Doha, Qatar — Shehar Bano Rizvi moved from the bubbly, ever-growing metropolis of Karachi to quieter Doha shortly after her marriage in 2004.
The then 23-year-old Pakistani expat was not impressed when she arrived in the Qatari capital. She thought she’d landed in the middle of the desert in more ways than one. The streets were empty and shopping opportunities were scarce. West Bay was home to a secluded five-star hotel, a simple shopping center and a few office buildings.
“My husband had a very basic driving rule for me: If you get lost, follow the signs to the Corniche [waterfront] and you could find your way home,” said Rizvi, recalling her first experiences of getting around Doha at a time when apps were still unknown.
18 years later, West Bay is buzzing. It is Doha’s main business district and is home to an increasingly bustling skyline, populated by more and more skyscrapers. Shiny new buildings on the shores of the Gulf bask in the sun all day and provide a glittering light show at night.
However, Doha’s metamorphosis also extends beyond the cityscape. New districts, cultural centers and cutting-edge event venues have changed the cityscape.
According to human rights organizations and media reports, Qatar’s development came at the expense of workers’ rights. Concerns about low wages, poor living conditions and workers’ safety have been repeatedly voiced by human rights groups and critics from the Gulf nation hosting the World Cup.
With setbacks, Qatari officials point to recent labor law reforms, including a general minimum wage and an easing of restrictions on foreign workers who want to change employers. Officials also criticized the Western media for their so-called biased and inaccurate coverage of Qatar and its preparations for the tournament.
Qatar, an energy-rich country that declared independence just five decades ago, was given the right to host the World Cup in 2010. Their transformation also coincided with rapid population growth — currently almost three million people — the vast majority of whom are migrant workers, mostly from South Asian countries.
“Qatar’s independence was 1971, so we had certain guidelines that didn’t fit now,” Faisal al-Mudakha, editor-in-chief of the Gulf Times, told CNN Breaking News.
“Now we have the World Cup,” he said. “We’re talking about 12 years of political reform… [this is being done] because of the World Cup — but it [was] pushed forward quickly. And I think it will continue even after the World Cup, as needed and in compliance with international law.”
Sport im Fokus
Six-lane motorways, a sparkling subway system, and commuter buses that now form Qatar’s transportation hub were a distant dream in the early 2000s when the idea of a tiny country like Qatar hosting a soccer World Cup was unimaginable.
“I remember attending the opening ceremony of the 2006 Asian Games without believing that a country the size of Qatar could host such a big event,” said Rizvi, photographer and author of a book about Pakistani cuisine.
“On that cold, rainy December night in the brand-new Khalifa International Stadium, it became clear that Qatar was shifting its focus to sport, culture and education.”
The country formalized this change in the following years as part of its National Vision 2030, an ambitious development plan that aims to diversify its economy, reduce its carbon footprint, and achieve social progress.
Sport is an important pillar of this vision. Since 2012, Qatar has celebrated a sports day in February every year. The occasion is marked as a public holiday, which allows residents to participate in sports and fitness activities.
According to Rizvi, the number of women and girls in sports was negligible back then.
“My daughter started playing soccer as a child but left after a while because there were no all-girls teams,” she said. “But now, as a teenager, she plays at an academy that has earned her international reputation and has given her the opportunity to meet her soccer idols.
“And it’s not just them, many young women from Qatar come to training sessions and games with their fathers, who seem really proud and you can see them cheering them on from the sidelines.”
In women’s soccer, however, there was little progress on the larger stage. The Qatari women’s soccer team has not played a competitive game in several years and has dropped out of the FIFA rankings, while many young people and young women stop playing as they get older.
“It wasn’t just about Qatar”
Despite gradual growth on the soccer field, women were at the forefront of educational and cultural progress in the country.
Sheikh Moza bint Nasser, the second wife of former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, was decisively involved in the founding of the educational city in Qatar in 2003, where several renowned international universities set up local campuses.
Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad, the sister of the current Emir, heads the art and cultural scene in the form of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA).
The organization has set up several museums across the country dedicated to Arab and Islamic art, Qatar’s national history, sports, and an interactive children’s museum, which is due to open soon.
The cultural centers have become a favorite leisure option for many who had only a few entertainment options for years.
“It was very easy,” said Eeman Abed, a Palestinian who has lived in Qatar for more than 20 years. “Go to the park, take a walk on the Corniche, or eat out on the weekend,” she added with a shrug.
But as the country moved forward and Doha became a thriving arts and cultural hub, Abed added, it took many of its expats with it.
“We used to live in a small house in old Doha and after moving around the city over time, we’ve now settled in The Pearl,” she said, referring to the upscale artificial island with Mediterranean-inspired homes and beaches.
Rizvi lived there with her husband, who works for the Qatar Stock Exchange, when the country won the World Cup hosting rights.
Rizvi remembers a festive evening when people came out with their maroon and white Qatari flags and national songs thundered out of cars.
“It wasn’t just about Qatar,” she says. “It was about an Arab-Muslim nation hosting the biggest event in the world, and that is exactly what the West cannot fathom,” she adds, referring to the ongoing criticism Qatar has faced since that night in December 2010.
But now that the event has already started, every part of Doha’s tourist hotspots has been filled with international fans — from the West and beyond. They try on local cuisine and fashion, revel with local fans, and bring their festivities to the Gulf Coast.