Doha, Qatar – Shehar Bano Rizvi moved to quieter Doha from the sizzling, ever-expanding metropolis of Karachi shortly after her marriage in 2004.
The then 23-year-old Pakistani expat was not impressed when she arrived in the Qatari capital, thinking she had landed in the middle of a desert in more ways than one. The streets were empty and there were few shops. A lonely five-star hotel, a simple mall, and a few office buildings stood in West Bay.
“My husband had a very simple driving rule for me: if you get lost, follow directions to the Corniche [waterfront promenade] and you will be able to navigate your way home,” Rizvi said, recalling her first experiences of getting around Doha at a time when apps were still unknown.
Fast forward 18 years and West Bay is buzzing. It is Doha’s premier business district and home to an increasingly bustling skyline populated by a growing number of skyscrapers. Gleaming new buildings along the Gulf shore bask in the sun all day and put on a glittering light show at night.
However, Doha’s metamorphosis goes beyond that, with new neighborhoods, cultural hubs and cutting-edge event venues transforming the cityscape.
Human rights organizations and media reports have said Qatar’s development has come at the expense of workers’ rights. Concerns about low wages, poor living conditions and worker safety have been repeatedly expressed by human rights groups and critics of the Gulf nation hosting the World Cup.
In response, Qatari officials point to recent reforms to labor laws, including a universal minimum wage and easing restrictions on foreign workers wanting to change employers. Officials have also criticized the Western media for what they call biased and inaccurate coverage of Qatar and its preparations for the tournament.
Qatar, an energy-rich country that only declared independence five decades ago, won the right to host the World Cup in 2010. Its transformation has also coincided with a rapid increase in its population – currently nearly three million people – the vast majority of whom are migrant workers, mainly from South Asian countries.
“Qatar became independent in 1971, so we have[d] certain policies that don’t fit now,” Faisal al-Mudakha, editor-in-chief of the Gulf Times, told Al Jazeera.
“Now we have the World Cup,” he said. “We’re talking about 12 years of policy reform… [that is being] done because of the World Cup – but it [has been] fast forward. And I think that after the World Cup things will continue in line with needs and in accordance with international law.”
Focus on the sport
The six-lane highways, squeaky-clean subway system and commuter buses that are now Qatar’s transportation hub were a distant dream in the early 2000s, when the thought of a tiny country like Qatar hosting a soccer World Cup was unimaginable.
“I remember attending the opening ceremony of the 2006 Asian Games in disbelief that a country the size of Qatar could host such a big event,” said Rizvi, a photographer and author of a book on Pakistani cuisine.
“On that cold, rainy December night at the brand new Khalifa International Stadium, it was clear that Qatar was shifting its focus to sport, culture and education.”
The country formalized this shift in the following years as part of its National Vision 2030, an ambitious development plan aimed at diversifying its economy, reducing its carbon footprint and achieving social progress.
Sport is an important pillar of this vision. Since 2012, Qatar has celebrated an annual sports day every February. The occasion is marked as a public holiday, allowing residents to participate in sports and fitness-related activities.
At that time, according to Rizvi, the number of women and girls in sports was negligible.
“My daughter started playing football as a kid but gave up after a while because there weren’t any all-girls teams,” she said. “But now, as a teenager, she is playing in an academy that has given her international exposure and a chance to meet her footballing idols.
“And not just them, so many Qatari teenage girls come to training and games with their dads who seem really proud and are cheering them on from the sidelines.”
On the big stage, however, there has been little progress in women’s football. The Qatari women’s soccer team has not played a competitive game in a number of years and has been eliminated from the FIFA rankings, while many teenagers and young women stop playing as they get older.
“It wasn’t just about Qatar”
Despite the gradual growth on the soccer field, women have been at the forefront of the country’s educational and cultural advances.
Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, the second wife of former Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, played a crucial role in the establishment of Qatar’s Education City in 2003, where several renowned international universities have established local campuses.
Sheikha Mayassa bint Hamad, the sister of the current Emir, directs the arts and culture scene in the form of the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA).
The organization has set up several museums across the country focusing on Arabic and Islamic art, Qatar’s national history, sports and an interactive children’s museum that is set to open soon.
The cultural centers have become a popular pastime for many who have had few entertainment options for years.
“It was very easy,” said Eeman Abed, a Palestinian who has lived in Qatar for more than 20 years. “Go to the park, walk the Corniche or eat out at the weekend,” she adds with a shrug.
But as the country moved forward and Doha grew into a thriving hub of arts and culture, Abed added, it took many of his expats with it.
“We used to live in a small house in old Doha and after moving across the city over time, we’ve now settled into The Pearl,” she said, referring to the upscale man-made island with Mediterranean-inspired accommodations and beaches.
It was there that Rizvi lived with her husband, who works for the Qatar Stock Exchange when the country won the rights to host the World Cup.
Rizvi recalls a festive night when people came out with their maroon and white Qatari flags and national songs thundered from cars.
“It wasn’t just about Qatar,” she says. “It was about an Arab-Muslim nation hosting the biggest event in the world, and that’s what the West can’t fathom,” she adds, referring to the ongoing criticism Qatar has faced since that night in December 2010.
But with the event now underway, every part of Doha’s tourist hotspots is filled with international fans – from the west and beyond. They sample local food and fashion, banter with local fans and bring their celebrations to the Gulf Coast.