The sidewalks and parks in Doha are empty in the height of summer, as residents head to the air-conditioned malls for relief from temperatures that soar to 48°C. Professional footballers from the region flee to the cooler climes of Europe to train. And anyone looking to cool off with a cold drink in Qatar's capital has to make do with a handful of pubs hidden in five-star hotels, since drinking alcohol anywhere else is prohibited in the Muslim country.
Still, Qatar has brushed aside questions about its climate and social constraints to launch an ambitious campaign to host the 2022 World Cup that is also being sought by the United States, Australia, South Korea and Japan. In some ways, Qatar is the wild card in the competition to win over Fifa's 24-man executive committee. It is the smallest nation bidding and the only one that has not hosted either an Olympics or World Cup. At the same time, the Gulf nation of just 1.3 million people has the financial muscle to guarantee a successful tournament thanks to its vast oil and gas reserves.
"I believe we have a very strong bid and a very unique bid," said Hassan al Thawadi, the chief executive of the Qatar bid committee. "It's a historic bid in terms of coming for the first time to the Middle East, a region that is very hospitable, rich and diverse in terms of its culture and has an unprecedented passion for the game. Bringing it to the Middle East will truly allow football and Fifa to reach its true potential as a culture event."
Qatar has taken an aggressive approach to promoting the bid. It struck a deal to sponsor the Confederation of African Football congress in January, negotiating an agreement that gave it exclusive access to the top officials in African football. It also plans to fly Brazil and Argentina into Doha for an exhibition match just two weeks before the winning bids for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups are announced in December.
It also hired the likes of Ronald de Boer, the Holland great, and Pep Guardiola, the Barcelona coach, to promote the bid, as well as Mike Lee, the consultant who was instrumental in helping London secure the 2012 Olympics and Rio de Janeiro the rights for the 2016 Olympics. "They have the money and they will spend generously on this," said Abdul Khaleq Abdullah, a political science professor at Emirates University in Abu Dhabi. "There is no limit to how much they could pay. Money talks in these events. It has been proven time and again. If you are serious, you have to raise your investment profile."
Al Thawadi said Qatar is developing "second-generation cooling technology" that will keep stadiums, training facilities and fan areas at about 27°C, far cooler than the 41°C that Qatar averages in June, July and August. Qatar also plans to allow alcohol consumption in fan zones and Western-style bathing suits to be worn at hotel pools. Al Thawadi, a football fan educated in England, acknowledges that he was inundated with questions concerning Qatar's weather when he visited South Africa for the recent World Cup. But he said once he explained the proposed system that continuously pumps cool air into the venues, most people were convinced Qatar can keep the heat at bay during matches.
"I will tell people who have heat concerns come to the Qatar, visit the country and see what it has to offer," al Thawadi said. "Meet the people and meet expats who come from cold countries and make Qatar their home and are here over the summer and haven't left. The concerns shouldn't be much of a concern at all." To bolster its case, Qatar has unveiled a US$4 billion (Dh14.69bn) plan to build nine stadiums and renovate three others - all with the new cooling system.
A prototype stadium for five-a-side football is scheduled to be on display when Fifa's inspection team visits on September 13 and the technology "will be tweaked" over time to ensure it also can be used at training sites for the 32 competing teams and fan zones, al Thawadi said. Qatar also plans to spend a staggering US$42.9bn on infrastructure upgrades that will include a new international airport and an air-conditioned public transport system. Everything incorporated in a World Cup bid could be ready as early as 2017.
The stadiums have futuristic design blueprints, including one designed in the shape of a dhow and another with an asymmetrical seashell motif. Sepp Blatter, the Fifa president, gave Qatar's bid a boost earlier this year when he said the Arab world deserves to stage a World Cup. Blatter was instrumental in delivering the World Cup to South Africa, the first on the African continent. Blatter said the Qatar government's successful hosting of the 2006 Asian Games showed it was capable of organising big international events.
Still, the bid has its doubters. Critics question whether Qatar's largely untested cooling system will work and many Westerners remain unconvinced that Qatar will relax its conservative ways and allow fans to let loose with dancing and drinking in the streets - which has become the norm at World Cups. "It would not be in the best interest of Fifa to allow Qatar to host the World Cup in 2022," said Erwin Roth, the Austrian strategist who has spent almost three decades promoting international sporting events, including the failed bid by Salzburg, Austria to host the 2014 Winter Olympics.
"A lot of problems would arise," he said. "What do you do with the fans when the games are over? You will have all fans in this tiny, little city in 40°C-plus temperatures. Where do you put them? You would have to build zones where they party and women would be allowed." Simon Chadwick, a sports marketing expert at Coventry University in England, said Qatar's bid has been helped by the success of South Africa, which showed that a developing country could host a successful World Cup.
"There are concerns about the culture of Qatar," Chadwick said. "You are going to watch football. Are you going to be able to drink, eat pizza and hang around in the streets singing songs? People perceive that because Qatar is a Muslim country that they won't be able to do that." And even if Qatar can overcome these concerns, its bid could be hampered by relations with Israel and competition with China.
Since it has no diplomatic relations with Israel, Qatar could face a quandary should Israel qualify, or if its officials or fans want to attend. Qatar, which ended low-level contacts with Israel last year, has said repeatedly that any team that qualifies would be welcome. Fifa would require Qatar to allow any Israeli delegate to attend its congress and opening ceremony. Another issue is China's possible bid for the 2026 World Cup. This could weigh on Fifa committee members, who would have to debate whether to vote for an Asian host in 2022 or wait until 2026. One continent cannot host consecutive World Cups.
* Associated Press