Hassan al-Thawadi on Worker Welfare, Qatari Goals and the 2022 World Cup

Hassan al-Thawadi on Worker Welfare, Qatari Goals and the 2022 World Cup

Absolutely. If you look for parallels, look at South Africa during 2010 — you experienced that first African World Cup, you feel that buzz. You land in Joburg or Cape Town and walk the streets and you feel that electricity. It’s the same thing over here: it’s the first World Cup in the Middle East. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and we’ve always focused on it being a regional World Cup. This is a World Cup beyond Qatar. It’s a cultural experience.

Does the current situation in the region, the blockade of Qatar by some of its neighbors, complicate that idea of making it a regional event?

No. We’ve always taken the simple position that sports is elevated from conflict. This is always a platform to bring people together, and to separate it from any political ideology.

Do you think your neighbors will play along with that?

I can’t speak on their behalf. From our side, we’ve always taken that position. Even today, from our side, everybody’s welcome. I hope that they see reason, and recognize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the people of our region. We’re football crazy. I mean, the Middle East, the Arab world, is football crazy, plain and simple. You go to any corner, whether it’s in Qatar, whether it’s in Saudi, whether it’s in Morocco, and start speaking football, and you will find a very, very deep caldron of passion and knowledge.

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Fans of the Qatar Stars League team Al Sadd during a recent match. “We’re football crazy,” al-Thawadi said. “The Middle East, the Arab world, is football crazy, plain and simple. You go to any corner, whether it’s in Qatar, whether it’s in Saudi, whether it’s in Morocco, and start speaking football, and you will find a very, very deep caldron of passion and knowledge.”

Credit
Olya Morvan for The New York Times

The compact nature of Qatar’s World Cup means the stadiums will be only an hour or two apart at most, and sometimes much less. Are there plans to take advantage of that, and does that raise security issues?

The compact World Cup has a lot of advantages, first and foremost for the fans. Whoever has experience previous World Cups, you always had to figure out ways of traveling, and accommodations, trying to follow your team, and it puts stress on fans. Here, the fans have the opportunity to attend more than one match a day.

There is talk about taking advantage of that, right? Of selling multiday or multigame passes?

That’s what I’m saying. You can watch a match in the afternoon and then go for the evening match as well. So it adds that element for fans who want to do that. And more importantly, for players. Because the players don’t have to worry about traveling from one place to another. They don’t have to worry about playing a match in a certain city, getting up early, getting on a flight, moving on, getting used to a new accommodation, resting, and then going out and playing. Everybody is focused on what matters: delivering to the best of their ability on the pitch. And that can only be good for the fans.

And security concerns from having all those different fans so close to one another?

You look at the Olympics, it has that Olympic Village feel, that global, international, we-are-a-global-community feel to it. And that’s what this World Cup offers as well. In terms of managing that, and security, we are in constant coordination and cooperation with major security operations throughout the world, learning from them, whether it’s in terms of Champions League matches or league matches. We’re present at every single major tournament.

But mixing rival fans can lead to trouble, like the day when English and Russian fans fought in Marseille at the European Championships last year.

I think it’d be very cynical and very pessimistic to look at certain examples and say, “This is the norm,” when sometimes they’re the outlier.

Have you had feedback from FIFA, or from individual associations, about the idea that a team might be able to spend the whole tournament in one place?

That was the essence of our bid, and for a lot of people it was appealing. What matters for us is to create an environment for the teams and the coaches. But I think it’s important to note that major international teams have come to Qatar to use it as the base for their winter camps — Barcelona, Real Madrid, Milan, Bayern Munich. And people come because we have got some of the best facilities in the world. State of the art. And that’s the reason they continue to come back.

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The son of a diplomat, Hassan al-Thawadi has been tasked with delivering at least eight stadiums and a host of other projects for the 2022 World Cup, and coordinating them with other parts of Qatar’s master plan for developing the country.

Credit
Earl Wilson/The New York Times

Qatar has taken tough criticism from human rights and labor groups over the treatment of workers, some of it quite severe. We’re interested in your thoughts on that.

No country is perfect. We have issues, and we have challenges when it comes to being the fastest growing nation at a point in time in terms of both population and economic activity. Unfortunately, while the laws were in place, the ability and the resources to implement and enforce these laws were challenging. With the World Cup coming on board, of course the spotlight came in, but this is something we recognized. So when we said legacy, we mean the World Cup is an opportunity to be a catalyst for positive change, and to increase the momentum for initiatives that the government was already committed to. And of course worker welfare is one of them.

There’s obviously what the government has done, which I can’t speak to with authority. What I can tell you is what we’ve done as the Supreme Committee. When we won the World Cup, we developed a charter, we assessed the market conditions, we looked at the gaps and the issues, we consulted with NGOs and the construction sector, to understand the challenges from their side, and we developed a set of standards.

We are now in our second edition, and these standards are a live document, and they are constantly being reviewed. To ensure they’re being enforced, we’ve developed a four-tier auditing system: a self-audit by the contractors themselves; our own audits that we do; we’ve got a third-party auditor that conducts its own and issues its own annual report; and we’ve of course got the government auditing our projects as well.

These issues that you’re referring to in the news media weren’t reflected on us, weren’t the World Cup project. There is only one report that came out, from Amnesty International, where they had performed an investigation, and then a year later they came to us and said: “These are our findings. What do you have to say about this?” During that year — we didn’t realize Amnesty International had performed that investigation — we identified these issues and were fixing them. So actually our system worked. Because as the projects started ramping up, we started identifying the areas and the gaps and so on, and we had addressed a lot of these issues.

So if we called Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, they would say everything’s been fixed?

They wouldn’t say everything’s been fixed because I’m not saying everything’s been fixed. What I’m saying is this is a work in progress. This is not something that can be fixed overnight. But you can definitely talk to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and talk about our commitment, talk about our transparency with them, about the progress that we’ve made. And I would urge you to call them and ask them that question. On the other hand, when you call them, ask them if all the conditions in the United States were fixed. Then I’d be interested in you making a comparison on the answer.

Because for me it’s very simple: the issue that we’re talking about, of worker welfare, is an issue that the global community faces. Every country in the world faces it.

There are ways that a major international event like this might seem to clash with the culture of a Muslim country, so let me ask a couple specific questions. Will drinking alcohol be allowed in the stadiums and the hotels and the fan zones?

We’ve always said it very clearly: alcohol will be allowed. But it won’t be allowed in public spaces. It’ll be allowed in certain designated areas, for example, but you won’t be allowed to walk the street drinking alcohol.

Will gay fans be welcomed, and do they have anything to fear?

It’s a simple thing: everyone is welcome to come to Qatar. What we ask is that when people come just to respect — we’re a relatively conservative nation. Public display of affection is something that’s not part of our culture. So all we ask is that every fan who comes in, and every fan is welcome, is we ask that people respect that.

The last one is: should Israel qualify, would the team and its fans be welcome?

Everyone is welcome. It’s a simple answer: everybody is welcome.

How many visitors do you expect in 2022?

Cumulatively, we’re talking about 1.2 million.

Can Qatar handle that yet? How much of the infrastructure for that is in place already?

It’s being developed. But this is the vision of the World Cup for us. When we first bid, the idea was simple: Utilizing this World Cup as an opportunity as a catalyst for the country’s growth, for its original urban development plans. So as the country was expanding, the infrastructure of the World Cup fit in with the country’s plans. We re-prioritized certain projects, obviously, to fulfill the World Cup requirements, but that’s just a milestone in the country’s overall development. So the hotels required for the country’s tourism requirements are being developed. The metro system is going to be functioning by 2020. The road networks are being developed as well. So by 2020, 2021, everything is going to be in place.

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Al-Thawadi, third from left, in 2014, during a news conference to announce plans for the Al-Khor World Cup stadium. Most of the stadiums will have modular seating that will be removed after the tournament, al-Thawadi said.

Credit
Mohammed Dabbous/Reuters

How do you avoid the kind of waste that Brazil and South Africa experienced, these massive stadiums they don’t need after the tournament leaves?

When we submitted the bid, that was the first thing in our mind: we wanted to avoid white elephants, a reminder of money that was spent and then not utilized.

So take the stadiums: each stadium we’ve designed, we assured that it was on the transit network that was being developed for the country, and that each one had to be a center for the community, that each one had a legacy story already developed.

We realized the FIFA requirements in terms of capacity didn’t fulfill our needs beyond 2022, so we developed the modular seating concept. We decided on the stadiums we would need, and these would have a mixture of fixed and modular seats. So the fixed seats would be the capacity we need – about 15,000 to 20,000 — and the rest would be taken out. Other stadiums, the entire concept is modular, so we’ll be taking the entire seating capacity out.

How did we decide which would be temporary? We engaged the community. For every design, we went to them and asked, “What do you need? What are you missing? How can this facility assist you?” So, for example, down south is a small little city called Al Wakrah. We went to the community and asked them, “What do you need?” They turned around and said one of the things we need is wedding halls. “There’s a lot of these weddings, and we always go up to Doha — we need a wedding hall.” So within the project we developed an area for the wedding hall. There was a need for school facilities, so within the master plan we also have developed space for school facilities. Every single stadium has that kind of story, to be used as a center for its community.

But that’s stadiums. In terms of infrastructure, the metro system, the road network, it’s part of the urban development of the country.

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