be dismantled after the event.

The view from above also reveals Qatar’s monumental ambition and wealth: seven stadiums, a new airport, roads, a metro system and hundreds of hotels. In 2017, Qatar’s finance minister said the country was spending $500m a week on World Cup-related construction.

The furthest stadium from Doha – just a 30-minute drive away – is Al Bayt, a graceful structure designed like a nomadic tent. The only other building in sight is a McDonald’s, built in the same style as the stadium.

Al Bayt stadium in the city of Al Khor, one of seven new stadiums built for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar
Al Bayt Stadium in the city of Al Khor, one of seven new stadiums built for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. Photograph: Mohamed Farag/Fifa/Getty Images

Touchy guards stand in the shade and shout at you if you try to take a photo. One says he has no interest in the World Cup, he is just here to make money. “I can be standing guard here beside the stadium or over in that town, it doesn’t make any difference to me,” he says. “I’ll leave before the World Cup. During the event we’ll have far too much work.”

Sitting in a park in Doha, a group of south Asian community activists who have all worked in Qatar for more than a decade are similarly ambivalent. “When I came to Qatar there was nothing here. We built this country but they are not thinking about us workers,” says one. “How can we afford World Cup tickets on our salaries?” adds another.

While ticket prices have not yet been announced, Fifa is already selling hospitality packages that start at £705 for a first-round match and rise to £845,000 for a 10-match package in a private suite.

The only group of low-wage workers who appear excited about the tournament are Kenyans, steeped in years of Premier League coverage. “I love football. I would love to see the players in real life. I would tell my children about it when I am old,” says one, a guard at a top-end hotel.

The shadow of abusive labour practices and workers’ deaths hangs over the tournament despite new laws to introduce a minimum wage and give workers the right to change jobs. Concern for workers’ rights has prompted protests by the Norwegian, German, Danish and Dutch national teams during the qualifying rounds.

Those concerns are shared by some workers. “We hear news of people losing their lives, so I don’t think the World Cup should be coming to Qatar. I don’t think they have apologised yet, at least to the families of those guys. They should have done something to avoid this,” says a Kenyan barista.

Labourers on the Katara Towers project in Lusail City leave the site at the end of the day
Labourers on the Katara Towers project in Lusail City leave the site at the end of the day. The Towers will host two luxury hotels, which will open in time for the World Cup. Photograph: Pete Pattisson

The mood among Qataris and other Arabic speakers in the country is far more upbeat. There is a sense that the country is punching above its weight, an eagerness to showcase the best of the region and satisfaction at overcoming a series of controversies that have dogged Qatar since it won the right to host the event in 2010: allegations of corruption at the bidding stage, criticism of the abusive conditions endured by migrant workers, an economic blockade led by its neighbours Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and then the coronavirus pandemic.

“The World Cup will be amazing!” says Mustafa, an Egyptian Liverpool and Mohamed Salah fan who manages a store in one of Qatar’s upmarket shopping centres. “Lots of tourists will come. They will experience a new culture. It’s a chance for different people to come together.”

Sitting nearby is Jamal, a Qatari citizen and retired IT worker, who says the World Cup is important for the region. “We’re the first Arab country to host it. It’s a big achievement,” he says. “The World Cup means a lot to Qatar. We’ve done better than other countries which are bigger than us.”

In the “VIP wing” of another mall, Abdulrahman and his friends are drinking coffee served out of a vintage delivery van. Nearby, young Asian men who want to gawp at the top-end designer stores inside are turned away at the entrance. Abdulrahman, a Qatari who works for the interior ministry, tells me about the training he is doing with his counterparts from the UK and the US to ensure the World Cup is “safe and secure”.

“The Qatari people are very eager for the World Cup. We are a country of openness; we want to excel at everything and we welcome everyone,” he says.

When I ask him who will win the World Cup, he replies with a smile: “Qatar!”


Pete Pattisson

The GuardianTramp

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