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Lusail Postcard: City Of The Future, Window Into Qatar's Ambitions

The Qatar World Cup has been making headlines for all the wrong reasons. However, the newly constructed city of Lusail in the country makes one thing clear: the West is not the target audience for this World Cup. Qatar has different, even bigger ambitions.

phot of a big oval and modern stadium

A general view of Lusail stadium, Qatar in April

© Marcio Machado / ZUMA Press Wire
Laura-Mai Gaveriaux

LUSAIL — In business class on Qatar Airways, the screens are showing a series of 3D images of a high-tech, utopian city. The focus is on environmental performance, luxury and sophistication. Shopping centers, high-rise apartment blocks and luscious green spaces reel past, 50 seconds of refinement and harmony accompanied by elevator music. In the final scene, a man wearing a white thobe and keffiyeh, the iconic traditional dress of the Gulf region, proclaims: “Lusail City, it’s my home.”

Some 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) from the center of Doha, the “city of the future” is still emerging from the ground. Only three of the planned districts are ready to move into, but according to Lusail Real Estate Development, 90% of the homes have already been sold. However, it is impossible to know exactly what state the construction site is in – the authorities have not responded to inquiries. Lusail is a symbol of the new era that Qatar ushered in in 2010 when its bid to host the 22ndFootball World Cup was successful. The city is due to host the final match of the competition on Dec. 18.

As the World Cup draws nearer, the events that led to it being awarded to Qatar are raising allegations of corruption at the heart of FIFA, the organizing body. But that doesn’t matter to Doha: its dramatic entrance onto the world stage is a key part of its National Vision 2030. Following in the footsteps of other monarchies in the Gulf region that owe their prosperity to oil and gas, the government’s development program aims to free this tiny emirate (which boasts 13.1% of the world’s proven natural gas reserves) from the well-known pitfalls of a rentier economy.

When the property market in the Gulf collapsed after the 2008 financial crisis, work on Lusail was considerably delayed. But this setback was never officially acknowledged by the State; it was offset by new investment in other sectors. The city’s infrastructure was meant to be finished by 2022, with 450,000 people expected to live on the planned 38 km2 site. That is still a long way off.

The environmental cost of the World Cup

Work on the site got going in earnest after the World Cup was awarded to Qatar. The pitch presented to FIFA included building the largest stadium in Qatar, the Lusail Iconic Stadium – which can hold 80,000 people and cost $675 million – to host the final and nine other matches in the tournament. After a last-minute push to finish construction, the stadium hosted its first event on Sept. 9 this year, the Lusail Super Cup, a rehearsal for the World Cup. It was a disaster: a lack of drinks and problems with the air conditioning drew complaints from spectators – mainly Qataris, Arabs from the wider region and middle-class Asian immigrant workers.

But Qatari officials have mastered the art of minimizing problems. On October, 15 days before the start of the tournament, the stadium’s project manager Tamim El Abed, appeared calm: “This kind of fine-tuning is exactly why we put on the test event,” he told a group of journalists at one of the traditional press visits, the only real opportunities to hear from the authorities.

When one journalist raised the environmental impact of the air-conditioned stadiums, engineer El Abed countered that they are using an innovative system that is “the result of ten years of research”. Like the seven other stadiums built specially for the tournament (the eighth, the national stadium, was built in 1976 and has only been modernized), the temperature within Lusail Stadium will be kept at a constant 17 degrees through a mechanism that is precisely calibrated to optimize energy use.

But this World Cup’s environmental impact is about more than reducing energy use; it is about its carbon footprint. According to a report commissioned by FIFA in 2021, the tournament will generate the equivalent of 3.36 million tons of CO2 – although this figure is widely considered to be an underestimate. The construction work required to build seven new stadiums for the competition is reported to have already produced 644,000 tons of CO2. And that doesn’t take into account the other forms of infrastructure created specially for the occasion…

These emissions are supposed to be offset by buying carbon credits, but environmental campaigners aren’t convinced by that argument, pointing out that projects have not been clearly identified or financed. “Even I find it difficult to believe,” admits an Arab diplomat in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel.

An external view of the Lusail Stadium, taken in April 2022, during a media tour.

© Christian Charisius / dpa via ZUMA Press

Human rights violations

Then there are the allegations of human rights violations raised in a Guardian report in early 2021. The Qatari government has sought to suppress figures about the number of deaths on construction sites, but journalists have estimated there could be 6,500 victims. In the last few days, Qatar rejected calls from NGOs to create a compensation fund for migrant workers killed or injured in construction work.

Officially, this form of servitude no longer exists.

However, “without the World Cup, workers’ rights would not have moved forward at all,” says Max Tuñon, head of the International Labor Organization’s office in Doha, which opened in 2018. “No other country in the Gulf has allowed us to set up an office. The Qataris have introduced major reforms, including – importantly – abolishing the kafala system.”

This traditional system, based on an interpretation of the Koran, allows foreigners to move to Qatar for work under the authority of a local sponsor, who acts as a guardian. “I would say it’s more like a master,” says Edjaz, a taxi driver who worked as a crane operator on one of the Lusail construction sites three years ago. “My passport was locked in the boss’s office. He was Pakistani, like me. And we were crammed into dormitories on the side of the motorway,” he sighs.

Officially, this form of servitude no longer exists: migrant workers are no longer tied to a “kafeel” and their employer doesn’t have the right to take their papers away. Last year even saw the introduction of a minimum salary of $225. Although the law has been changed, in practice these measures are not often enforced. There is very little monitoring, and it is easy to find stories like Edjaz’s if you speak to anyone among the sea of high-vis jackets in Doha.

That is a dangerous thing to do, however, as the workforce are not allowed to talk to the press. Journalists who try to approach them have their notes and recording devices confiscated when they leave the country. This means that conversations take place in dim multi-storey car parks at dusk. The Arab diplomat dismisses the problem in the blink of an eye. “Do you really think that in these people’s home countries, the press are worried about what happens to them?” he asks in an offended tone.

A World Cup not aimed at the West

Raphaël Le Magoariec, who studies the geopolitics of the Gulf through the lens of sports diplomacy, offers a different perspective on the debate: “The Qataris have never hidden the fact that this World Cup is not primarily aimed at Westerners.”

In their eyes, Lusail is the first step in a vast plan to modernize the country, conceived by Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani, the former Emir of Qatar (from 1993 until 2013) and father of current Emir Tamim Al Thani. Hamad Al Thani was the first Emir to try and reform Qatar’s highly conservative society. He believed that Wahhabi Islam – a strict interpretation that the country shares with Saudi Arabia – was holding his country back. “In his eyes, it was a question of survival in the shadow of the country’s giant neighbor, Saudi Arabia,” says Agnès Levallois, a specialist in Arab World issues and geopolitics.

It was also Hamad Al Thani who set up Al Jazeera to promote Doha’s interests around the world. Over the past 15 years, the television channel has grown into a powerful media group, a formidable instrument of soft power despite the structural instability in the wider Middle East. Its role in the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 is undisputed.

The sheikh was passionate about sport and technology, a friend to the West, and is seen as the founding father of modern Qatar. He was the one who, in an effort to reduce the country’s economic dependence on its natural gas reserves, created the Qatar Investment Authority, which now has an estimated $463 billion of assets.

View of Qatar, Doho, and the stadium, from an airplane

View of the Lusail district of Doha and the Lusail Stadium from an airplane

© Christian Charisius / dpa via ZUMA Press

The soft power of sport

Today, his successors are continuing his legacy, seeking to exercise soft power through sports entertainment. Two years ago, the city of Lusail, which did not exist yet, applied to host the summer Olympic Games in 2032. Once again, the event would require a huge amount of new infrastructure – such as the 19,000-seater Al Thumama Stadium. This time, the Qataris pre-empted the criticism: is it really reasonable for such a small country to build such huge stadiums?

“Like Lusail, all of these stadiums can be dismantled,” explains Tamim Al Abed. “Some of the building materials will be moved to urban spaces and used for other purposes, in the future neighborhoods of Lusail City. The majority will be offered to African countries,” although the selection criteria for this are yet to be determined.

They think the systematic attacks are unfair.

“The West’s criticisms are by no means all disconnected from reality,” says Raphaël Le Magoariec. “And the Qataris must also take some responsibility, especially because they are so opaque, which feeds suspicions.”

However, it is clear that the Qataris are bothered by the criticism, as you can see from opinion pieces published in the local press, as well as conversations in town. “They think the systematic attacks are unfair, as they have willingly offered themselves up to the consequences of the international scrutiny that naturally comes with hosting these popular events.”

The World Cup is expected to attract 3.5 billion viewers, almost half the global population, and it is clear that many of them will not share the disapproval prevalent in Europe. “The Qataris have re-evaluated their position in the world,” says Raphaël Le Magoariec. Unlike his father, Emir Tamim does not want to be seen as bowing to the West.

However, the advert for Lusail City shown in business class on Qatar Airways is not aimed at the Qataris who appear in it, but at foreigners who have bought a ticket at an average price of €4,000. The make-up of this group has not changed much since the 1990s: wealthy Anglo-Saxons and a few French businessmen constantly traveling between the big global cities. They are the target audience for these new cities that are popping up across the Middle East, like Egypt’s new administrative capital announced by President El-Sisi, or Neom in Saudi Arabia.

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