x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

World Cup honour to transform Qatar

In addition to national pride, banks expect the investment in infrastrucure, including a new metro line, to reach over Dh100 billion.

An aerial view of the Khalifa stadium in Doha
Fadi al Assad / Reuters
An aerial view of the Khalifa stadium in Doha Fadi al Assad / Reuters

DOHA // A flat expanse of land 15km to the north of Doha, populated by little more than a handful of cranes and workman's huts, has so much space that it can host several games of cricket at the same time. It looks an unlikely venue for a World Cup final.

But Thursday's announcement that Qatar will host the 2022 football tournament has ensured that the area will soon become unrecognisable. The 86,250-seat Lusail Stadium will be built at the heart of a new city that will transform the landscape. It is one of nine stadia that will be built within a short drive of the capital to host the world's largest sports tournament.

"The result was tremendous, just tremendous," Haroun Rashid Qureshi, the Pakistani president of the Pakistan Cricket Academy, said yesterday while his team waited to compete on the sandy pitch. "This is our second homeland and we have taken the news as if we had won it ourselves."

"We might lose this ground, but the government will give us another. They are very generous with any kind of sport," he said.

Qatar's victory has united citizens and foreigners. When he heard the news "my daughter, my wife and I were screaming as if we'd won the World Cup itself," said, Ahmad Sharaneck, a Canadian and Lebanese citizen who has been living in Doha for four years. "It was full of emotion; we felt unity."

Mr Sharaneck was buying an assortment of Qatari flags and scarves from street vendors to decorate his car. Many others are set to benefit from an economic boom that is expected to follow the victory.

The government has allocated US$4 billion (Dh14.7bn) to upgrade existing football venues and build air-conditioned "modular stadiums" that can be broken up and shipped to poorer countries after the event. Banks expect investment in infrastructure, including a new metro line, to reach over Dh100bn.

"This cup is being used as a catalyst to drive economic development," said Ehsanullah Mian, the Pakistani head of corporate and institutional banking at Al Khalij Commercial Bank.

"This region will be unrecognisable in a few years; this is too good to be true," said Ahmed al Mohannadi, the editor-in-chief of Doha Stadium Plus, a sports news weekly, while helping erecting a 10 metre picture of the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, holding the World Cup in Zurich the previous night. Mr al Mohammed worked through the night to make sure the image was at the roadside to welcome the Qatari delegation home in a victory parade held last night.

"The rest of the world sees us as a strict Islamic region; this tournament will give us the chance to show off the real Middle East," Mr al Mohannadi said. He said Arabs often believe there is a conspiracy against them in the West, but "Fifa has proved this isn't true, they've proved the World Cup is for the entire world."

The editor brushed aside claims in the press that Qatar had used its prodigious energy wealth to buy Fifa votes. He said the United States bought votes to ensure the Winter Olympics went to Salt Lake City in the past, and it could have easily outspent the tiny Gulf state.

"It's not about paying money; we convinced the world we can do it," he said.

Qatar and Russia, which will host the cup in 2018, benefited from Fifa's eagerness to expand into new territories this week, as did South Africa when the tournament was held in Africa for the first time this year.

Some have questioned if Qatar's conservative society will be comfortable with the alcohol-drinking fans that will descend on Doha when matches begin. Mohammed Abdulaziz, a vice president of an investment company, said during Doha's street celebrations last night that the emir has said alcohol will be consumed during the tournament in designated areas. He said he accepts it as "part of the package."

Thousands of cars, draped in the national colours and with flag-waving citizens hanging out the windows, gridlocked roads for the second night in a row.

"The impact of this tournament is phenomenal, it's a dream come true. This tournament is announcing the Arab Gulf countries to the world," said Mr Abdulaziz.

He recalled that when he studied in the US, Americans commonly mispronounced his country's name as "Gatar".

"I think they will remember how to say Qatar after this."