The Parallel Universes of Qatar’s World Cup

In retrospect, the soccer tournament held up a mirror to the modern world, showing us the disconnected lives we all lead

The Parallel Universes of Qatar’s World Cup
Laborers work along the Corniche in Doha on Nov. 17, 2022, ahead of the Qatar 2022 World Cup soccer tournament. (Raul Arboleda/AFP via Getty Images)

There is a sporting venue in Qatar that was visited by few — if any — of the droves of international soccer fans who were in town for the FIFA World Cup.

The Asian Town stadium is a bowl with no roof, sitting dusty and faded in Doha’s Industrial Area. The ground is normally used for cricket. But for the last few weeks, the Asian Town cricket stadium was transformed into a soccer Fan Zone. There was a big screen showing matches, a stage where singers performed songs in Hindi, a beach volleyball court and, inexplicably, a tunnel made of shipping pallets. This was the space for those whose hands built the World Cup: the low-paid laborers of Qatar.

It was in this Fan Zone, watching Qatar play Senegal on the first Friday of the World Cup, that I met Saul, sitting with three friends on the terraces. The 32-year-old Ugandan had been in Qatar for a year, earning 1,000 rials a month ($275) working as a security guard. Saul supports his father, mother and brothers in Uganda, contributing to their food budget and paying his siblings’ school fees. He had never been to a proper live soccer match, and didn’t expect to now. Qatar had made a special low category of tickets available to residents of the country, costing just 50 rials ($14), but this seemed to be news to Saul. He and his friend, Regen, told me they had to be content with watching the games on their phones in their rooms or here, on their days off, on the big screen.

Saul told me he was rooting for two teams at the tournament — England and Brazil. His eyes lit up when I told him I had a spare ticket for the match between England and Wales in what was then a few days’ time. I said I’d be happy to take him. We swapped numbers and agreed to be in touch.

Four hours after we parted ways, I found myself at a match north of Doha between England and the United States in a large stadium modeled on the tent used historically by the nomadic peoples of Qatar (and the wider region). The World Cup stadiums are marvels of modern engineering, the centerpieces of the estimated $220 billion worth of construction to get Qatar ready for the tournament. LED panels flashed goals, substitutions and yellow cards, while a giant air conditioning system blasted so effectively that I found myself needing to put on my jacket. On the terrace, I sat sandwiched between four Mexican-Americans, in front of an Indian family and behind two fans from England — a parody of cosmopolitanism — watching the match play out to a drab 0-0 draw.

Leaving the game, amidst the large crowds drifting to the metro and buses, was a group of a dozen men in thobes, the white ankle-length garment worn by Qatari men. They stood outside a more normal-sized version of a tent. Music was playing and they were lifting swords aloft in a traditional dance. One dancer left the troupe and plunged into the crowd, plucking out two people — a man in an England shirt and a woman in a Brazil top. They were handed a sword each and encouraged to join in. A phalanx of phones appeared, recording the grins on everyone’s faces.

Two days after we met, I received a text from Saul. He would not be able to come to the England match. The game kicked off at 10 p.m., but his employer had moved him to the night shift with no notice. He was considering skipping work to attend but told me that, when workers miss a day, they lose half of their monthly salary. He sent me a photo of a company notice board, confirming the harsh punishment. “So I may not watch any football because of company influence,” wrote Saul. He followed his message with three emojis of someone crying.

There were many different World Cups unfolding in Qatar this past month. There was, for example, the tournament of the rich: the denizens of the hospitality lounges, the national dignitaries, the sponsors, VIPs and VVIPs (deeming the opulence insufficient, Qatar has added another layer to its hierarchy of stratification). As a non-member of this world, my glimpses of it were fleeting, such as a snatched conversation with the doorman of the Mandarin Oriental hotel, who revealed that rooms during the tournament started at 20,000 Qatari rials a night — almost $5,500.

Then there was a tournament of the “traditional” supporters. Dressed in the shirts of their nations, they filled Doha’s shopping malls and plodded through the many yards of barriers that ringed all the metro stops. In a first for the World Cup, this was also a tournament of Arab fans. The second-highest bookings of accommodation came from visitors from Saudi Arabia: Tunisian and Moroccan expatriates in the Gulf. They turned up in such numbers that their matches were like home games. Saudi fans made a reputation for themselves by trolling Lionel Messi — the star Argentinian striker whose team suffered a shock 2-1 defeat to the Saudi national side — and dancing enthusiastically to 90s disco classics. As the other African and Arab teams fell by the wayside, Morocco became the standard bearer for the region, despite having a complex identity that included proud African and Amazigh heritage.

Working as one of 25,000 (unpaid) FIFA Volunteers, I was fortunate to witness some of the other World Cups unfolding in Qatar. I checked tickets and waved foam hands alongside Indians, Bangladeshis, Moroccans, Filipinos, Nigerians, Sudanese and Saudi Arabians. Most of those I spoke with felt it was their World Cup too, courtesy of living in Doha, being Arab, or simply because they could get a visa to come and take part — something unthinkable for many when World Cups are held in Europe or North America.

During my shifts, it became clear that fans who had traveled from outside the region were dwarfed in number by Qatar residents or those from elsewhere in the Gulf. I met Keralan accountants with crosses of St. George painted on their cheeks, Egyptian doctors in the yellow livery of Brazil, and people from all over the globe with Argentina shirts emblazoned with “Messi 10” on the back.

That the Qatar World Cup should comprise such discrete worlds — contiguous yet separate — should come as no surprise. It reflects life in the country more broadly. Qatar is a land of starkly differing experiences. Its citizens are some of the wealthiest in the world, and number only 11% of their country’s population. They sit at the top of a pyramid supported by people from some of the world’s poorest regions. To obtain Qatari citizenship is impossible even for second-generation migrants: a restriction that is partially aimed at keeping the proceeds of the country’s natural gas bonanza in the hands of a select few as well as being framed as protecting the country’s identity. An urban geography of compounds, villas and labor camps ensures little interaction with those from different social strata. “Bachelors” — a code word for male migrant workers from the global south, who typically are not allowed or cannot afford to bring their families to live with them — may not live in certain areas of the city. Laborers are kept out of parks and malls on Fridays. Alcohol can only be drunk in hotels. There is a clear social schema — a “quasi-caste system,” in the words of the U.N. special rapporteur on racism — and everyone is supposed to stick to it. (Such classism is also the norm in the rest of the Gulf states.) Attempts to unsettle it are met with confusion, often tinged with aggression. “They have there in Asian Town their own stadium and shopping mall and nice accommodation,” a young Qatari medical student told me when I queried the living conditions of those on low incomes. “Everything is there, they don’t have to go anywhere for it”.

Leading up to the contest, I felt deeply conflicting emotions.

In 2019 and 2020, I had lived in Qatar, researching a book about the lives of people in the country. The work brought me face-to-face with the ugliness and unfairness of global capitalism. In Qatar’s Wild West labor market, some succeed, using their earnings to transform their life prospects back home. But many are crushed. I spoke to Kenyan domestic workers who had been physically and emotionally abused, Nepali laborers who suffered life-changing injuries due to lax safety practices, and far too many people of all stripes who had their salaries paid late or not at all. I went to the country with an open mind but, by the end, I felt increasingly uncomfortable with what it represented: a minority (including many well-paid Europeans and Americans) who spend their weekends tucking into lavish brunches and lounging by swimming pools, served by a class of people away from their families and homes, subject to the capricious whims of their employers.

And yet, as the negative headlines surrounding the host nation reached fever pitch back home in Britain, I started to feel almost defensive of Qatar. The scale of the barrage at times seemed over the top. Would supporters mind paying $15 a pint? Did Qataris even like soccer? Some of the coverage was peppered with Orientalist tropes. A French newspaper depicted the Qatar national team as terrorists. Would fans catch deadly “camel flu,” asked the notorious U.K. tabloid The Sun. For every sensitive human rights report that forensically investigated unpaid wages or unexplained worker deaths, there seemed to be an article or tweet conflating important, serious objections with ignorance and nonsense into a blunderbuss of anger. The approach seemed to be: load it all into the muzzle and fire.

One British sports reporter I know joked it was unfortunate that it fell to his tribe to walk us through the political and cultural implications of a Gulf World Cup. Some of them did a good job, but many lacked the knowledge to tease out the subtleties and contradictions that were in play, not least regarding Qatar’s place within wider global currents.

Qatar, after all, did not single-handedly transform a working-class game into a multi-billion-dollar global industry rife with corruption — it was late to that party.

It is right to criticize the kafala (sponsorship) labor system, which binds the fate of all workers in the country to their employer. But it’s important to point out the same system exists across the region, and that it is in part a British creation, dating back to a time when Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates were British protectorates. While Western NGOs and media outlets have been holding Qatar to account, their governments and businesses have been busy signing deals, bringing Qatari liquified natural gas to Europe and sending French and U.S. weapons to the country.

The most solipsistic debate surrounded alcohol, which continues to be seen in Western public discourse as an essential accompaniment to soccer, despite its consumption being banned in stadiums from Glasgow to Rio De Janeiro. Having assured fans that alcohol would be available, two days before the tournament, Qatar announced that beer would be removed from the vicinity of stadiums. It remained on sale in hotels and one fan zone in Doha. But someone with close contacts in the Qatari government told me the decision was a giant “fuck you” to the West, prompted by what they felt was the unfair tenor of criticism. The pugnacity of Qatari officials caught me off-guard. Not many places in the world have the wealth and chutzpah to ruin a $112 million sponsorship deal with a global brand. The decision over alcohol revealed a wider cultural play: to Qatar’s domestic audience, where the majority are conservative Muslims, and perhaps also to the wider Muslim world. But whisper it: Some female fans from traditionally boozy countries praised the atmosphere of the alcohol-free stadiums. Even some of the Western journalists admitted it was a relief to have an excuse to skip the drinking that often forms part of their professional travels.

One FIFA defense against the criticism that followed their decision to award the contest to Qatar was that they had chosen the country to bring the World Cup to a new part of the world. In truth, it was sheer avarice and the self-interest of FIFA officials, many of whom subsequently turned out to be corrupt, that brought the tournament to Qatar. Nevertheless, holding the tournament in the Middle East was still a significant moment. The demographic in stadiums and fan zones was different to any I’ve seen at a global sporting event: more kids, more headscarves, fewer white people. The tournament embodied some of the larger shifts taking place in our world, with new centers of power and new currents of influence coming into being.

It should be possible to acknowledge that the results of this process are not exclusively negative without “sportswashing” the whole affair.

Even so, I found any budding sympathy for Qatar would evaporate whenever I came face-to-face with the crushing inequality of the place. On a day with no games, as the tournament wound to its conclusion, I went to see two human rights workers I know. When we last spoke, in the fall of 2020, Qatar’s government was dismantling some of the most egregious elements of the kafala system, including removing exit permits, introducing a minimum wage, and abolishing the need for written approval before changing jobs. At that time, the activists were cautiously optimistic.

Now, they were more morose. They told me the past two years had seen little practical change. Workers were still suffering delayed or non-payment of wages. The Ministry of Labour was still understaffing its inspection teams. Workers were still being denied fundamental rights, including the ability to form trade unions to advocate and bargain for themselves. Little of the backsliding was making headlines. Former critics, possibly scared of losing the limited traction they had, heralded the reforms while overlooking the limited implementation. Local media in Qatar remained craven, and its civil society strangled. One positive sign was that domestic workers were changing jobs at a greater rate than before — an indicator of some easing of the harsh restrictions that prevented them from doing so. “But also 50% are being rejected,” they added.

Saul couldn’t go to the England-Wales match. But his friend James could.

Three hours before kick-off, I met James outside the Ali bin Ahmad Stadium, a box-like arena at the end of the metro line, surrounded by large expanses of nothing (and a shopping mall). He was a small man, softly spoken and smiley, dressed to “football casual” perfection with black trainers, jeans, a black and white jumper and a black cap.

James was an England fan, but mostly he was a fan of Manchester United and their young English striker, Marcus Rashford. James was touched by the “great things” the player had done for poor kids in the U.K. during the Covid-19 pandemic, he later told me. “And he plays well”.

Trying to get James from his World Cup into mine was a challenge. He didn’t have a Hayya card, the virtual permit that doubled as an identity card and entry visa for international fans. Match tickets were electronic — available through an accompanying app. We got stuck in a catch-22 of needing a ticket to apply for a Hayya card, but not being able to transfer my electronic ticket to him until he had one. Finally, some sympathetic stadium staff found a loophole, and we were in.

We emerged onto the terrace and into a wall of sensory overload — the bright green pitch, the red of the seats, the boom of the MC on the sound system as the players came out to warm up. James turned to me in excitement. “I am really, really happy! Tonight I will not sleep!”

His awe stood in contrast to the rest of the crowd. There were Wales and England fans trading insults in that joking-but-actually-aggressive British pastime known as “banter.” (“You’re shit!” “You’re going home in the morning!”) Tourists from other wealthy nations squeezed past carrying burgers, crisps and alcohol-free beer. Qataris in thobes milled around between them. There was a blitheness to their presence, a sense of being inured to what, after all, is an absurdly privileged thing to be doing.

The match kicked off. James followed the game with intensity, which made it all the more disappointing that most of it was stodgy, low on chances and incident. A Rashford free kick in the 50th minute broke the deadlock. Two more England goals quickly followed. For each one, James would leap out of his chair, cheer and wave a “Three Lions” flag that one England fan had gifted to him, upon hearing it was his first game.

As we filed out, James spoke to me softly.

“My dream has come true,” he said. “To see Rashford. To see the World Cup.”

Leaving the game provided another reminder of how difficult it has been for people like James to take part in this tournament. As we walked towards the metro stop, he let slip that he had never ridden it before. “There is no stop in the Industrial Area,” he explained. Or even close to it.

When trying to summarize the Qatar World Cup, I keep coming back to a press release that accompanied the unveiling of its official mascot, “La’eeb” — from the Arabic for skillful player. “He belongs to a parallel mascot-verse that is indescribable,” said the statement. “Everyone is invited to interpret what it looks like.”

The same could be said for the contest itself. For some, it looked like an inclusive World Cup: for Arab fans, for some women, for those from the Global South. But if you’re gay or a low-income worker, it’s a highly exclusionary one. In the West, it was not uncommon to hear Qatar 2022 described as soccer’s nadir, the broadcasting of games partially boycotted. For others, it represented the shattering of colonial myths, a moment in which western nations were shown up as the hypocrites they are. Ever since Qatar was awarded the tournament 12 years ago, this edition had been most frequently portrayed as an anomaly: it was not in a Northern Hemisphere summer, all stadiums were in the same city and it was by far the most expensive in the tournament’s history. But it feels to me that Qatar 2022 is best perceived not as an exception from previous World Cups, but rather as the quintessence of where we, as a planet, currently stand — stuck in our parallel universes, indescribable to each other.

Can you have a good time at an event where others have suffered? The joyous crowds and partying show the answer is, clearly, yes. But should you? Perhaps it’s unrealistic and po-faced to argue that you shouldn’t. I had plenty of fun. I was behind the goal when Morocco won their penalty shootout against Spain and the explosion of joy was infectious. I got caught up in the excitement of the shock upsets, and loved chatting to random fans on the metro. But I still think it reasonable to ask ourselves to empathize with those whose labor (and lives) went into providing the opportunity for me, and others like me, to enjoy ourselves.

I’m sure many would agree with this in principle, but in practice it’s made difficult by the chasms separating different social groups in Qatar. We often struggle to put ourselves in others’ shoes. My time with Saul and James showed that these gaps are difficult to bridge. Looking around me, I didn’t see much willingness to engage in such empathy — including among the hosts, something brought home to me by what I learned on my last day in Doha.

Twelve hours before I was due to fly home, I visited Company House, a museum devoted to the early history of oil in Qatar. The museum (sponsored by Shell) occupies the old Doha headquarters of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the British firm that first prospected and exported Qatar’s oil.

In the 1940s, when the oil industry was first established in the country, locals were at the bottom of the labor pile. At that time, Qatar was dirt poor with a tiny population, nearly all of whom lived subsistence livelihoods. I was so accustomed to seeing Qataris at the top of the chain, leading lives divorced from manual labor, that I had never stopped to consider a time when they were forced to do those tasks themselves.

The first bosses of the oil industry were English, the accountants Indian. Qataris performed the manual labor, digging trenches, moving valves and transporting pipes. The museum was very insistent that visitors empathize with the tough conditions in which these men worked. The language was eerily familiar. “Holidays? What holidays? We didn’t have holidays,” read the testimony of Yousef Mohamed Al-Medady, a Qatari who worked as a rigger. “It was work, work — 24 hours of work.”

I was struck by the words of one man in particular, a Qatari named Jassim bin Qroun. A former pearl diver, he was hired by the British oil company to help build the first harbor at Zikrit. His job was to dive and move into position the large stones used for construction. To be so recently familiar with such work as a society, while perpetuating similar arrangements today, felt particularly tragic.

The exhibit went on to explain that Bin Qroun was promoted to foreman, but one day fell from an oil rig platform and suffered lifelong injuries.

When World War II stopped operations at the oil plant, the Qatari was among the first to be laid off.

Sign up to our newsletter

    Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy