Doha, Qatar — When Qatar was announced as hosting the 2022 World Cup 12 years ago, Aisha al-Ali and her husband had recently married and began building their new home in Rawdat al-Hamama, a village near Lusail, Qatar’s second-largest city.
Her husband had some doubts and said the place was too remote, but she assured him that Qatar would change with the upcoming tournament “I’m sure Qatar will change.”
She was right. In just over a decade, roads, highways, and bridges have been built that easily connect the entire country.
Since awarding the hosting rights in 2010, Qatar has spent more than $200 billion to develop and improve infrastructure, including building seven new soccer stadiums.
“We only had 12 years to build the infrastructure, build these highways, and make sure [Qatar] has public transportation and roads that are easily accessible to all stadiums,” says al-Ali, mother of three children in their 40s.
“It took me half an hour to get from my new house to my parents-in-law or parents, now it takes me 15 minutes,” she says, referring to the motorways and roads that were built over time.
“We are so proud of hosting the World Cup and the successes Qatar has achieved,” says al-Ali, adding that the event itself is a “moment” they’ve been waiting for since 2010.
Since it is the first time that an Arab Muslim country in the Middle East is “hosting a big event like the World Cup… it is time to shine,” said al-Ali.
“It is our time to show the world that we’re part of you. We’re as good as you to host them. Sport unites all nations.
“It’s not just Qatar that hosts the World Cup, it’s the entire region that hosts it.”
“An event the world will enjoy”
Sheikh Suhaim al-Thani, 31, manager of the Qatar Free Zones Authority, which helps foreign companies that want to work in the country, told CNN Breaking News that the sporting event was not just an achievement by Qatar, but one “for all Arabs, Muslims and everyone who really likes soccer.”
“Qatar is the smallest country that has ever been able to meet the needs of such a tournament,” said a visibly proud Al-Thani.
The entire country covers just 11,586 square kilometers (4,473 square miles), making it smaller than the Australian city of Sydney. It takes just 200 km (124 miles) to reach Qatar’s northernmost point from the far south of the peninsula.
Al-Thani will watch eight games in the stadiums but has planned fun evenings with his friends for more games in his Majlis, a traditional space in Qatari homes where friends, family and community members meet to socialize.
The scent of Arabian frankincense, popularly known as Bakhoor, fills the air in his Majlis, a sprawling part of his house on the outskirts of Qatar’s capital, Doha.
Al-Thani believes the event can show Western skeptics how an Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern country can successfully host such a major event.
He said he thought the overarching narrative in the Western media about the hosting of the cup in Qatar was negative and crooked.
“These [media] reports don’t describe how much Qatar has changed over the years,” he said.
“Qatar has changed beyond recognition in recent years, we are more environmentally friendly, there is so much innovation, digital transformation. Everything came together just in time for the World Cup. This is holiday time,” he said.
Changes in society
For Maha Kafoud, 21, a student who studied psychology in Melbourne, Australia, it’s not just the country’s infrastructure that has changed noticeably over the years.
Since she last returned to Qatar for a visit in January 2020, she has noticed changes within Qatari society.
“In the past, when a woman from Qatar wasn’t wearing an abaya, everyone was amazed, looked at her and judged her. But since I’ve been back, I’ve been wearing hoodies and walking around Doha to all the new venues and stuff, and no one really cares,” said Kafoud.
“I’ve seen [Qatari] men and women together and no one batches an eye when they see that,” she said, adding that given that so many people are coming to Qatar from all over the world, the change is “an expected thing.”
Since returning earlier this month to watch the World Cup, Kafoud said the country felt “even more progressive and welcoming… all while sticking to our culture and traditions.”
We present “our culture”
Kafoud attended the opening ceremony on Sunday with her father, an avid soccer fan who played the sport for 20 years when he founded his own local team in Qatar called Al-Matar Al-Qadeem.
“It was a historic event that I will remember for the rest of my life,” said Kafoud.
“We really showed our culture to the whole world… Knowing that millions of people watched us dance, listened to our songs, played the Koran; it was simply beautiful.”
Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman narrated the first section and told viewers: “We’re all gathering here in one big tribe.”
In addition to Freeman, Ghanim al-Muftah, a 20-year-old man from Qatar who was born with a rare condition that affects the development of the lower spine, was present. He recited a verse from the Holy Quran calling for global unity.
“O humanity! In fact, we created you from a man and a woman and made you peoples and tribes so that you could get to know each other,” he recited.
Qatar welcomed soccer fans from around the world with a beautiful verse from the Holy Quran to call for global unity.
Oscar winner @morgan_freeman narrated the first leg of the 2022 World Cup, titled “The Calling,” telling viewers: “We’re all gathering here in one big tribe.” pic.twitter.com/j3dbxm3yii
— News from Doha (@dohanews) November 21, 2022
For the opening game, in which Qatar faced Ecuador, around 60,000 fans crowded into Al-Bayt Stadium in the city of Al-Khor, whose façade was modelled on a traditional Bedouin tent.
Fireworks, song and dance marked the opening ceremony with performances that blended themes from the Qatari tradition with other cultures.
“It was such a moment of pride for me and I think it was also for all Qataris, including foreigners… we were all left in tears,” said Kafoud.
“I don’t think this has ever been done before, where we [Qataris] could show the whole world some of our Arab and Muslim heritage.”
Hoping for more change
Even after the World Cup ended, Kafoud said she was “looking forward to the change” she hopes would follow.
“I hope these 28 days will make [Qatari] society become more open-minded and generally more welcoming to foreigners. There are a lot of foreigners here — there are more foreigners than Qataris — but there is a gap, a separation, and I hope it will be more united after the World Cup.”
The al-Ali family and their three children are looking forward to watching the soccer games in person. They bought tickets to six different games in different stadiums to get “the full experience.”
Their house, which they once feared was too isolated, is now near one of the stadiums where the Lusail tournament was held, including the games with Portugal and Argentina, teams that the family will be cheering on from the stands.
“We’re a fan of [Argentina’s Lionel] Messi and [Portugal’s Cristiano] Ronaldo and I understand it’s their last World Cup… so it’s good to come and see them,” said al-Ali.
“I was at the Arab Cup and I was at the Asian Cup, so it’s so exciting to play in a World Cup now… Qatar brought the World Cup to us, so we need to seize the opportunity to participate and experience it.”