From the runway of Doha’s Hamad International Airport, the capital of Qatar looks like one of Italo Calvino’s invisible cities. A nucleus of skyscrapers surrounded by the sea on one side and by the desert on the other: around them, cranes and architectural skeletons in the making tell the present and the future of this tiny country which in a year will find itself at the center of world attention.
For months, Doha has been a construction site: not only the structures for the World Cup are under construction, but the very destiny of this nation, the smallest – 11,521 square kilometers, little more than Abruzzo – to which it has ever been entrusted. organizing a similar event. And the one that has invested the most to make it happen: the estimated figure of 240 billion. Money that comes from the revenues of the enormous natural gas fields: 25.4 billion cubic meters of reserves make Qatar one of the richest nations in the world and guarantee the poor population (300 thousand people, only 10% of the 3 million who live here ) one of the most generous welfare states. “Qatar will not return the investment in financial terms – he explains Simon Chadwick, director of the sports center at EmLyon business school – but aims for a return of image and reputation. At a gain in soft power. The meaning of this World Cup is to consolidate the regional position, to respond to the vulnerability assigned by geography “.
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To understand Chadwick’s words, a map is enough: squeezed between Saudi Arabia and its Emirati cousins, with whom there is no good blood since it broke away from their federation in 1971, Doha immediately appears fragile. This is even more evident when looking at the neighbor across the sea, Shiite Iran which is a sworn enemy of the Sunni Gulf countries. Precisely because of its proximity, Qatar has held a less hostile policy towards Tehran than the Saudis and Emiratis: and paid for it with a 3-year embargo from neighbors who put a strain on its economy.
But if a year ago we wondered how Doha could have held up to the blockade, with 2021 everything has changed. The election of Joe Biden convinced Saudi Arabia and the Emirates to end the embargo. The rise in commodity prices has brought new liquidity to the state. And the role played in the crisis in Afghanistan has given the country an international prestige it has never had before. Strengthened by all this, he looks to 2022: “Qatar is animated by the desire to present itself to the world as a credible interlocutor, a bridge between the West and those realities with which it does not want to deal directly. The Taliban, before everyone, “he comments Cinzia White, Gulf specialist for the European council for foreign relations. Doha has had good relations with them – as well as with the Muslim Brotherhood – for some time, so much so that since 2013 they have opened a diplomatic representation here. All this for years exposed the country to accusations of political ambiguity and double-dealing: but it paid off last summer, when international diplomacy rushed to the Emir’s court in front of the images arriving from Kabul. Tamim bin Hamad al Thani to ask for help to facilitate evacuations.
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Doha emerged stronger from that crisis, so much so that it was appointed representative of American interests in Kabul. But managing the relationship with the Taliban will not be easy: “The idea is that they will need access to international funds and for this they will soften their positions: but if it does not happen, the relationship could prove uncomfortable”, concludes Bianco.
Of all this in the capital, engaged in the completion of stadiums, roads, subways and accommodation facilities, only reflections arrive. “The challenges still open are many,” says Chadwick. Among the main respond to the allegations on the kafala, the system that provides for almost total control by employers over the life, safety and freedom of movement of the thousands of workers (Nepalese, Indians, Pakistanis) engaged in construction. The reforms introduced, according to Amnesty International, are not enough and the accusations of exploitation with the approach of the World Cup increase. Yet in Doha they do not cause concern as in the past: Qatar plays a larger game than those held in stadiums. And today more than ever he is counting on friends ready to turn a blind eye to any fouls.
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