The Gulf state of Qatar has been mired in controversy since 2010 when it won the right to host the FIFA World Cup. Amid accusations of squalid living conditions for migrant workers, and unexplained death rates, it is regarded by many as perhaps the most controversial sports destination on earth. Yet, with just over four years left until kick-off, Michael Tierney believes the country must be given an opportunity to show its commitment to progress in order to affect dynamic regional change.


Early last spring, on a bell clear afternoon, I stood at the exact sandy spot, marked by a somewhat anonymous red and white post filled with concrete, where the opening and closing matches of the FIFA World Cup 2022 will take place in Qatar.

Situated just 20km north of the gleaming and elegant capital of Doha is the coastal construction site of Lusail, a vast tract of land in an historical part of the country known as Al Daayen where Qatar’s founder, Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed bin Thani, once resided and was buried in 1913. Despite the area’s obvious historical and cultural past, it is to an ambitious, transformative future that his descendants are now looking.

All around were polished steel and shimmering glass towers, recently erected apartment blocks, new roads that appeared and disappeared like a mirage, garden villas, a marina, and a silhouette of cranes and trucks. These have been produced by a vast army of migrant workers, as ubiquitous as the voice of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, each helping to hammer, dig, cut, and forge Lusail City into one of the most idyllic, futuristic, and advanced communities on earth.

For a few minutes, I kicked a borrowed football around with a colleague, sand in my safety boots, sweat on my brow, and daydreamed like a 12-year old that while I was the first Scot to have played football at Lusail, hopefully I wouldn’t be the last. The Scotland team, in case anyone needed reminding, hasn’t qualified for a World Cup since 1998. It’s a national quirk that has somehow hardened into a pathology. Perhaps the long road to redemption starts somewhere here, in Qatar.


The 2022 FIFA World Cup Final in Qatar will kick off in Lusail stadium, currently under construction. The centre spot is marked by a red and white concrete post. Image: Michael Tierney.

I’d been in Doha for almost two years and was, at the time, a media and communications adviser with the Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy (henceforth Supreme Committee), the organisation tasked, somewhat onerously, with delivering the tournament to a global football audience in 2022.

Almost a decade earlier, a few months after my first visit to Doha in August 2010, Qatar had won the right to host the world’s greatest sports tournament, beating off rivals from the United States (considered favourites by most observers), Australia, South Korea, and Japan. For many observers, Qatar winning the hosting rights just wasn’t the way it was meant to be. And, like a palm tree growing stubbornly through a crumbling and abandoned desert villa, the narrative quickly attached itself to a cycle of information that became the permanent story.

Few could accept that a small, sovereign country on the north eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, roughly six times smaller than Scotland, could take on the might of world football. And win. Yet, up until then, the global tournament had been anything but global in its bid-win allocation. On the one hand, Qatar was the ultimate underdog sports story. And one that added a little exotic Middle Eastern spice to the football mix.

On the other hand, it simply wasn’t part of the script. Yes, the story was intriguing. But God forbid that an Arab country, with little or no understanding of the so-called beautiful game, had a serious chance of upsetting the football odds. Qatar? But it’s a desert …


Few could accept that a small, sovereign country on the north eastern coast of the Arabian Peninsula, roughly six times smaller than Scotland, could take on the might of world football. And win.

What most casual observers actually knew about Qatar, its culture and football heritage, they could have written on a postage stamp with a crayon. Meanwhile, accusations of bribery flew around like confetti. And anyway, how could Wayne Rooney possibly play on sand? Qatar winning the bid simply didn’t fit in with the narrative of most western observers. It still doesn’t.

Since winning the bid, the country has been mired in a great deal of scandal, from various media and human rights groups, over the welfare of the almost two million migrant workers building the World Cup stadiums and infrastructure. Some of this criticism has been merited, some of it essential, a great deal of it less so.

In response to headlines and international pressure surrounding the welfare of workers, Qatar is now steeped in the process of labour reforms. The much anticipated Garcia report, the result of a two-year investigation into allegations of corruption during the bidding process for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups respectively, was released in full in June 2017. The World Cup organisers insisted that it was a vindication of their position that they acted with integrity and in compliance with the regulations that guided the process.


Criticism over the treatment of migrant workers has been rife since Qatar was awarded the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Image: Jacquelinekato [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Yet, despite a World Cup looming in Russia, in June, the eastern European country has never been under anything like the same level of intense and esoteric scrutiny as Qatar has been. Indeed, aside from a few exceptions, there was scant level of probing and scrutiny over the treatment of stadium workers in Vladimir Putin’s Russia at all. Media is a contact sport. But in some countries, they can play it a little rougher than in others.

While Qatar has remained football’s convenient piñata ever since, in a little over four years from now, the tournament will go ahead. And I believe it will be one of the most successful World Cups ever – if it manages to achieve two things. First, it must be a landmark event for the region and its people, particularly its youth. Second, it must leave a long-overdue legacy for migrant workers that will resonate across the whole region, and impact the lives of millions.

The Middle East is all too often portrayed through a litany of clichés that begin with conflict and intolerance, and end with the morally bankrupt who are wealthy beyond measure from oil money. There is rarely anything in between. But the next generation of young men and women from the Arab world – many of them smart, creative, dynamic, resourceful and intuitive – would much rather be portrayed as role-models eager to examine the issues of race, identity and rights. But this fact contradicts received wisdom and rarely makes for a good news story.


The next generation of young men and women from the Arab world – many of them smart, creative, dynamic, resourceful and intuitive – would much rather be portrayed as role-models eager to examine the issues of race, identity and rights.

In 2015, I was in a meeting in the office of Hassan al Thawadi, the energetic and charismatic Secretary General of the Supreme Committee. After we were finished, he suggested I take a visit to the new museums at Msheireb. There was one of particular interest. I’d know it immediately. Thawadi, who had spent his student days at Sheffield University studying law and had lived in Scunthorpe, understood perfectly the difficulties faced by his country as it tried to navigate from the past to a dynamic, new future. Much of that ambition, which was tied directly to hosting the World Cup, rested on his 30-something shoulders.

A few days later, before it was officially opened, I found myself wandering around the whitewashed courtyard of Bin Jelmood House, in Doha, one of four heritage houses that collectively form the Msheireb Museums. What distinguishes Bin Jelmood House from the others is that it is the first museum to focus on human bondage and slavery in both the Arab world and throughout history.

The heritage quarter, with its arched doorways and newly planted trees, is an area that has been developed as both a physical, and metaphorical, bridge between the myriad clusters of old Doha and the business towers and splendid malls of the new. It is a fascinating space for reflection.


The Msheireb Museums. Image: Ruba Shisha [CC BY-SA 4.0]

While the museum’s presence might seem ironic to most observers, it was funded by the Qatar government as a way of looking into its ignored past in order to help better understand its future for the benefit of the next generation. Using videos, lectures, photographs, and various exhibits, it ties historical global slavery to modern forms of exploitation, right up to the conditions of workers in the Gulf.

Through testimony given by freed slaves in manumission documents (the formal act of liberation from slavery), the museum, which was once owned by a slave trader, tells the stories of harsh lives and challenging circumstances. The role of the museum is to create an awareness amongst visitors, and the new generation of Qataris, about the past and – looking to the future – how lessons can be learned about shaping pluralism and tolerance.

The message from al Thawadi was similarly clear: we are not afraid to confront our collective past and present in order to build a better future for everyone. Including migrant workers. World Cup stadiums and glittering buildings are not the desired legacy of the Qatar World Cup. The real monument, the true legacy, is one where workers, men and women, in most need of benefit will receive it.


World Cup stadiums and glittering buildings are not the desired legacy of the Qatar World Cup.

For too long, the issue of migrant workers and their rights have been loosely set out like pieces of discarded furniture for various vested interests to squabble over in sections of the media (of which I have been a part) and by NGOs. Qatar is criticised for making no progress on workers’ rights. And then, when there is progress, it’s invariably put down to a public relations exercise. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Yet Qatar is going through a great deal of introspection as it ushers in a new era. Within the Supreme Committee, there is an absolute determination that reforms are not a public relations exercise, and that they must not stop at the stadium door. Yes, the current system may be flawed and imperfect. But it doesn’t follow that everyone within the system is flawed. A great many people want things to change. As a result of this, things are changing – and they will continue to do so. For the region, the issue of workers’ welfare may be the most unlikely agent of change.

A PLACE OF CONTRASTS

Before I moved to Doha in 2015, the voices of conventional wisdom asked how I could work there, given the conditions of many migrants across the country. But I’d spent enough time in the Middle East, with the media and in some pretty challenging places, to know that not everything was ever as straightforward, or as simple, as it sometimes seems. And not everyone (Armchair Generals and Monday Morning Quarterbacks) knew half as much as they claimed. The truth (mine included) invariably lies somewhere in between.

Some context: I first visited the Middle East over 25 years ago, landing in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), where some of my family had moved, before the country was quite so developed as it is now. And then, through work, I went to to places such as Beirut, Baghdad, Tripoli, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nazareth, Hebron, Gaza, and Dubai, amongst others. I found each society to be as fascinating, frustrating, and as highly complex as the others. They are not homogeneous entities. Qatar is no exception.

My older twin sisters stayed and worked as teachers in the UAE for over two decades. Another two younger sisters lived and worked there for a few years. One of the twins still lives there, having raised her son in the capital for eighteen years. It is now, to all intents and purposes, her home. The other twin has returned to the UK with her family after her most recent stint – in Al Ain and Abu Dhabi – of almost ten years. One of my brothers lives in Dubai, but works in Iraq.

And so the Gulf region became an important part of our lives. And it remains so. Throughout this time, Abu Dhabi and Dubai in particular became as familiar, welcoming, and distinct to us as Glasgow and Edinburgh.


The sheer pace of change has required a vast army of foreign workers, from poorer countries, to help achieve these aims.

But a landscape of fond memories has never stopped me seeing the region’s darker side, as it has relied on wholesale construction, public works programmes and infrastructure development to keep pace with its mighty ambitions. The sheer pace of change has required a vast army of foreign workers, from poorer countries, to help achieve these aims.

In 2006, I visited labour camps in the UAE and wrote about the plight of migrant workers there, from Afghanistan (Pashtuns and Tajiks), Pakistan and India, for Glasgow’s Herald newspaper. The men, swallowed by poverty and propelled into the commercial hub of the Gulf, were providing cheap muscle for one of the world’s largest construction booms.

Many of the men had travelled by pick-up along well-trodden drug trafficking routes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, before crossing the Strait of Hormuz into the Musandam peninsula, an enclave of Oman bordering the UAE. From here, they walked for a few nights over mountains, avoiding customs and border security, until they arrived in the UAE. They were then picked up by associates before continuing to Sharjah, the third-largest of the seven emirates. A network of other migrants found them employment. There are few things about the story of a migrant worker that are easy.


Migrant workers on a construction site in the UAE. Image: euromedmonitor.org

I’ve always found the treatment of migrant workers, across the Middle East in general, difficult to accept. Who could argue that men and women, from whatever background, should be allowed to find their place in the world with dignity and decency, and in an acceptable work environment?

Amid squalid living conditions and unexplained death rates, human rights and workers’ rights have been a huge challenge for many years – and not only in Qatar. There are many countries in the region exploiting workers – mostly Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, and Bangladeshis – which have not been under anything like the same level of microscopic scrutiny as the 2022 World Cup hosts. Burj Khalifa, currently the tallest tower in the world, in Dubai, will soon be overtaken by the Kingdom Tower in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It is expected to reach one-kilometre high. And it’s not building itself.

In truth, the plight of workers was not at the forefront of my mind when I moved to Qatar. Few of us are immune to human caprice. For selfish reasons, I just couldn’t turn down the chance to work on the World Cup. Ever since 1978, when Scotland went mad for Ally’s Army only to make a complete fool of the nation amid drugs, defeat and tears, I had wanted to address our World Cup woes.

Though we might not care to admit it, our daily lives are built on the harsh labour of others. We use phones and computers containing materials that are not conflict-free. We wear clothes and eat food from countries where bullying and abuse keeps the prices we demand unnaturally low. Whether we accept it or not, we support fragmented wars, sex trafficking, and the widespread abuse of children. A brand logo of a lush tree alongside a social and ecological rating system doesn’t excuse you. Most of us are complicit. Most of us at some point, if we’re honest, take the path of least resistance.


Though we might not care to admit it, our daily lives are built on the harsh labour of others. We use phones and computers containing materials that are not conflict-free. We wear clothes and eat food from countries where bullying and abuse keeps the prices we demand unnaturally low.

I loved the Middle East. I loved football. And I was genuinely intrigued to see how this young country was setting out on its path towards the future. The progress of a new nation (Qatar only became an independent state in 1971), is a deeply complex and much more nuanced subject than I had ever imagined. Trying to understand it can often be overwhelming experience.

Little more than a few decades ago, many in Qatar lived the lifestyle of proud Bedouins. At the turn of the millennium, Qatar’s population increased from just under 600,000 to around 2.6 million in the country today. Around two million of those are migrant workers. Now Qatar is undergoing dramatic transformation as it flourishes into a dynamic and visionary metropolis, aligned with comprehensive social, human and economic development. The World Cup is a grand manifestation of that vision.

REGIONAL TENSION, DOMESTIC CHANGE

At the time of writing, changes in the geopolitical balance of the region are also underway. Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain severed relations with Qatar in June 2017, after accusing it of funding terrorism and stirring up regional instability. Qatar, which hosts the Al Udeid airbase – the home of the US Air Force Central Command and about 10,000 US military personnel – vociferously refutes these allegations. Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani, the Emir of Qatar, has insisted that the crisis has been manufactured by Qatar’s neighbours who ‘wish to use smaller states as pawns within their power games and sectarian conflicts.’ Others see these pressures as part-payback for Qatar winning the hosting rights of the World Cup.

There is still no major thawing of relations and Qatar is now planning for the next five years to be self-sufficient. Ironically, perhaps, the blockade set in place by its neighbours has been a catalyst to enhance the speed of reforms.

Running in parallel to all of this, the country is attempting to reinforce a cohesive national identity and sense of belonging for its approximately 300,000 Qataris (as both an Arab society and an Islamic nation), as modernisation and diversification threaten to unpick the social covenants of the past, that were underwritten by extensive state generosity between citizen and Emir. These developments provide necessary context to Qatar’s intriguing contemporary story.

WHEN FRIDAY COMES

Within a few weeks, I felt like I’d been living in Doha my whole life. Very quickly it felt like home. I had a good apartment in a lovely area. There were sandy beaches, great restaurants, and exquisite hotels nearby. Even the prospect of Friday – instead of Saturday – football with exotic sounding teams like al-Rayyan, al-Jaish and Lekhwiya, was immensely enjoyable for someone who was used to the more agricultural rough-and-tumble of the Scottish Premier League. The balmy heat and distant smell of sheesha smoke only added to the pleasure.

Often, it was more prosaic than that: Trader Vic’s on Thursday evenings, where I’d sit outside quietly sipping a Tiger beer (yes, you can drink alcohol in Qatar) and watch the water ebb and flow around the Corniche. Or I’d be in Champions, catching up with all the football I could wish for, with all the usual quorum of a Scots hostelry.

Yet while it became easy to be swept along by the positive narrative within the country, I’m a constant cynic. I knew that the chasm between my life and the life of the migrant worker was, and remains, vast. To pretend otherwise would be foolish.

Questioning as robustly as I could, I visited stadiums and worker’s accommodation regularly, along with colleagues. I grew to understand the serious work that was being implemented by the Supreme Committee and their Workers’ Welfare unit in order to to alleviate the concerns raised by NGOs, the media, government entities, and the public alike.


Qatar itself became the first Gulf state to actively engage with its critics, including trade unions and international human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Qatar became the first Gulf state to actively engage with its critics, including trade unions and international human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. Yes, there was huge pressure to do so – but other countries have refused similar requests for cooperation.

Although it was never plain sailing, what quickly became clear was that on a subject as important as workers’ welfare, the fundamental issue to overcome was that there needed to be (and very quickly there was), substantive cooperation and communication. Implementation, of course, remains crucial. And reality always needs to match the rhetoric. But there is no quick-fire corrective. While it’s essential to shine a light on injustice, criticism for criticism’s sake is about as essential to society as a dodo catcher.

The UN-backed International Labour Organisation (ILO), one of the most vociferous critics of Qatar’s worker welfare standards, and the equally critical International Trade Union Congress (ITUC), now recognise that good progress is being made in Qatar on this front, and that a genuine commitment to change is being implemented.


Last year, the International Labour Organization dropped its 2014 complaint against Qatar regarding the country’s labour standards. Image: Permanent Mission of the State of Qatar to the United Nations Office in Geneva.

An ILO office will open in the country to provide support and monitor progress on ending labour issues and ensuring workers have a voice. Further reforms include clamping down on passport confiscation by employers and the introduction of a minimum wage. Separately, the Supreme Committee has also engaged with a number of international companies, including the Building and Wood Workers’ International Union (BWI), to carry out regular inspections.

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of ITUC, previously an outspoken critic of Qatar, has backed the reforms pushed forward by the country. “The new guidance from Qatar”, she said recently, “signals the start of real reforms in Qatar which will bring to an end the use of modern slavery and puts the country on the pathway to meeting its international legal obligation on workers’ rights.”

At a UN human rights event in Doha, in April 2016, I stood alongside Burrow as she retreated from her own suggestions that thousands of workers brought to Qatar to prepare to host the World Cup would die before 2022. Aside from her ill-judged phrasing, she told a reporter that even if she got the figure “wrong by a few hundred middle-class Indians … nobody can deny there is no commitment from the Qatari government to treat workers here as human beings with fundamental human rights.”

An issue such as this should not be about points scoring. The figure ‘thousands of workers’ has repeatedly been used by critics to condemn Qatar’s human rights record. And it has become all to easy to conflate numbers and issues into headlines that solidify into hard-to-break perceptions. For its part, the Qatar government has not, in fact, revealed exactly the number of deaths from various causes on its various building sites.

Let’s be crystal clear: one fatality on any construction-related project related to health and safety issues – in Qatar, or anywhere else for that matter – is unacceptable and represents a unique tragedy. One fatality, that invariably leaves families without a father, husband, and breadwinner, is simply one too many.


If we accept that a lot needs to be done to improve the lives of workers in the region, then we must look to those who are leading the way and find commonalities with those who want to help. The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy is doing this. 

But fundamental changes for good are in place. In March this year, Impactt – the external compliance monitor of the 2022 World Cup – released its second audit. While it pointed to a number of issues that need addressing – including excessive working hours – it also highlighted, for example, that the Supreme Committee is negotiating with its contractors in order that fees, initially paid to middlemen hiring work for building World Cup stadiums, can be returned to the workers as part of a £3.6 million payout. This move has been welcomed by the ITUC.

If we accept that a lot needs to be done to improve the lives of workers in the region, then we must look to those who are leading the way and find commonalities with those who want to help. The Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy is doing this. They don’t always get it right. But there is a determination within the organisation that is distinctly lacking elsewhere across the region.


Two workers pictured outside their accommodation. Image: Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy.

For example, new accommodations for thousands of workers on World Cup projects and are being built to international standards. Whilst the Supreme Committee doesn’t own the accommodation, it is responsible for ensuring that contractors provide appropriate living conditions for their workers. There is, without doubt, a marked contrast between this arrangement and the poor conditions that many other workers in Qatar – who are not part of the Supreme Committee’s Workers’ Welfare project – have to endure. I have visited a number of them and they are – by any measure – unacceptable.

In partnership with Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar, the Supreme Committee has also also taken an active role in improving workers’ nutrition through a study of workers’ health. Educating workers over simple things like their high salt intake and overuse of tobacco might seem like small measures, but this type of education is invariably lacking in the sending countries.


Migrant workers on World Cup sites are predominantly from India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and Bangladesh.  This image captures awareness sessions as part of the Weill Cornell Nutrition Programme for workers. Image: Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy.

Since 2017, in partnership with a local bank, the Supreme Committee now makes it easier for World Cup workers to transfer money back to their home country. A simple App means workers no longer have to give up their free time, on non-working days, to get to traditional exchange facilities.

And recently, in collaboration with the The Phoenix Partnership (TPP), the Supreme Committee committed to enhancing the healthcare of stadium workers through a pilot project on the Qatar Foundation Stadium. The project will enable medical staff, on both work and accommodation sites, to register thousands of workers in order to build a comprehensive and secure patient database aimed at improving the quality of healthcare on offer to workers.

It may not always have been the case but as Qatar has travelled its World Cup journey towards the milestone for Vision 2030 development, there has been an increasing realisation that every worker in Qatar deserves the same protection. The discussions and criticisms about the Qatar World Cup should be transformative. They should effect real change. And it seems that this is happening.

THE LONG ROAD TO 2022

And what of the football itself in Qatar? On this subject, we hear a regular refrain: Qatar doesn’t have a football history. I’ve heard it constantly. Qatar doesn’t have any leagues. Qatar doesn’t have any pitches. Qataris have no genuine interest in football (try talking with a young Qatari – male or female – and not talk about football). Qatar? Is that in Saudi Arabia? I’m not sure if it’s laziness, cultural illiteracy, or perhaps something more malign.

They’ve been playing football in Qatar since the 1940s, ever since British mining interests visited the peninsula seeking concessions and eager to railroad locals into giving up their black gold (negotiations were helped by the British offer of military protection against their Saudi neighbours). Oil quickly came to replace fishing and the pearling industry as Qatar’s main source of revenue.


They’ve been playing football in Qatar since the 1940s, ever since British mining interests visited the peninsula seeking concessions and eager to railroad locals into giving up their black gold.

Back then, there were no white lines to mark out an area of pitch to play on. So ex-pat engineers filled watering cans with oil and marked out pitches in the desert sand. The rudimentary goals were made out of wooden sticks without a net. Intrigued Qatari locals, a little bemused at the new game, simply tied up their traditional white thobes around their waist and began joining in.

The first football club in Qatar was established in 1950 and went on to form Al Ahli. The Qatar Football Association (QFA) was formed in 1960 and the first league season was in 1963-64. By 1973, Doha Stadium had hosted Pele, who was playing with Santos at the time, and it’s said that the legend picked up his first yellow card during the match.

By the end of the 1970’s, Qatar had built Khalifa International Stadium, a new home for its national team. By 1981, the nation reached the final of the Under-20 FIFA World Cup in Australia. And in 1984, Qatar qualified for its first Olympic Games. It hosted the Asian Cup in football for the first time in 1988 and, in 1995, hosted the FIFA Under-20 World Cup.


Former Scotland international, Tottenham Hotspur, and Hearts legend Dave MacKay managed the Qatar national team during the 1994-95 season.

Former Scotland international, Tottenham Hotspur and Hearts legend Dave MacKay managed the Qatar national team during the 1994-95 season. At the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, Qatar won the gold medal in football. And by December 2010, Qatar was confirmed as host nation of the 2022 World Cup.

In 2015, the Barcelona superstar Xavi Hernandez joined local side Al Sadd, and the decision proved to be a remarkably prudent one. The media impact on the Qatar Stars League (QSL) has been huge. While it’s not quite La Liga, it’s far from Sunday league on gravel pitches in Arbroath. Xavi’s infectious enthusiasm is quietly influencing the promising generation of younger players in the Qatar national team, who are progressing tentatively to 2022.

And what about the fans? They’re passionate, extremely partisan and knowledgeable, attending games that attract anything from 500 to 10,000 supporters. They love football. They love to talk about it. And everyone, it seems, has a story to tell. About the country, and the people. Everyone wants to talk about the World Cup, though not everyone wants to listen.


Qatar has a passionate fan base. Image: Qatar Football Association.

In December 2016, I attended a friendly between Barcelona and Al Ahli of Saudi Arabia. Inside Thani Bin Jassim Stadium, known locally as Al Gharafa, it was noisy, almost full, and warm as fresh za’atar bread. It was the kind of perfect temperature that fans and supporters will face during the World Cup month in Qatar, from 21 November to 18 December 18, 2022.

Qatar’s World Cup will be more than just 28 days of football. Its real legacy, however, will not simply be infrastructure and state-of-the-art stadiums (many of which are modular that will be partly demounted, and sent to developing countries). Instead it will be about the tangible, incremental improvements that have been made to the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers seeking a better life for their families through work in a safe and secure environment.


May 2017: celebrations on the reopening of Khalifa stadium which will host matches through to the quarter-final stage. Image: Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy

There is no panacea to cure all ills. But in the face of the global media attention it has received, Qatar has refocused its position and priorities. And if it continues to implement changes at the rates recently witnessed, then quantifiable progress will take root. Mistakes may still be made. Many, many more will be prevented.

Not everyone in Qatar does great things to help. But almost everyone I know there does small things. And that’s about all you can do: add a little more towards the filling of the cup. And if you open up to the idea that people do genuinely want to improve things, then usually they will.

I believed before I arrived in Qatar, as I believe now, that the country will tell a fantastic football story. It is one which, crucially, will also change the dynamic of workers’ rights in the region. But Qatar has to be given a chance to become the genuine catalyst for change that it professes – and is trying – to be.

Does Scotland have a role to play? As a small nation that has been beset by its own hard-to-break stereotypes, I’m convinced that it does. Whilst it is, of course, a grand misunderstanding, Scotland continues to be regarded by some as a heathery, whisky-sodden outpost of England, where drug deaths, foodbank reliance, poverty, alcoholism, high murder rates, and worrying domestic abuse levels tell a different story than those found in Highland tourist brochures. These negative aspects of life in Scotland are certainly not the whole narrative.

Scotland, with deep political ambitions of its own, should reach out to those in Qatar who have genuine ambitions to change. The Scottish government – and the Scottish FA for that matter – should engage more readily with Qatar, without retreating over fear of criticism at the mere mention of the World Cup and its stadiums. At the very least, Scotland – which has Qatar Airways direct daily flights leaving from Edinburgh to Doha – needs to understand that, much like it, the Gulf country is at a transitional point and has great potential.


It will be workers’ rights that will fuel the ambitions of the region – across the construction behemoths of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and also Oman – and the demand for them will be as insatiable as it once was for oil.

As oil drove the ambitions of the Middle East only a few decades ago, perhaps this football tournament will stand for something more profound than it had ever truly intended. It will be workers’ rights that will fuel the ambitions of the region – across the construction behemoths of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, and also Oman – and the demand for them will be as insatiable as it once was for oil.

In mid-June, World Cup 2018 in Russia will kick off. England are the only team from the home nations to have qualified. As a result, however, of the recent nerve agent attack in Salisbury, Gareth Southgate and his team plan to boycott Russia … probably in the quarter-finals.

By the end of Russia 2018, the rest of the home nations will start looking at how to navigate their own long roads to Lusail Stadium and the 2022 tournament in Qatar. It’s been a bumpy ride thus far. Scotland have not qualified for a World Cup since 1998. For Wales, it is 1958. Northern Ireland qualified in 1986. And for the Republic of Ireland, it was 2002. Collectively, that’s 128 years of industrial-scale rubbish, with some players who couldn’t hit water if they fell out a boat. And you thought football in Qatar was bad?


Michael Tierney is a former Media & Communications Consultant with the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy in Doha. He has won two British Press Awards, the Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism, the Lorenzo Natali Prize, amongst a host of others. He is the Author of The First Game with My Father. He can be found on Twitter at @TierneyMike 


Feature image: the Qatar Football Association.