Qatar takes final breath before World Cup plunge after 12 years of preparation and perception
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David Beckham has taken off his shoes.
He's sitting on a pillow in a large Bedouin tent, his arms resting across his knees, his breezy linen sleeves rolled just above the elbow.
The footballing legend is talking to Khalid, a local man who trains falcons for a living.
"I would love to hear about the cultural importance of the falcon," Beckham says in a gentle, rehearsed voice.
They go outside to watch the falcon take flight. The camera focuses on Beckham, standing in the desert sunset of Qatar, the sound of a traditional flute and drums in the background, watching the falcon slice through the air.
This visit is part of an exclusive 30-minute documentary on the Qatar Airways flight from Sydney to Doha titled David Beckham's Qatar Stopover.
In it, Beckham spends three days in Doha, Qatar's capital, taking the viewer through an array of activities that illustrate the country's history and culture, as well as its evolving food, art, and education, guided around by a handful of warm, inviting local personalities.
Noor, a chef, takes him through Doha's biggest and oldest spice market, the Souq Waqif. He meets Saad, one of the country's last living pearl divers, who shows him the stone weight, basket, and nose clip he used when he was still hunting.
He chats with Abdulaziz, a local artist mentoring a new generation of women painters and designers; Achilles, a charismatic chef wearing a baseball cap indoors; Sheikha, the director of exhibitions at the National Museum; Saeed, a national motorcycle champion; Hamida, one of Qatar's first filmmakers; and Noora, a young woman footballer.
He sails on a dhow, a traditional wooden boat, as the Sun sets across the bay. He rides a motorcycle beneath the Al Wahda Arches and along the glittering Pearl harbour. He visits the Blue Mosque and kicks a football in an ancient amphitheatre. He walks the runway of a pop-up fashion and design exhibition and sits on a large rug with elderly men eating rice and meat with his hands.
This is Qatar as it wants to be seen: an oasis that has emerged in the middle of a desert. And David Beckham – the highest-profile employee of the Gulf state during the build-up to the World Cup – wants you to see it that way.
His role as an ambassador and public relations spokesperson for Qatar, earning him a reported $10 million, has been widely criticised given the country's human rights record and the many problems that this World Cup, the first to be hosted in the Arab world, has raised. And he's not the only one: many legends of the game, including former Socceroo Tim Cahill, are still involved in this larger marketing project.
For many people travelling to Qatar for the first time (this writer included), the past few years of media coverage of the World Cup has been a kind of tug-of-war between Qatar as it is and Qatar as it wants to be.
At one extreme end is Beckham's version — advertisements that highlight the most attractive, interesting, and glamorous parts of this tiny peninsula that has suddenly realised it is now one of the richest and most powerful kids in the schoolyard.
Its pockets have been made heavy by newfound oil and gas reserves off the coast that it sells to the highest bidder, the revenue of which it has funnelled into a rapid infrastructure makeover. Smooth, clean roads, manicured gardens, shiny new hotels, an underground metro network, and towers of glass and steel have popped up almost overnight, juxtaposed against hand-built stone mosques and plain residential blocks that sit quietly between them.
But there are still construction sites everywhere — mounds of rubble, the bones of new buildings coming to life — a reminder that Qatar's vision for itself extends far further than this tournament but hosting it forms a key part.
As Beckham says in the video's conclusion, Qatar is a place where "the modern and the traditional really do fuse to create something special".
At the other extreme end is a different picture: Thousands of media reports of hidden migrant worker deaths – reaching up to 6,500 according to some estimates – as well as the country's poor treatment of women and the LGBTQIA+ community.
Qatar, for its part, denies the publicised figures and points to the many reforms it has implemented over the past decade to improve the lives of those most affected. Even now, less than a week out from the tournament's start, the true number of people who have died as part of the country's preparations for this World Cup is still not known – and it may never be.
It's complicated, then, to know how to think about Qatar; whose version of it to believe, whose standards we should use to judge it.
Four days out from the opening match, Doha is still largely empty of the 1.2 million travelling fans expected to visit over the course of the tournament.
Many have also decided to stay at home – put off by the cost, the climate, the location, the culture, and the general unease that sits like a thick haze across it all. But many have decided to set all that aside, to "keep sport and politics separate", and come along anyway.
Qatar is ready for them.
Posters of football's biggest stars line the sides of several skyscrapers, soaring storeys tall into the sky. Two giant cruise ships floated in as an alternative accommodation option for more than 4,000 guests sit quietly in the nearby harbour.
There is World Cup branding everywhere — giant footballs, flags, sculptures and signs — especially around the city's central fan zone of Al Bidda Park; a garden the size of a suburb that will be the beating heart of the fan experience for the next month, filled with music festivals, (expensive) beer gardens, food stalls, giant television screens and activity areas for young and old.
It is yet to come to life. Just a scattering of gardeners and last-minute repairmen can be seen hanging around tents beyond the barricades, trying to find pockets of shade in the incessant, draining heat of the day.
Security guards in uniform and volunteers in branded shirts stand in groups around various FIFA-approved zones, checking accreditation letters and Hayya cards (without which you cannot enter the country as a tourist). Everybody we've met is deeply polite and endearingly respectful.
Taxis and Ubers are everywhere, interrupted every now and then by a World Cup-themed bus, as locals casually move about their lives. We're told the traffic around these areas will clear as they close the roads over the next few days.
Our driver is a migrant worker, as most drivers here are. He is from Bangladesh and has lived here for almost a decade now, so has seen the transformation happen.
It's a good thing, he says, seeing how much the country has grown. There was nothing here 10 years ago, and even though it might not be great, it is better than what it was.
It's a sentiment echoed by a man I meet at a small bar tucked away beneath of one of Doha's newer hotels. He's a local Qatari and is encouraged that the World Cup is leading to positive change for the country.
Laws have already been altered to protect migrant workers, and he feels the culture around alcohol and dress has already begun to shift.
Unlike some of its Arab neighbours, Qatar is engaging — to some extent — in the criticism the Western world has thrown its way since it was awarded this tournament back in 2010.
It is changing quickly and slowly, in different ways. It is a country that feels like it is somewhere in between.
And that, perhaps, is the reality. Qatar, like this World Cup, is whatever part of it you choose to see.
For some, it's a tournament irrevocably tainted by its host selection — a World Cup allegedly created upon foundations of bribery and corruption, stadiums built on the backs of a mistreated migrant workforce, a government using sport (just like Russia, Brazil, and South Africa before it, though criticised far more than all three) as a means to a geopolitical end, an economy blossoming off the destruction of the planet.
For others, it's a tournament full of opportunity and progress, a door opening to a part of the world often ignored by global football, an event that has created structural change for thousands of people on the ground – something that may not have happened at all without this international spotlight – and a reminder that the game is, at its heart, still one of the most powerful forces in bringing people together to listen, to learn, and to share in one another's lives.
The build-up to this World Cup has been one decade-long argument about the truth. The problem is that the truth is what you choose to look at, with many things capable of being it all at once.
So over the next four weeks, as the world pours into this place, perhaps we will start to figure out which parts of this oasis in the desert are real and which parts are simply sand.
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