Before I touched down in Qatar, I assumed it was a nation of falconry, beauty pageants for camels, and endless amounts of money. Save for a sprinkling of snazzy, FIFA-approved stadiums, little suggests Qatar plays football. When I arrive I see no goal posts in parks, locals playing, or even “No Ball Games” signs like the ones that are ubiqitous across the UK.
But football is the reason I’m here. Fans of The Beautiful Game will have their eyes glued on Qatar this November when the World Cup comes to town. It’s a controversial choice, not just for its desert heat, but for its patchy record on human rights and archaic laws against homosexuality. While in the UK we’re celebrating how Jake Daniels has become the first top-tier British male footballer to come out since Justin Fashanu, who tragically took his own life in 1998, in Qatar identifying as homosexual is still illegal. And it’s been reported that thousands of migrant workers have died in Qatar in the years since the World Cup was awarded.
However, estimates predict 1.7 million punters will land in the compact peninsular during the tournament, which is a seismic number. To put things in context, 2.14 million tourists visited Qatar in the entirety of 2019.
At street level, bumper-to-bumper traffic means five-minute journeys take thirty; below ground, Doha’s pristine, driverless metro glides swiftly about the city. The streets are heaving, whilst the modern metro, comfortably zipping about town, is empty. It’s an apt metaphor for life here. Flirting with the future, Qatar looks more modern than it feels.
Alcohol, an unpopular tipple locally, will be served in dedicated fan zones and hotel bars, but not in the stadiums. Organisers are delicately bridging local customs with visitor expectations. Remarkably, you’ll need a FIFA ticket and confirmed accommodation to even enter Qatar from November 1. This World Cup is an exclusive party. This isn’t to be unfriendly. They know they’d run out of space in hotels, and they’re still building new properties at pace. In a national effort, Qataris are even being asked to “Host a Fan” in their homes to meet demand. MSC Cruises are anchoring two ships in the bay, opposite 974 Stadium – a pop-up stadium constructed using 974 shipping containers, a figure which incidentally is also Qatar’s international dialling code.
Hotels in Qatar’s capital of Doha lean towards the ooh-la-la end of luxury. My hotel, Banyan Tree Doha, is an Aladdin’s Cave of decadence. The lobby? A fantastical forest of metallic trees. My bathroom? As large as the bedroom, with a bath big enough for three. Not that you would… in Qatar. For a uniquely Qatari experience, pitch up at the relaxed Sealine Beach Resort, which offers desert glamping on the beach close to Al Janoub Stadium 2022, where some of the World Cup action takes place. Book early – everyone else will. But enough logistics already, did I mention the camels?
Faris is a handsome blonde, with a casually coiffed mullet – popular with the flies. Sporting a patterned smock and a cheery crocheted face mask, Faris takes me on a journey into the middle of the desert, where we marvel at swathes of ochre sand, swelling in great waves ahead of us. Desert excursions are an exciting escape from the city and, having taken things easy with Faris, I’m ready for a high-octane 4×4 dune-bashing adventure.
Intensely concentrating, my driver is a steely basher. The car rights itself from a 45 degree roll and we hurtle towards the Inland Sea. I feel like I’m in a car advert. I’m gripping the door handle for dear life as the speedometer twists past 100km/h, the same moment the driver chooses to pick a snack from the cubby hole. As dusty road emerges from the untamed expanse of desert we pass matrixes of pipework and flaming exhaust chimneys which have turbo-charged Qatar’s fortunes. Looking at today’s high-rises, it’s staggering to think how recently Qataris were reliant on creaking wooden Dhow Boats and the strong lungs of fearless Pearlers for a bowl of rice in the evening.
Amir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, ruler of Qatar, is betting on international sport being the oil of the future. In addition to the World Cup, the Qatar Grand Prix sees the best cars in the world burn rubber in the desert sun. The Education City Golf Club hosts the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters, and Doha is on the tennis map as part of the ATP World Tour.
3-2-1 Qatar Olympic and Sports Museum is the third largest sports museum on the planet and features a glittering gallery of original Olympic torches and Schumacher’s circuit-beating car.
The interactive Activation Zone at the Olympic museum is brilliant fun, with my personal best at each activity loaded onto a 3-2-1 Tag, creating a personalised profile, with exercise and sport recommendations. It tells me to eat more.
Doha is a melting pot of culinary cultures. I find myself drawn to Damasca One Restaurant in Souq Waqif, a market bustling with locals. The table is laden with skewers of grilled meats, flatbreads and enough dips to bring a camel to its knees. Musicians play traditional music and waiters whirl, leading smatterings of applause.
Qatar is spoilt when it comes to fancy malls but Souq Waqif is where real business is done. Sacks of spices, nuts and dried fruits line the arched walkways. Don’t miss native dates, which are delicious fresh: they’re sweet, with a tartness for balance. Pots, the size I’ve only seen in commercial kitchens, hang above my head; gold jewellery, with price tags north of 150,000QAR (divide by five for pounds – it’s still expensive), glistens under spotlights in window displays; and then there are the falcons…
Birds sell for 100,000QAR in the specialist Falcon Souq. There’s even a government-funded hospital where falcon MOTs and minor repairs are free – compliments of the Amir. Qatar Airways allows falcons to travel in the cabin. I’m tempted, but who enjoys flying next to a messy eater? Doha looks magnificent from the water, so on my final night I indulge in a sunset cruise on a Dhow Boat.
The bay is blissfully calm, unlike the murderous conditions Pearlers-of-old would have faced on this very ship. From the bay, I look back at a society in the throes of modernisation. To my left, earthy hues of traditional stonework proudly present Qatar’s heritage – the Museum of Islamic Art, the Souk Waqif, the National Museum of Qatar, echoing the abstract form of a desert rose. To my right, glass towers of modernity, silhouetted by the hazy orange sun, guard Doha’s expats, cocooning themselves in the exclusive luxury of The Pearl district beyond.
Yes, they still think “don’t ask, don’t tell” is welcoming to LGBT visitors and perhaps it’s naïve of them to believe that England fans are going to behave with a decorum that has successfully eluded us elsewhere. But this World Cup is a massive leap in their journey and it’s thrilling to be a part of that.
Do it yourself
Rooms at Banyan Tree Doha start from £292 per night. Flights with Qatar Airways from London Heathrow to Doha start from £686 per person in economy and £3,868 per person in business. For more information on Qatar, go here. Apply for a Hay’ya Fan ID Card to secure your travel visa.