Gulf between dreams and reality in Doha
The new emir faces huge challenges to achieve Qatar’s geopolitical goals
Doha’s development and the 2022 World Cup are a means to an end: the ultimate ambition of Qatar is to become a global player. Photograph: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
The 1990s BBC sitcom Keeping Up Appearances told the story of Hyacinth Bucket, who nurtured extravagant delusions of grandeur in suburban England and sought, with her grandiose plans, to convince her supposed social superiors she was their equal.
Qatar’s ruling family could be compared to Bucket, longing for a place for their country among global foreign policy players and willing to do almost anything to achieve it.
This ambition began when the former emir or leader, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, ousted his father in a bloodless coup in 1995. At first relatively modest, the goals have lately become staggeringly grand. Last June the emir abdicated, handing power to his 33-year-old son, Sheikh Tamim, who will now have to realise his father’s vision.
The sporting world was astonished when Fifa awarded Qatar the 2022 World Cup, a decision quickly turning into a fiasco as the reality of playing soccer in summer temperatures of 50 degrees dawns.
The government plans to spend €150 billion on the games. South Africa spent about €3.5 billion in 2010. Stadiums will be built and swathes of the capital, Doha, will be redeveloped.
Football organisations have said the tournament will have to take place during the winter or else be moved. Qatari officials are busy drumming up support, the World Cup their chance to hold the world’s attention and they will not give that up without a fight.
Formerly a sleepy British protectorate that depended largely on pearl fishing, Qatar has been transformed by oil and gas revenue. According to the CIA World Factbook, it had the world’s highest GDP per capita in 2012 with an estimated €76,780 per head of population (Ireland was in 24th place with €31,480 per capita).
Doha, which in 2008 had a recorded population of just fewer than a million people, appears to be a gleaming metropolis. But all is not as it should be. Poor planning has rendered the city pedestrian- unfriendly, making taxis the only practical form of transport. In the new parts of town there are no streetscapes – the gleaming skyscrapers are fronted by dreary car parks. Doha looks impressive when viewed from a distance – the World Cup bid was probably stunning on paper – but living in the city is a different matter.
The newly developed Doha and the World Cup are a means to an end. The ultimate ambition of this tiny country is to become a global player.
Qatar’s recent geopolitical moves have been dizzying. It took the Arab Spring as its opportunity, funding and arming Libya’s rebels and then Syria’s. When Hosni Mubarak lost power in Egypt, Qatar rushed to support his successor, Mohamed Morsi, and his Muslim Brotherhood party.
This is country unafraid of risk but whether the ruling family can meet its challenges is far from certain.