Our car is speeding down the eight-lane freeway that shoots west from Doha into another world when, unsurprisingly, the conversation turns to football.
Behind us, the gleaming skyscrapers and flashy shopping malls fade into the distance as we sweep across the endless, soulless desert.
It’s late morning and the hottest part of the day as we drive mile after mile through flat, dry wilderness.
We ask Ahmed, our driver, about the World Cup. Even three weeks after arriving here, it’s still an obvious conversation starter.
He wasn’t at any of the games. Even more surprising is that he hasn’t seen any despite the tournament being held on his doorstep.
So to speak anyway. It was moved from Doha in hours last month to make way for this quadrennial global gathering that has squandered billions upon billions of Qatari cash. It’s a fairly common story, he tells us. More of that later.
“I’ll watch the final,” he says. “I work the rest of the games. I can’t afford not to work a day.
“I don’t have time for football. I want but I can’t, I live my life within my reach.”
At that moment, you get a small sense of the other world that lies behind the gleaming facade of the capital, Doha, a bewildering, Disney-like place where gleaming skyscrapers seem to compete in size and scale.
Ahmed has been working every day for the past month taking visitors on sightseeing tours of this confusing, confusing country.
His real passion from Pakistan is cricket. We discuss England’s dramatic victory in the fading light of Karachi on Monday. He’s thrilled that they’re touring his homeland again after almost two decades.
But he also wants to talk about life in the place he now calls home.
He earns 2,000 riyals a month (around 581 euros). To put that into context, we collectively paid about half that for a four-hour sightseeing tour of the desert. He sends most of what he earns to his family hundreds of miles away.
Our destination is Zekreet, a village 50 miles away on the west side of Qatar – the forgotten land of this World Cup.
The journey takes us past the Al-Shahaniya camel track and the Richard Serra sculpture (four huge pedestals built to attract tourists), through the “mushroom” rocks that populate the barren landscape as we delve deeper into drive the desert.
The days here have merged into one over time. But not today. The last 24 hours couldn’t have been more different.
The day before we visited Lusail, about 15 miles north of Doha. Built from the ground up for the World Cup at enormous expense, it’s a ghost town. A few hours before Portugal play Switzerland at the nearby stadium, the main square is empty.
About £37 billion was spent building Lusail. No expense has been spared for this status symbol of Qatari wealth.
At one end, the Lusail Towers rise amidst gleaming buildings, office blocks and shops. Who knows who uses them?
Music blares from speakers all over the vast, empty square.
The only people here are security guards. But there is nothing to worry her because there is no one here.
The tram line goes to a business center called Energy City, dedicated to the hydrocarbon industry, but it’s also deserted.
A few stations further, the Place Vendome is lively. It’s the huge mall inspired by Paris. Actually, it’s a complete rip-off of the French capital with neighborhoods named Opera, Eiffel and Elysee around an artificial canal (with dancing fountains straight out of Las Vegas).
This is a place where if they want it, they just buy it, build it, or rent it.
I’ve been here since November 19th. The more I see, the less I understand.
But in this country of great contrasts, the divide in society is deep. You don’t have to travel far to see it.
Ahmed’s story is mundane, cutting into the reality of life beyond the grandiose extravagance of Doha, a sprawling metropolis of blinding lights and deafening noise that assaults the senses at every turn.
Qatar’s population is around three million. Just 10 percent are Qatari nationals, who are reaping the benefits of the wealth fueled by shared control of one of the world’s largest natural gas reserves.
That brings tax-free income, high-paying government jobs, free health care, and higher education. There is financial support for newlyweds and generous grants to help cover utility bills.
Gasoline is cheap here and certain brands of bottled water cost more. This has led to a car dependent industry. Taxis and Ubers are a small fraction of the price at home. Even after midnight, there is heavy traffic on the multi-lane highways to and from Doha. Most families have five or six cars, and each citizen can own up to five vehicles.
“They love cars so much and gas is cheap,” explains Ahmed.
It was the oil that first fueled wealth here. Drilling began in 1938. Wells were dug deeper and deeper. The following year oil was found in Dukhan, an industrial town to the west. By 1940, the well was producing nearly 4,500 barrels per day. After the war, the industry grew rapidly. The first delivery went on December 31, 1949.
In order to reduce its dependence on oil, Qatar has recently increased its natural gas resources. In the 1990s it began developing its North Field, the largest single gas field in the world.
In August, it was reported that rising energy receipts had pushed Qatar’s budget surplus up 12-fold to 47.3 billion riyals in the first half of 2022.
The Qatar Investment Authority, its sovereign wealth fund, manages and invests its financial reserves.
The country has big plans for the future and their ambitions don’t end with the World Cup.
“There will be more cities here that will be bigger and more beautiful than Doha,” predicts Ahmed.
He explains that some of the relatively new buildings in Doha have been criticized, so they tear them down and start over.
Doha wants to host the Olympic Games. It failed with bids for the 2016 (awarded to Rio de Janeiro) and 2020 (Tokyo) games, but will likely bid again for 2036. Ahmed is sure that the Olympics will come here.
But when the country’s wealth is fueled by gas and oil, its society is built on sand.
Qatar relies on its migrant population. This vast underclass of workers is their heartbeat that keeps the country moving.
Great wealth, Ahmed claims, has made people “lazy” here and throughout the Arab world.
“India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal … if the people of these four countries stop coming and working, believe me, believe me, the entire Middle East would shut down in a week,” he says.
He adds: “The money doesn’t come from their work, their hard work, their own effort – it’s God-given.
“For example, when the gas runs out? What else?”
Outside Zekreet we stop for tea at Café Red Chilli. Ahmed stops, honks, and the waiter comes to the car.
It’s like going back decades. The cafe is in a row of nondescript shops selling basic goods. Only the store that offers cell phone repairs brings you back to the present.
A busload of workers from a nearby factory arrive for lunch in matching blue overalls.
The World Cup forgot about this place.
The bright purple “Qatar 2022” merchandise and branding found in every store across Doha is absent. There are no replica shirts. The four flags fluttering over the grocery store are the only sign that the tournament is happening.
Ahmed tells us about his experiences with the World Cup. It’s not one you’re likely to read about in the daily emails put out by Fifa’s press office announcing record viewership and TV viewership.
He explains how he was one of those who were forcibly evicted for the tournament. Qatar cleared entire blocks of flats housing thousands of foreign workers in the same parts of Doha where visiting fans are staying.
“They came in the middle of the night, turned off the power and said, ‘Get out of Doha,'” he recalls.
“I lived in Doha – like our neighborhood in Pakistan, we lived, 10 people in two rooms, but very good accommodation.
“But when we lost the accommodation in Doha, we all went very far into the industrial area.
“It is very difficult for me to live in the industrial area because there is a lot of dust there and I need my car clean for tourism.”
He has found accommodation with a friend near Doha, even though his rental costs have more than tripled.
“Everything is fine after the World Cup. All the people will come back, all the rent will go down.”
Are migrants exploited? “Yes,” he replies unequivocally.
He says, “We don’t have enough salaries… we can’t save the money – just get our wages, pay the rent and give the rest of our family, then wait for the next wage, and the next.” We can’t enjoy our lives very well.”
Ahmed has been here for eleven years but wants to leave when he has enough money. He wants to move to Europe, with Italy as his destination. At some point he would like to move to Canada.
He tells us about his friend Asif who lives in the UK. He went there to study and now works as a doctor. “He has a very good life,” says Ahmed.
For some, and these are just a few, there is a good life in Qatar.
Its many and huge malls (Doha Festival City alone has over 500 stores) are full of high-end stores selling expensive products.
Cash is being spent on increasingly ambitious projects on an almost industrial scale, as is the cold air pouring out of vents lining the sidewalks and cooling the streets.
But it doesn’t take long to find a different side of society here.
Only an hour’s drive separates the empty extravagance of the built city of Lusail from the barren lunar landscape of the desert. This is a complex, confusing, contrasting place.
What do you think of it? The highway road trip out of Doha took us part of the way in trying to understand Qatar.
For some here, the journey of life is very different.
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/middle-east/beyond-qatars-world-cup-extravagance-the-divide-runs-deepan-underclass-of-migrant-workers-is-the-countrys-heartbeat-42210067.html Qatar’s World Cup extravagance aside, the divide is deep… an underclass of migrant workers is the heartbeat of the country