Sport in Qatar: A Means to an End

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long, long time but new surprises keep popping up making it more difficult to write something final or at least definitive. (I’m out the country right now and the long summer doesn’t afford much sport). Qatar of course is trying to make its name culturally primarily through sport. While in Doha there is the Islamic Museum worth a visit for the building alone, a new Damien Hirst exhibition and various other artistic endeavours, it’s mostly known for the coming World Cup and its sponsorship of Barcelona.

Forget the idea the World Cup will be moved. It simply won’t. It will however be a winter World Cup which makes sense for all. Qatar is too far into the building process and the politics of getting the World Cup means litigation must be avoided. The point I’ve rarely heard raised is the mentioned is the fate of the fans in the summer weather. While much talk focuses on the players running for 90 minutes in the summer heat, they’ve barely mentioned the fans sitting there for the same amount of time. I’ve watched a few games live here and you sweat breathing. Imagine a stadium with 40,000+ fan sweating fans trying to get involved and you have kebab heart attack central. These guys are no athletes. Standing in this kind of heat will kill them. St John’s Ambulance will have seen nothing like it and you can guarantee the Red Crescent or Qatar health board will not be prepared for this.

That brings me to the point of this piece. In Qatar I’ve happily attended football, cycling, beach football, athletics, tennis and motor sport from the international calendar. These are big events we hear about when flicking on the TV. ‘The Tour of Qatar cycle race, the Exxon Qatar Tennis Open’ or ‘the Diamond League meet’ in Doha. The highlights rightly emphasis the sport itself but being at the events live, the cameras clearly miss and the directors obviously direct the viewer away from the fact apart from a few, mostly foreigners, there is barely anyone there.

Witness the stark example of the World Cup beach football qualifiers. We arrived in time for Japan vs Thailand, a good match (if beach football can ever be) dominated by the Japanese in particular by their tall, rangy, black defender who seemed to score from the back at will. Yes, I said black. He was black. Not Japanese tanned. But one of the world’s most insular cultures had a black guy playing for them. Good on them and he was clearly the player of the tournament.

After the Japanese win came Afghanistan vs Qatar, a real cultural battle and one you would think might be difficult for the disparate and divided Afghanis to pull off. I used to volunteer at a refugee service and when a Pashtun entered a room full of Hazari, he would immediately exit and wait his turn outside. Neither side would mix. The Qatari team was typically full of non-Qataris, much like the stadium seat. In fact at sporting events, one of the biggest games is spot the Qatari. If they come along at all, they’ll be mostly grazing the buffet at half-time and then leave or are constantly on their phones oblivious to the action. This might sound like a criticism but it is an observed fact.

As the game approached, something inspiring occurred. From all sides streamed in Afghanis of different social grouping, almost all men but in the whole gambit of dress. Dress of course, as discussed in the thobe blog, is a clear indicator in the Middle East of who you are. The game began and we moved to be next to them. They chanted and hugged each other, standing up and cheering as their team, made up of differently sized men destroyed Qatar 8-3. Despite living and working in Qatar, it was difficult to not support Afghanistan given the atmosphere around me. The crowd enjoyed the spectacle while the Qatari played on his phone.

There are advantages to this for myself. All tickets are a matter of pounds. The ability to pay for VIP tickets and the lack of organisation and fairly laid-back attitude of the security means you can get close to the players. I’ve met Mark Cavendish, Sergei Bubka and Seb Coe recently. The existence of large expat communities gives all international events potential. The greatest sporting sight was the Kenyans and Ethiopian supporters singing at each other as their runners lapped the track at the athletics.

But this brings us to the fundamental reason of this blog and sport in Qatar to raise political and cultural capital. 20 years ago almost no one without direct contact with the region had heard of Qatar. Since the previous Emir, they’ve been on a quest to make the country politically and economically important. Its raised its profile through overt and covert regional diplomacy, real estate investment and following the Dubai model of hosting international events (though it should be noted the first international Dubai event, the Dubai 7s was in fact foreign project and most events remain outside managed). Qatar sponsor FC Barcelona to untold millions and overpay for numerous sporting events. The women’s tennis tournament’s prize money rivals Wimbledon. All of this is to put it on the map.

The World Cup is the ultimate signifier of having ‘made it.’ Its a means to an end. While the World Cup should be placed in the Middle East at some point, Qatar is an illogical choice and this is not about the weather. Turkey, Iran or Saudi are a far better bet for such a tournament. A game in Qatar attracts a thousand at best and mostly these are non-Qataris. The stadiums presently being built will be ripped up afterwards and shipped to Africa. The underground system will shift few to nowhere.

Dubai recently bid and won Expo 2020. Ignoring the Pan-Arabian Enquirer’s ridiculously funny send-ups of the voting process and Dubai News’ equally ridiculous questioning of the countries who didn’t vote for them (Pakistan and Afghanistan were publicly queried why they didn’t vote for their Dubai brother!), at least Expo 2020 fits the Dubai model as a finance, tourism and business hub and therefore money reasonably sensibly spent. The World Cup in Qatar is illogical.

The government is trying to improve the situation by encouraging sport. There is a national holiday called Sports Day in February were all government departments must take part in sports in the morning and the Emir along with his family come out to play. The health department runs campaigns on healthy lifestyles. But Qataris remain over-weight. Despite Qatari men being the longest living men in the world, the newer generations passion for cars and fast food alongside the lack of facilities to walk/run (pavements are poor except at the Corniche) or ride a bike (taking your life in your hands) sends the wrong message.

Without a fundamental commitment to a lifestyle change, Qataris will get fatter. The adult generation generally appreciate their fortune and understand the changes that have taken place. The next generation will see this as nothing earned but given. Their passion for sport is ridiculed as simple shift from Barcelona to PSG when times change. Gaming and sitting around the majles are the social norms. Saudis and Kuwaitis have a terrible reputation for arrogance and petulance. Qataris so far are not there. They remain humble. But despite best intentions, this becomes inevitable in hierarchal systems. In a feudal state, the local lord with his servants and hanger-ons gets fat and lazy. Unless sport and activity beyond a single national day become the norm, the benefits of sport will be lost and simply be the very wasteful means to a geo-politicial end.

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