Doha, Qatar – When Qatar was announced to host the 2022 World Cup 12 years ago, Aisha al-Ali and her husband had just married and started building their new home in Rawdat al-Hamama, a neighboring village of Lusail, Qatar’s second largest city.
Her husband had some doubts, saying the location was too remote, but she assured him that Qatar “will certainly change” with the upcoming tournament.
She was right. In just over a decade, roads, highways and bridges have been built that seamlessly connect the entire country.
Since being awarded the hosting rights in 2010, Qatar has spent more than US$200 billion developing and improving infrastructure, including the construction of seven new football stadiums.
“We only had 12 years to build the infrastructure, to build these highways, to secure them [Qatar] has public transport and roads for easy access to all stadiums,” says al-Ali, a mother of three in her 40s.
“It took me half an hour to get from my new house to my in-laws or parents back then, now it takes me 15 minutes,” she says, referring to the motorways and roads that have been built over time.
“We are so proud to host the World Cup and the achievements that Qatar have achieved,” al-Ali says, adding that the event itself is a “moment” she has been waiting for since 2010.
As it is the first time that an Arab Muslim country in the Middle East “hosts a big event like the World Cup… it’s our time to shine,” al-Ali said.
“It’s time to show the world that we’re a part of you, we’re just as good as you for hosting. Sport brings all nations together.
“Not only Qatar is hosting the World Cup, but the whole region.”
“An event for the world to enjoy”
Sheikh Suhaim al-Thani, 31, manager of the Qatar Free Zones Authority, which helps foreign companies operate in the country, told Al Jazeera the sporting event is not just an achievement of Qatar, but one “for all Arabs, Muslims and everyone.” . who really enjoys football”.
“Qatar is the smallest country that has ever been able to meet the requirements of such a tournament,” said a clearly proud al-Thani.
The entire country covers only 11,586 square kilometers (4,473 sq mi), making it smaller than the Australian city of Sydney. From the extreme south of the peninsula, it is only 200 km (124 miles) to reach Qatar’s northernmost point.
Al-Thani will watch eight games at the stadiums but has planned for other games fun evenings with his friends at his majlis, a traditional space in Qatari homes where friends, family and community members gather to socialize.
The aroma of Arabic incense, popularly known as Bakhur fills the air in his majlis, a sprawling part of his home on the outskirts of the Qatari capital, Doha.
Al-Thani believes the event can show Western skeptics how an Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern country can successfully pull off such a big event.
He said he felt the overarching narrative in Western media about hosting the cup in Qatar was negative and one-sided.
“This [media] Accounts do not describe how much Qatar has changed over the years,” he said.
“Qatar has changed beyond recognition in the last few years, we are greener, there is so much innovation, digital transformation. Everything came together just in time for the World Cup. This is celebration time,” he said.
changes in society
For Maha Kafoud, 21, a psychology student 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 been noticing changes in Qatari society.
“In the past, if a Qatari woman wasn’t wearing an abaya, everyone would freak out, look at her and condemn her. But since I’ve been back I’ve been wearing hoodies and walking around Doha to all the new venues and stuff and nobody really cares,” said Kafoud.
“I have seen [Qatari] Men and women together and neither does anyone bat an eye when they see that,” she said, adding that the change is “an expected thing” given that so many people are arriving in Qatar from all over the world .
Since returning to watch the World Cup earlier this month, Kafoud said the country feels “even more progressive and welcoming…all while still holding on to our culture and traditions”.
Presentation of “our culture”
Kafoud attended Sunday’s opening ceremony with her father, an avid football fan who played the sport for 20 years when he started 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,” Kafoud said.
“We really showed our culture to the whole world… Knowing that millions of people saw us dance, heard our songs, heard the Koran being played; it was just such a beautiful thing.”
Oscar winner Morgan Freeman narrated the opening segment, telling viewers, “We’re all gathering here in one big tribe.”
Presenting alongside Freeman was 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. He recited a verse from the Holy Qur’an that called for global unity.
“O mankind! Verily We created you from male and female and made you peoples and tribes that you might know one another,” he recited.
Qatar greeted football fans from around the world with a beautiful verse from the Holy Quran to call for global unity.
— Doha News (@dohanews) November 21, 2022
For the opening game between Qatar and Ecuador, around 60,000 fans packed the Al Bayt Stadium in the city of Al-Khor, the exterior of which was modeled on a traditional Bedouin tent.
Fireworks, song and dance marked the opening ceremony, with performances blending themes from Qatari tradition with other cultures.
“It was such a moment of pride for me and I also think of all Qataris, even foreigners… we were all in tears,” said Kafoud.
“I don’t think it’s ever been done before where we are [Qataris] we were able to show part of our Arab and Muslim heritage to the whole world.”
hope for more change
Even after the World Cup ended, Kafoud said she was “looking forward to the change” that she hopes will follow.
“I hope that these 28 days will have an impact [Qatari] society in general to become more receptive and open to foreigners. While there are a lot of foreigners here – there are more foreigners than Qataris – there is a division, a division and I hope there will be more unity after the World Cup.”
The al-Ali family and their three children are looking forward to seeing the football matches in person and have bought tickets for six different matches at different stadiums to get “the full experience”.
Their home, which they once feared was too isolated, is now near one of the stadiums that will host the Lusail tournament, including matches against Portugal and Argentina, teams the family watched from the stands will cheer off.
“We are a fan of [Argentina’s Lionel] Messi and [Portugal’s Cristiano] Ronaldo and I know it’s their last World Cup… so it’s nice to come over and see it,” al-Ali said.
“I’ve been to the Arab Cup and I’ve been to the Asian Cup, so it’s so exciting to be able to attend a World Cup now… Qatar brought us the World Cup, so we have to take advantage of it, participate in it and experience it.”