The primarily-Muslim, Middle Eastern nation of Qatar is set to host the 2022 World Cup, the globe’s premier soccer tournament.
For many in the West, it will be their first exposure to Qatar. So what do we know about it?
The nation is an oil-rich peninsula, about the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut, jutting out into the Persian Gulf. It shares a border with Saudi Arabia and lies south and east of Bahrain, north and west of the United Arab Emirates, and across the gulf from Iran. It has about 380,000 citizens and about 3 million residents, most of whom are migrants who form the country’s workforce.
It is a monarchy ruled by Amir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, who took over nine years ago in 2013 when his father peacefully abdicated. He was only 33 at the time and is now 42. While there have been several intra-family peaceful coups, the same dynasty has been in place for many generations dating back to the 1860s.
Prior to the 1860s, it was mostly home to nomadic animal herders, fishermen, and pearl-divers. Then, notwithstanding a period of Ottoman occupation, for most of its history between 1868 and 1971, Qatar was a British protectorate.
It was during this time, around 1949, that Qatar began to realize its tremendous wealth created by oil and gas development. This led to a sustained period of relative modernization and investment in infrastructure and education.
In 1971, Qatar declared its independence from Britain, and in the decades since, has generally fostered cooperative ties with the west and particularly with the U.S. Qatar has campuses of several American universities in country, such as Georgetown, Northwestern, and Carnegie Mellon, and it funds the Al Jazeera media conglomerate, familiar to many western audiences.
During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, Qatar served as a base for U.S., French, and Canadian forces to attack Iraq after it invaded Kuwait. In 2003, Qatar served as a base for U.S. and allied forces to attack extremist forces, including the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Today, Qatar is home to the Al-Udeid Air Force Base and the headquarters of U.S. Central Command Forward. Qatar also cooperates frequently with the U.S. Treasury Department to stop the flow of funding to extremists in the region. The U.S. and Qatar have also developed a robust trading relationship, with the exchange of tens of billions in investment in a variety of sectors.
Qatar has had a fairly complicated relationship with its neighbors, including a rivalry with the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, which organized a regional blockade against Qatar from 2017 until 2021 — reportedly due to overly friendly relations with Iran and other destabilizing forces, though it remains a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Qatar attempts to position itself as an honest broker between conflicting parties.
Qatar was a surprise choice to host the 2022 World Cup when the decision was first announced in 2010. Allegations of impropriety abounded from Qatar’s opponents, though investigations did not result in solid proof of corruption, but for potential corrupt offers by FIFA officials that did not appear to alter outcomes. In the intervening years, human rights groups have levied a steady stream of attacks against Qatar for alleged abuses of migrant workers, unnecessary deaths during construction, unsafe conditions, and unfavorable laws. Rights groups also criticize Qatar’s stance on gay rights and women’s rights because homosexual acts and extramarital sexual acts remain illegal and punishable by imprisonment in the conservative nation.
In response, Qatar has launched a series of reforms. They changed their kafala system of labor laws to establish a minimum wage and grievance process, and to grant employees liberty to change jobs more easily and to travel in and out of the country more freely. They have received praise from investigating organizations for the quick progress they have made. The Amir also boasts of female empowerment in the country, where he says that now more than 60% of university students are female and half of women in the country are in the workforce, including in powerful government roles.
The Qatari government has proclaimed that everyone is welcome in its capital of Doha for the World Cup no matter their race, religion, sexual orientation, country of origin, or creed. It has even established areas to allow soccer fans to drink alcohol, which is a progressive step for a Muslim nation. While they do not have formal diplomatic relations with Israel, they have also announced an agreement to allow Israelis and Palestinians to fly together from Tel Aviv to Doha for the tournament.
One of the biggest challenges in preparing for this World Cup has been housing, transporting, and accommodating the over one million guests expected in the small nation over the coming weeks. Qatar has embarked on a decade-long development process to expand its airport, create a state-of-the-art public transportation system, build seven new sustainable stadiums, and diversify its energy grid to harness the abundant solar energy in the region. They also moved the dates of the tournament from the summer to November and December to avoid extreme heat. They further contracted to create living quarters on massive cruise ships, vacant housing units, and in pop-up temporary quarters. Still, many visitors will stay in neighboring cities such as Dubai with excess hotel capacity and additional years of experience hosting western visitors.
Qatar has announced and advanced a National Vision 2030 in hopes of burnishing a lasting legacy from its entry onto the world stage, a legacy with a more diverse, knowledge-based economy and thriving tourism and cultural sector. In recent years, it has gained experience hosting major conferences, fashion shows, concerts, establishing impressive museums and shopping centers, and hosting sporting tournaments.
Perhaps most of all, Qatar seems keen to welcome the world to its territory and celebrate the world’s—and its people’s—favorite sport. While Qatar’s selection has not come without controversy, it does present an opportunity for the world to exchange ideas with Qatar and perhaps foster greater understanding. It also gives the country an opportunity to show off its modernization efforts to attract more commercial and cultural exchange activity in the years to come.
Michael Hershman is a former advisor to FIFA who was on FIFA’s independent governance committee. He’s also the co-founder of Transparency International and a member of the team that wrote the first comprehensive reform plan for FIFA in 2014. He is the former CEO and current advisory board member of the International Center for Sports Security in Qatar where he spent two years leading the organization in the fields of safety, security and integrity.