As the 2022 World Cup begins next Sunday, many fans from the region are expected to head to Qatar to attend the international event given that it is being organised in an Arab country for the first.
There are those in Qatar and the wider region who see the estimated $200 billion Qatar has spent on hosting the World Cup as a waste of funds despite the international exposure the country will receive.
Though money is hardly an issue for the small country awash with gas and oil revenues and with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, some question the benefits to be gained by Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup, and the repercussions it will have on other Gulf and Arab countries.
Others also question how it will impact the local culture and traditions. Religious fundamentalists view competitive sports as a diversion from religion and there have been some social media campaigns, fanned by fundamentalist-affiliated websites, that propagate that hosting the World Cup in a conservative country will “spread evil” and dilute religious convictions.
Qatar has relaxed many of the country’s strict religious rules: visiting fans will be allowed to drink alcohol outside of stadiums though only non-alcoholic drinks will be allowed inside, a restriction on alcohol consumption adopted at matches in many European countries. And while visiting fans are advised to dress modestly, it is understood that the law will be pretty relaxed on that front. LGBT fans will also be allowed into the country, though public displays may not be magnanimously received.
Breaking taboos would not have been easy without hosting the international football tournament. Although the Gulf region is changing and tolerance is growing, few would question that hosting the World Cup is accelerating the trend.
The region has long hosted expats from almost all nationalities, ethnicities, and religions. But with the exception of a few cities such as Dubai where people may visit simply as tourists, their presence is usually for work or business reasons. Such expats and tourists are fully aware of the traditions among which they are living and mostly abide by the rules of the host country.
During the World Cup, wherever it is held, fans tend to behave as if they are in their own cities and streets.
And while it is true that Gulf citizens who spend summer holidays in European capitals may stand to watch LGBT parades in London or Paris out of curiosity, however open-minded they are it will be hard for them to accept such events in their own backyards.
Which is why, Andrew Hammond, a British writer who has covered Qatar and the Gulf region extensively, told Al-Ahram Weekly, that the Doha World Cup is unlikely to be “a conduit to tolerance if we mean the LGBT issue”. But he points out that “labour rights have been in focus for a decade over this tournament, so that can only help.”
Typical of a certain brand of criticism of the event is that when the designs of stadiums in Qatar by Zaha Hadid Architects were unveiled, some claimed that the Al-Wakrah Stadium was based on female genitalia. The late architect Zaha Hadid described the comments as “ridiculous”, pointing out that the stadium design was based upon traditional Qatari dhows.
Indeed, traditional dhows will be used as floating apartments to host fans given the number of visitors outstrips available accommodation in Qatar. Neighbouring countries, like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, are also increasing the number of daily flights to and from Doha so visitors can stay and air shuttle to Doha.
Many businesses in the region will benefit from the event, from retail and catering to car rental companies and airlines. The hotel and hospitality sector will be a prime beneficiary, though the economic spin-offs will be felt elsewhere.
The tourism sector in Gulf countries, especially those which have been developing the concept of sports tourism in recent years, is well-positioned to capitalise on the increased attention, bringing not only economic benefits but dividends related to increased cultural exposure and enhanced tolerance.
Another outcome of this epic sporting occasion is unity. The differences between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours that led to a boycott in 2017 might have been politically solved a couple of years ago, but the shared passion, and shared benefits, of holding the World Cup in Doha will further cement the ties that bind Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members.
“In economic terms, it will be good for everyone, not only Qatar. But that doesn’t mean all rivalry is gone given GCC countries are competing for limited opportunities in a crowded space,” says Hammond.
In their quest to diversify their economies, Gulf countries have long been looking beyond the energy sector. Tourism has been a major focus of their attention, and alongside desert safaris, shopping, and religious tourism, other ways of attracting visitors have been introduced.
Sports and festivals are on the rise across the region, attracting encouragement from authorities and increased investment from businesses. Bahrain, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Qatar all host Formula1 Grand Prix races. Motorsports are close to the hearts of Gulf audiences, many of whom have a passion for high-performance vehicles. These annual events bring with them an influx of new tourists.
Last month, Saudi Arabia won the bid to host the 2029 Asian Winter Games at a planned mountain resort in the multi-billion-dollar flagship Neom project.
Few can deny that hosting the World Cup in the region, despite all the criticisms, is a positive step forward not only for Qatar but the entire region.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 November, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.