In the space of a generation, Qatar has transformed from a handful of poor fishing villages into the richest country per capita in the world. It turns out if you combine gas revenues, foreign labor and the free hand of a ruling emir, things get done very quickly.
Construction is going at full clip in the capital Doha, adding 12 new buildings to the metropolitan skyline every day. Builders are everywhere in the city, working in hard hats and overalls despite the 40-degree heat. Much of the activity is centred around the FIFA World Cup, with eight stadia, a metro system, and untold yardages of pavement and instant turf being rolled out across the desert ahead of 2022. Where there was empty sand yesterday, now there are roads, palms, and a man with a hose to water them.
Each of Qatar's government departments has its own glittering skyscraper, bearing a blown-up picture of the Emir of Qatar. The ruler's face has become a national emblem, plastered across car bumpers in a show of pride and defiance, since Qatar's Gulf neighbours severed ties with it in a diplomatic spat known as the "blockade". Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) accuse Qatar of backing terrorism and being too close to regional rival Iran, which it denies.
Mediation efforts led by Kuwait and the US, which has its largest Middle East airbase in Qatar, have so far proved futile. A Saudi official even hinted at plans to turn the small peninsula nation into an island by digging a canal around it.
The blockade doesn't appear to have slowed Qatar's incredible growth, even if our plane has to take a circuitous route to get there (the sanctions include a ban from Saudi Arabian airspace). If anything, ostracism from the rest of the Gulf has caused it to double down on its mission to be a regional and global powerhouse, and in many respects it is succeeding.
Compared with other World Cities, Doha is brand new — few historic buildings from pre-Modern times have survived, and native Qataris represent a tiny portion of residents, with almost 90 per cent of the population made up of expatriates. Winning the bid to host the World Cup was a major coup. it will be the first time the men's soccer tournament is hosted in the Middle East.
But since it secured the tournament almost a decade ago, Qatar's suitability as a host has been called into question. There are reports that foreign construction workers building infrastructure for the event are kept without pay in slave-like conditions.
Qatar has denied exploiting or abusing workers and says it has implemented labor reforms. It claims it has made big strides in human development for a country where slavery was only abolished in 1952.
In Doha, a Government-funded museum, Bin Jelmood house, looks specifically at the history of slavery in the region. It's set in the house of a former slave-trader, built around a courtyard that was once crowded with African slaves waiting to be sold. The exhibits pull no punches, detailing Qatar's part in a slave trade network that saw men and women brought by force from East Africa and absorbed into Arab families and culture.
It's a surprising find in a country charged with being a hub for modern day slavery. Qatar's growth is powered by foreign labourers, many of whom come from poor nations in South Asia. If it wants to be seen as a vanguard of development, it will need to prove they're treated humanely.
World Cup naysayers have also accused Qatar of bribing its way into hosting the tournament and of not having a strong football culture.
By the numbers, football is officially Qatar's most popular sport, but more traditional Qatari past-times like falconry and camel racing maintain strong followings. In Qatar, falcons are treated like prized race horses, worth up to NZ$400,000. They're allowed on planes. There's even a dedicated falcon hospital in Doha, with a surgical theatre and a vending machine stocked with falcon energy drinks.
The Al Bidda tower is the headquarters for the World Cup preparations. The building's twisting, tornado-like face is impressive, but the guards won't let us take photos at first because it's situated just opposite Qatar's national intelligence building.
After we get through the metal detectors - found at the entrance to all buildings in Doha - we're hosted by staffers from the tournament's Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, who show us models of the eight stadia being built in the desert.
Each is based on an aspect of the Qatari culture. The shape of Al Wakrah stadium, inaugurated this month, draws inspiration from the sail of a traditional dhow boat. But it has inadvertently become fodder for Qatar's World Cup critics, derided in global headlines as having the appearance of a vagina.
Whether you agree with the design or not, it puts New Zealand's infrastructure projects to shame. We can't even build one stadium in Auckland, let alone eight — and Qatar is a country six times smaller than Tasmania, with half our population.
The Supreme Committee is keen to squash assumptions that the stadia might become white elephants after the tournament. It's planned that one stadium will be deconstructed after the tournament, we're told; another will be increased in capacity, and the rest broken down to varying degrees, with their detachable upper tiers shipped to developing countries.
All the stadia used in the World Cup will use state-of-the-art cooling technology, reducing inside temperatures from 45 to 25 degrees celsius.
Many have wondered how Qatar, an ultraconservative nation under Sharia law, will bend to accommodate the expected influx of 1.5 million football fans, many of whom view drinking as central to the World Cup experience. Getting a beer has never been easy in Qatar, where foreign nationals have been given 100 lashes for alcohol consumption.
At the start of the year, drinking became even more difficult, with a 100 per cent tax imposed on alcohol imports; a questionable move so close to the tournament. I had some idea drinking would be difficult in Qatar before I left, so tried to grab a bottle of whiskey duty free at Auckland Airport, but Qatari customs don't allow liquor into the country. Alcohol is available at Western-style hotels, if you're OK with paying $25 for a bottle of beer. I made this mistake on my first night, not realising the $60 rials I handed over was such a punch in the stomach.
This is also a country where homosexuality is illegal and people are jailed for it.
Qatar's Western expats are participating in a values trade-off. They stay for a few years and save some money while leaving their liberal habits at the border. At the Pearl, an artificial island where the dress code is relaxed and expats live in a ring of high rise apartments above luxury car stores, you can almost forget you're in the Arabian desert. But even at the Pearl, you wouldn't want to be seen holding hands in public.
The Supreme Committee tells us there are plans for football fans who want to drink to be put on barges in the harbour where the country's strict policing of alcohol will be relaxed. Putting thirsty fans on the water to prevent them from corrupting Qatari society sounds like a last-ditch option.
The world will be watching in 2022. The influx of fans will be the equivalent of the population of Auckland descending on Doha. Qatar certainly has the money and manpower to accommodate them, but does it have the tolerance?
In the departure lounge before my flight back to Auckland, an airline employee was standing guard at locked refrigerators of alcohol. Each time somebody asked him for a drink, he unlocked the fridge and poured it into a glass for them, a human buffer between the travellers and the booze.
When the guard briefly disappeared, a Western man who couldn't wait his turn crouched down and started reaching desperately, up to his shoulder, through an opening into the adjacent fridge for a can of Heineken.
The guard returned to catch the man in the act. All the foreigner could do was smile and pull his beer can from the fridge. The guard smiled back, helpless to stop him.
Published: Stuff.co.nz, June 2019
The writer was a guest of Qatar Airways.