“People tend to forget that a city is like a tree,” the real estate developer in charge of turning the desert north of Doha into a 450,000-person metropolis wrote in 2010. “Without a proper foundation underground, nothing above will flourish.”
As of now, Qatar will host the World Cup in 2022. It will almost certainly take place in winter. The final will be held at the not-yet-built Lusail Iconic Stadium in the not-yet-built city of Lusail — a massive planned community set to be completed by 2020 at a cost of an estimated $45 billion.
The most recent Lusail City master plan calls for two golf courses, a theme park, a lagoon, and two marinas. There will be 19 different districts and 22 different hotels in the 38-square-mile city. Pneumatic tubes will transport trash to a central location for processing. Residents can live in waterfront villas or garden villas or towering skyscrapers. There will eventually enough housing to accomodate 450,000 people, the developer claims — nearly 200,000 more than the number of citizens in the country.
The westernmost point of Lusail is Qetafian Island, which isn’t an island at all. It used to be a part of mainland Qatar, but will soon sit in the Persian Gulf after being hacked off by a man-made waterway. Qetafian will be the tourist center, with resorts and beach clubs and plenty of room for yachts.
Qetafian Island is nearly cut off from the mainland after seven years of work.
Lusail Iconic Stadium will sit on the city’s eastern border, across town from Qetafian Island. It will seat more than 80,000 people and host the World Cup final.
Like the 2022 World Cup itself, Lusail is an exercise in forced progress.
The project has been around since 2005, but kicked into high gear after FIFA’s decision to award Qatar — a country with no soccer history, no soccer stadiums, and 120-degree summers — the world’s biggest soccer tournament.
The project is being funded by the government through the real estate company Qatari Diar. The company calls Lusail its flagship project, hailing it as, “More than just another development, it is a self-contained and comprehensively planned city signifying Qatar’s progress on a grand scale.”
Lusail is meant to signify Qatari progress, and the World Cup is meant to be its ultimate advertisement to the western world.
But eight years before the tournament, the publicity around the 2022 World Cup is overwhelming negative.
There seems to be momentum building toward stripping Qatar of the tournament. A FIFA executive committee member — one of the two dozen people who vote for World Cup host nations — said that he believes the tournament won’t be held in Qatar. FIFA just finished an investigation into bribery allegations surrounding the 2010 bidding process that awarded Qatar the tournament. The results of the investigation will not be made public, though, and FIFA acknowledging its faults and re-voting on the 2022 host nation still feels like a long shot.
Moving the tournament to winter will be damaging for the league’s biggest leagues and clubs, which will risk losing revenue when they’re forced to take a three-month break in the middle of their domestic seasons. Qatar originally promised to stage the tournament in summer using space-age cooling systems, but four years later it’s unclear if those cooling systems are even possible, and everyone agrees that playing and watching soccer in 120-degree heat is unsafe.
The most damning criticism — the country’s mistreatment of migrant workers — directly concerns projects like Lusail. The International Trade Union Confederation estimates that 4,000 workers will die in Qatar by 2022. The country’s kafala system — where employers exercise broad power and influence over the lives of their workers — has been called “modern day slavery” by human rights watchers. In 2013 Nepalese migrants working in Lusail City told the Guardian that their employers were making them work long hours in the heat and were withholding pay to keep them from running away.
Qatar maintains that no workers have died on World Cup projects, but that mostly comes down to how narrowly you define “World Cup projects.” If the World Cup is the motivating force behind Qatar’s vast infrastructural improvement projects, you could argue everything in Qatar is a World Cup project. The organizing committee denies any migrant worker abuse allegations, and released photos to ESPN showing what the living quarters look like for workers on the Lusail City stadium:
Qatar has been criticized for the living conditions of its 1.4 million migrant workers.
If FIFA were to take the unprecedented step of stripping Qatar of the tournament, Lusail could survive. The project was created before the anyone knew Qatar would get the 2022 World Cup, and its existence isn’t necessarily dependent on any tourism boom the tournament would bring.
But one of the stated goals of Lusail is to show the world that Qatar is an advanced society — that this is a great nation capable of extraordinary progress. You don’t build a 450,000-person city in a nation with ~250,000 citizens for utilitarian reasons. You do it in order to make a statement. In that way, the city needs to world’s attention to shift to the tiny peninsula for 2022, even for a month, for it all to be worthwhile.