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Qatar should eye the ultimate prize


Why museums and metros matter more than football tournaments

June 12, 2014 11:44 by

As the clocks strike midnight in Dubai this Thursday evening, thousands of miles away in Sao Paulo, Brazil, 22 footballers will start one of the world’s most coveted and keenly anticipated sporting events: the World Cup 2014. Its ultimate outcome is, of course, unknown yet equal uncertainty currently shrouds the venue of the competition in 2022.

This shouldn’t be the case as the preferred destination, Qatar, was voted for by the governing body of world football, the FIFA Executive Committee, way back in 2010. However, in recent weeks and months, the tiny Gulf state has had to withstand intense scrutiny of its labour laws and practices (the word kafala is now a lot more familiar in living rooms around the world), while football traditionalists have bemoaned the fact the tournament in Doha, if it goes ahead, must almost certainly be held in the “cooler” winter months, rather than in the summer as is usual, in order to prevent some of sport’s  most valuable assets risking severe dehydration, or worse, in the stiflingly hot and humid Arabian Gulf.

But now the negative mood music has reached a crescendo as the UK’s Sunday Times has exposed alleged corruption at the heart of the bidding process, with millions of dollars allegedly handed over by a shamed Qatari football official, Mohamed bin Hammam, to FIFA big wigs presumably as sweeteners for future votes. An assortment of politicians, commentators and, significantly, key sponsors, are now clamouring for a re-vote and, with it, a sorry end to Qatar’s World Cup dream.

As things stand, anything could yet happen but already Qatar’s image has taken a hefty dent and even if allegations ultimately prove baseless, mud tends to stick for a while. If the accusations do dissipate and Qatar comes through this crisis then clearly, longer term, the World Cup 2022 can still be a good news story for the emirate.

But if the worst does happen, the only way is unstintingly forward for the Gulf state. Some newspaper reports and analysis pieces have already begun speculating that tens of billions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects lined up in the next eight years, with one eye on the 2022 extravaganza, could be canned, delayed or scaled back if FIFA re-opens the bidding process and revokes the previous outcome.

However, new, state-of-the-art highways, a 21st century metro and rail system and enhanced core infrastructure have little to do with a month-long football tournament, nor does a plethora of newly built hotels or resorts, once the football fans have rolled up their flags and gone home. Likewise, an updated and more transparent socio-legal framework that goes some way to protecting the rights of poorer migrant workers.

Like Saudi Arabia and, most especially, the UAE have been doing, Qatar needs to continue diversifying its economy ahead of the wind down of its natural resources and prospective investors and businesses will be attracted to a modern city with reliable infrastructure. Doha sees itself as a prominent regional hub, but a patchy public transport network and interminable traffic snarls throughout the downtown area do not engender efficiency.

The World Cup is clearly the crowning glory of its goal to become a serious player in the regional tourism market, but the tournament would always just be a fleeting affair and the Gulf state would be better placed looking at its wider cultural and tourism provision. The signs have thus far been encouraging.

The Museum of Islamic Art has become the focal point of the city’s Corniche, while just down the road, a seeming jumble of giant steel girders represents the slow evolution of the National Museum of Qatar. Mathaf:  Arab Museum of Modern Art opened several years ago out in the desert within the vast building site of Doha’s burgeoning Education City. Other museums and gallery spaces are slated to be in the pipeline.

Recently, blue chip names from the art world, such as Damien Hirst and Richard Serra have exhibited in Doha, while both have prominent installations in public art spaces. The driving force behind Qatar’s passion for culture is Sheikha Al Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the Chairperson of Qatar Museums. She is believed to be behind such eye-watering decisions as the purchase in 2012 of one version of Cézanne’s The Card Players for $250m.

Crucially, Qatar possesses one of the world’s fastest-growing airlines, of course, and so if it can enhance its leisure and tourism options further, then it at least has a chance of becoming an increasingly worthwhile stop-over destination at the very least. The new metro would help tourists get around, the museums would provide stimulation and interest, while the malls, hotels and restaurants would be convenient places for them to spend their money.

If, in extremis, Qatar does lose its right to host the World Cup, its expenditure on the process so far would undoubtedly sting badly, but it is not as if it faces the prospect of staring at a herd of white elephants in the form of multi-million dollar, cavernous ghost stadia littered around town. Qatar needs to look at the bigger picture. Sporting events can certainly enhance a city, and generate a positive legacy, but in themselves they cannot represent a reason to build it.

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