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David Roth | December 19, 2013

Qatar Chronicles

Part IV, They wanted it more

David Roth traveled to Qatar for a closer look at the World Cup's future home. Below is the fourth installment of his five-part series.

Previously:

★ ★ ★

Well, it's complicated. Just because it's FIFA and it's the World Cup and so of course it's complicated. But a short version I guess would be that FIFA is FIFA, which is to say it's this sort of smuggo mafia of puffy, predatory globo-elite males in suits, all of them dedicated to extracting some sort of rent from the world's totally helpless and justified love for soccer. And FIFA being FIFA, it has all these wildly un-transparent internal processes -- everything done by design in secret, endless dodgy handshake deals between men whose handshakes are mostly worthless -- that seem almost to incent lawlessness.

There is no reason to assume that this organization is awarding World Cup bids, or doing anything else, for anything like the right reasons.

And so the result of this is that the very fact that the World Cup is awarded in the way that it is, by the people that award it, creates this ambient sense of corruption. It's just very difficult to imagine this bunch of crooks using the system they built to make a reasonable decision for the right reasons. And this is true even if they make the right decision! Because it's the bribe-takingest, patronage-swappingest and generally sketchiest organization of its type in the world, it's basically impossible to assume FIFA picked Qatar to host the World Cup in 2022 because of how good Qatar's bid was. There is no reason to assume that this organization is awarding World Cup bids, or doing anything else, for anything like the right reasons.

It seems reasonable to suspect anything, in fact. There are both good reasons and bad reasons to believe that Qatar crossed various ethical lines in its pursuit of the World Cup, but maybe more to the point what lines are we talking about, exactly? None of these suspicions would seem quite so credible, let alone suspicious, if not for FIFA's involvement.

But yeah, of course voters were not persuaded solely by Qatar's stirring and well-produced 35-minute video pitch and the star power, fulsome Francophone praise and granitic grin of Zidane. Of course not. Who and what are we talking about, and can we maybe talk about it like grown-ups?

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★ ★ ★

I was sitting on a prefab veranda behind a hotel called the Grand Heritage, drinking sweet Moroccan tea, when I said some version of the words above. It was a beautiful late afternoon in Doha, and the sun was setting over the Aspire Zone, the sprawling sports facility built in 2004 by Qatar's previous Emir. I could hear birds singing in the trees surrounding the Aspire Zone's new soccer fields; a woman who worked for the 2022 bid later told me that this birdsong was fake, piped in through speakers planted around the premises.

I was speaking to James Dorsey, a Moroccan-born writer on soccer in the Middle East and professor at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. He is an old hand in the Gulf, and first visited Doha less than a decade after independence. "This was 1981," he told me. "They called the Sheraton," a grim pyramidic Reagan-era ziggurat at the far end of the Corniche "an architectural marvel." I was trying to answer a question he'd asked, and had admittedly run long in my answer. He shook his head: no. "That's how Qatar got the World Cup," he said. "I asked why Qatar got it."

Qatar was willing to -- if only because it needed to -- spend in the hundreds of billions-with-a-B dollars for the same thing.
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This is an easy enough question to answer in one sense, both the how and the why, for all its apparent and crude sportscaster-y overdetermination: Qatar wanted it the most.

This is not just a cliché: each nation bidding on the World Cup makes some calculation regarding how much it's worth to them, and the World Cup was worth far more to Qatar than it was to, say, Australia. We can see this simply in the calculations that both contenders made: Australia was willing to spend in the tens of millions of dollars to get itself World Cup-ready, and Qatar was willing to -- if only because it needed to -- spend in the hundreds of billions-with-a-B dollars for the same thing.

"Every bidder does a cost/benefit analysis," Dorsey said. "Australia puts a dollar figure on that: $45 million, that's what it's willing to gamble in hopes that it wins the bid. Could they put $200 million on the table? Of course they could. It wasn't worth it to them. But if you're doing this as a key pillar of your defense and security, your cost/benefit is very different. It's worth that much more."

Qatar would, of course, also have to spend that much more to make it work. There were three large-ish stadiums to be expanded to World Cup standards, and nine new stadiums that needed building. All of this would happen in a nation roughly the size of Connecticut, and which is for the most part frankly uninhabitable. Leaving aside the question of whether or not a World Cup should be held in a small desert country that does not yet have a full slate of sidewalks in its capital city or a handle on how to enforce its own labor laws, it seems more or less reasonable that it would cost $220 billion to stage it there. This is to say nothing of the solar-powered cooling system that would make it possible - "harvesting the power of our friend the sun," per Qatar's 35-minute bid video - which could indeed "change the world forever" if ever it came into existence, and which hasn't yet come into existence. (Doha's Al Sadd Stadium has air conditioning below seats and on the field of play, but it's generator-powered.)

In his since-withdrawn piece for ESPN on Qatar, the British journalist Phil Ball described that video as a truly inspiring cinematic work. Having seen it, I can say that it is honestly pretty good, if maybe a little heavy on the inspiring lite-Arabic music. But the video, besides showing Qatar's will and capacity to make its case -- compare this example of Qatar's pitch to this example of Australia's, note the difference in conception and execution -- is not wholly bombast, big talk and wishful thinking. Yes, it makes a big deal out of both the novelty and sustainability of holding all those games so close together, but this is another one of those things that happens to be true regardless of which sketchy soccer entity is saying it.

To have the World Cup in Qatar is to have the World Cup in very close quarters, which is not necessarily bad -- fans could indeed see two or three games in a day, and could conceivably swipe their Qatar MetroCard to see those games without so much as getting into a car. In the video, Pep Guardiola smilingly makes this very point. Granted, this would involve taking a Metro that does not yet exist to stadiums that do not yet exist, and then watching two teams play in a microclimate made bearable by world-changing technology that also does not yet exist. But a salesman is got to dream, and also, crass as it may seem, if such an implausible multi-layered miracle can be bought, Qatar would be one of the nations that both could and would buy it.

But, again, with all the things in this world on which to spend money -- Damien Hirst installations are just the beginning -- and with the dismal track records of such expenditures paying off for the nations that spend on this sort of thing, given all that: why so much, and why on this?

★ ★ ★

The answer is complicated, and certainly more complicated than Because The Emir Wanted It. Of all the risible sentences in Ball's retracted opus, the one that came to seem the most ridiculous after talking with people working for the World Cup bid -- call it Q22 if you really want to sound like you know what's up -- and familiar with Qatar was this: "at the swish of the emir's gold pen, new laws come into effect." Bizarre huzzah-for-authoritarianism tone to the side, this is not really correct. It's confusing a country without democracy for a country without politics. Qatar has only the barest cosmetic modicum of the former, and a suffocatingly large amount of the latter.

A staggering 20 percent of Qataris are related to the ruling family.
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Domestically, that politics expresses itself through a vast half-Soviet, half-Dilbert bureaucracy -- "everyone has to change one sentence in everything," one person told me, "and then they get to say 'I fixed it'" -- and factionalism within the ruling Al Thani family.

Complicating things further, the Al Thani family is, and pardon my political jargon, freaking huge -- a staggering 20 percent of Qataris are related to the ruling family. Some Al Thani's write defiant defenses of Qatar's conduct against "imperial Western Islam-o-phobia" in the Qatar Chronicle; other people with the same last name will argue for more moderation. (Sometimes it's even the same Al Thani doing both.) None of these Qataris vote, of course, but that is not to say that their opinions don't matter. "There are different schools of thought within society, and they run the gamut," Dorsey told me. "The emir ultimately has to balance that. This is a country that is not immune to coups."

So it's complicated, and of course it's complicated. Qatar's regional situation is even more so: the nation is, geographically and politically and in terms of sharing its massive natural resources, caught between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are the only two nations on earth that adhere to the strict Wahhabist sect of Islam, but religious affinity aside, Qatar's relationship with this ambitious, idiosyncratic and not widely loved regional power is as complicated as the rest of the world's. This is one of the most difficult places in the world, and Qatar -- which was not really a nation 50 years ago, and is figuring out both how to become one and what kind of nation it wants to be -- is in one of the more difficult spots in that difficult region.

This doesn't excuse any of Qatar's excesses, but it might help explain them somewhat. It's possible to view Qatar's collection of international luxury symbols -- Qatar's sovereign wealth fund owns Harrod's department store in London and Paris Saint-Germain soccer team in Paris and those diamond-encrusted Damien Hirsts and, yes, the World Cup -- as simply rich people collecting rich people things.

But there's almost certainly more to it than that. Qatar's quest to become a global brand, not in the glib corporate-Twitter-account sense of #brand but in terms of becoming a thing recognizable as an agglomeration of attributes and values and so on, can and probably should be understood not strictly as an exercise in autocratic vanity, but as a sort of public diplomacy and as an attempt to assert soft power.

This is another way to look at all those donations that Qatar may or may not have made to all those national soccer foundations during the FIFA bidding process, or to view Q22's promise to donate the upper tiers of the modular World Cup stadiums -- 170,000 prefab seats, ready to be filled -- to nations TBD after the World Cup. This helps Qatar avoid what one Q22 PR person described as "the white elephant issue," while also functioning as yet another valuable gift from a country that cannot afford to be averse to buying friends.

That sort of financial diplomacy -- or, if you prefer, "spreading around bottomless oil money in a desperate but not unwise attempt to create alliances" -- worked exceptionally well for Kuwait. It worked both in terms of raising its international standing and ensuring that, when the region's reigning bully came kicking in the door, the rest of the world came to throw him out. Qatar's vast wealth will do more to protect its future than its poignantly small army -- less than one-twentieth the size of Saudi Arabia's -- ever would, or could. Of course the World Cup is not just a collection of soccer games. But it's not just a boondoggle, either.

★ ★ ★

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It's a sprawling, rather endearingly over-the-top mall that features both a canal system and a hockey rink.

The Aspire Zone, which Qatar built to host the 2006 Asian Games -- by all accounts a great success -- consists of sprawling buildings built for swimming, diving, basketball, team handball and other sports, a number of Technicolor-lush soccer fields (both field turf and grass), the Aspire Sports Academy, and the requisite miles of windswept flagstones. Here and there people burble up: Aspire Academy kids heading to or from practice, expat kids fresh out of the pool marching out of the Just Family Fitness Center making fart noises with their armpits, the idle security guards that are everywhere in Doha. One of them chases me, slowly, off the Aspire Academy campus. He's exceedingly polite about it.

The other notable feature of the Aspire Zone, besides the towering and rather garish Torch building, is the Villagio Mall, which is "inspired by Venice" in the same way that the food at The Olive Garden is inspired by that of Mario Batali. It's a sprawling, rather endearingly over-the-top mall that features both a canal system and a hockey rink. It would be possible for someone with a good enough arm to step out of the Applebee's in the Aspire Zone and throw a baseball over a South Asian man paddling a gondola and through the window of a Tom Ford boutique. There was a terrible fire there in 2012; adults and children died in a nursery that was not built to code. The people responsible, who included a member of the Al Thani family, were convicted, although no one has gone to jail just yet.

Walk through Villagio and you will see the things you usually see at malls -- also a hockey rink and a Pizza Hut serving a "minted beef flatbread" and other strange things -- and for the most part hear only one language spoken. Seats are segregated by sex at the multiplex, but the films showing (I saw an Aussie buy a ticket for Bad Grandpa) are in English. Cash register conversations and the ubiquitous welcome-to-the-store greetings and prices and menus are all in English. This is not the native language of Qatar, of course, but it has become something very much like it.

"A local Qatari checks into this hotel, he doesn't do that in Arabic," Dorsey said. "You go shopping, you're shopping in a foreign language in your own country. The issue of Qatar for the Qataris is real, there's a real fear of losing identity, of losing control. It's unique to this part of the world. There is no other part of the world that has this demographic layout. When you talk about national identity here, you're talking about existential fear. On one level, it's simply 90 percent of your population is foreign and you're six percent of the labor force. You've got all the money in the world, but on the other hand, deep down, you know that it can't go on this way."

When you talk about national identity here, you're talking about existential fear.

What Qatar wants with the World Cup, and why it wants it, is yet another a complicated thing. But Qatar is a complicated place -- a deeply conservative nation confronted with the necessity of wild, enormous change, all of it due immediately. The 2022 Committee talks about the World Cup as a catalyst of change, and is not totally blowing smoke. But, as can be seen everywhere in the erupting-market chaos of the city, there is a point at which change is no longer a choice or a thing that can be directed, but a sort of gravitational fact.

At that point, things change much more than they are changed. Money can be spent to try to shape the change that's coming, but there isn't enough money in the world to stop it. There's something poignant about watching Qatar figure this out. It wants the world to come, and then it wants the world to leave; it wants to be seen, and it wants to be left alone; it wants to consume all the extravagances of modernity without losing any of its traditions. This is a complex and contradictory and maybe impossible collection of wants, but that's how wanting works. It doesn't necessarily have anything to do with getting. That takes care of itself.

Producer: Chris Mottram | Design: Josh Laincz | Editor: Spencer Hall | Photos: Getty Images and David Roth

About the Author

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David Roth is a columnist for SBNation.com and a co-founder and editor of The Classical and a person from New Jersey who lives in New York; he is not the David Roth from Van Halen or magic. He grew up as a fan of the New York Mets and New Jersey Nets, but is comparatively well-adjusted, considering.

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