Qatar, Inshallah

09 Dec 2010Mohammed Al-Shawaf

Qatar's proposed Al Gharafa Stadium. Source: www.designboom.com

In light of Qatar’s stunning victory in hosting the 2022 World Cup, I could remark that the average person wouldn’t be able to spot the tiny, gas-rich gulf nation if handed a map with its neighbor, “Saudi Arabia,” already filled in. But I’ll do you one better: it seems most people can’t even spell the country, as evidenced by Twitter’s “trending” topics on the day of the announcement, listing “Katar” and “Quatar”.

Qatar’s lack of name recognition hasn’t slowed its naysayers though, who cite the following critiques of the country’s successful bid: far too hot, far too small, far too conservative. And those mainstream concerns don’t account for the myriad of sustainable development challenges posed by Qatar’s selection, including the massive infrastructure (stadiums, hotels, mass transit) that must be developed and the human rights conditions of the workers (mostly foreign) that will build it all.

Is it starting to sound like FIFA made a terrible mistake? It shouldn’t – while this is admittedly one of the boldest (and riskiest) World Cup selections ever, I’d argue it’s also one of the most important. Here’s why:

1. *A Country of Less Than 2 Million… with 350 Million Citizens

Qatar has the distinction of being the smallest nation ever to host the World Cup. But this discounts a far more relevant fact that as the first Middle Eastern nation to host the tournament, the phrase “All Arabs are Qataris” won’t be so far-fetched. Arabs (and to a great extent, Muslims) around the world will hail Qatar’s victory as a triumph they can call their own, made that much more significant by winning in the traditionally Euro-centric FIFA body.

Still to prove: If a Qatari World Cup wants to be more than just a symbol for Arab unity, progressive hiring practices should be put into place, helping to address the 40% unemployment rate of Arab youth across the region.

2. Small, Sunny and Maybe Even Sustainable

Playing soccer in the desert in the middle of July makes it sound like FIFA’s worried the World Cup is getting too easy to win. Will it be hot? Certainly, but the Qataris’ successful bid demonstrates the power of innovation will be as prevalent off the pitch as it is on it. The 12 new stadiums will be powered by adjacent solar farms that will convert solar energy into cool air pumped into the stadiums for players and fans alike. The stadiums not only promise to be carbon-neutral, they also will be “packed up and shipped out” after the tournament has ended to provide neighboring (and less-developed) nations a world-class stadium for years to come. And since we’ve all heard how small Qatar is, traversing across the country for matches will leave an inherently small footprint.

Still to prove: Stadiums aside, there will still be significant investments in infrastructure built specifically for this event – if there is not a similarly innovative exit plan or “second life” for these investments, how sustainable is that?

3. A Model for Post-Peak Nations?

By regional standards, Qatar’s economy might even pass for “diversified”, in that they’re a gas and oil economy. Jokes aside, despite boasting the world’s third-largest natural gas reserves, a forward-looking economy is not one steeped in fossil fuels. Qatar’s emergence on the world’s stage gives it an opportunity to showcase what that economy could look like – knowledge-based and built on a very uncharacteristic trait of resource-reliant economies: an ambitious, modern education system that will produce tomorrow’s knowledge workers. With any luck, traditional oil and gas-producing nations, in the Middle East and outside of it, will take note.

Still to prove: Hosting international tournaments like the World Cup have, from an economic perspective, ended up costing more than they’re worth. The trick for Qatar will be to translate the “pride and prestige” factor into economic benefit, whether directly or indirectly.

The 2022 World Cup organizers face plenty of questions and it’s as much a responsibility of their cheerleaders as it is for their naysayers to hold them accountable. Does Qatar have the answers? Inshallah (God willing), they will.

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