Doha, Qatar – When Qatar was announced as the host of the 2022 World Cup 12 years ago, Aisha al-Ali and her husband had recently married and started building their new home in Rawdat al-Hamama, a village next to Lusail, the second largest city from Qatar. .

Her husband had some doubts and said the location was too remote, but she assured him that with the tournament approaching “I’m sure Qatar will change.”

She was right. In just over a decade, roads, highways and bridges were built, easily connecting the entire country.

Since his hosting rights granted in 2010, Qatar spent more than $200 billion developing and improving infrastructure, including the construction of seven new football stadiums.

“We only had 12 years to build the infrastructure, build these highways, to be sure [Qatar] has public transportation and roads for easy access to all stadiums,” said al-Ali, a mother of three in her 40s.

“Getting from my new house to my in-laws or parents used to take me half an hour, now it takes me 15 minutes,” she says, referring to the highways and roads that have been built over time.

“We are so proud of hosting the World Cup and the achievements Qatar has delivered,” says al-Ali, adding that the event itself is a “moment” she has been waiting for since 2010.

As it is the first time an Arab, Muslim country in the Middle East has hosted “a major event like the World Cup… it’s our time to shine,” al-Ali said.

“It is our time to show the world that we are a part of you, we are as good as you to host it. Sport unites all nations together.

“It’s not just Qatar that’s hosting the World Cup, it’s the whole region that’s hosting it.”

‘An event for the world to enjoy’

Sheikh Suhaim al-Thani, 31, a manager at Qatar Free Zones Authority, which assists foreign companies seeking to operate in the country, told Al Jazeera that the sporting event is not just an achievement of Qatar, but one “for all Arabs, Muslims and anyone who really likes football”.

“Qatar is the smallest country that has ever been able to meet the needs of such a tournament,” said a visibly proud al-Thani.

The entire country covers just 11,586 square kilometers (4,473 sq mi), making it smaller than the Australian city of Sydney. It is only a 200 km drive to reach the northernmost point of Qatar from the very south of the peninsula.

Al-Thani will watch eight matches in the stadiums, but has planned fun nights with his friends before other matches in his majlis, a traditional room in Qatari homes where friends, family and community members gather to socialize.

Sheikh Suhaim al-Thani
“Qatar is the smallest country that can ever meet the needs of such a tournament,” said Sheikh Suhaim al-Thani. [Showkat Shafi/Al Jazeera]

The scent of Arabian frankincense, popularly known as bakhoor fills the air in his majlis, a sprawling part of his home on the outskirts of the Qatari capital Doha.

Al-Thani believes the event can show Western skeptics how an Arab, Muslim and Middle Eastern country can successfully host such a major event.

He said he feels the overarching narrative in the Western media about Qatar hosting the Cup is negative and skewed.

“This one [media] accounts do not describe how much Qatar has changed over the years,” he said.

“Qatar has transformed beyond recognition in recent years, we are greener, there is so much innovation, digital transformation. Everything comes together just in time for the World Cup. This is a celebration,” he said.

Shifts in society

For Maha Kafoud, 21, a student studying psychology in Melbourne, Australia, it’s not just the country’s infrastructure that she’s seen noticeably change over the years.

Since she last returned to Qatar for a visit in January 2020, she has noticed shifts within Qatari society.

“In the old days, if a woman from Qatar didn’t wear an abaya, everyone would freak out, look at her and judge her. But ever since I got back, I’m wearing hoodies and going through Doha to all the new locations and stuff, and nobody cares,” Kafoud said.

‘I have seen [Qatari] men and women together and no one looks up when they see that either,” she said, adding that with so many people from all over the world arriving in Qatar, the change is “an expected thing.”

Since returning to watch the World Cup earlier this month, Kafoud said the country “feels even more progressive and welcoming…all while preserving our culture and traditions”.

Presentation of ‘our culture’

Kafoud attended the Sunday opening ceremony with her father, an avid football fan who played the sport for 20 years when he founded his own local team in Qatar called Al-Matar Al-Qadeem.

“That was a historic event that I will remember for the rest of my life,” said Kafoud.

“We really showed our culture to the whole world…Knowing that millions of people watched us dance, heard our songs, heard the Quran played; it was just so beautiful.”

Sword dancers at the opening ceremony
Sword dancers are seen at the opening ceremony at Al Bayt Stadium in Doha, Qatar [Sorin Furcoi/Al Jazeera]

Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman narrated the opening segment, telling viewers, “We’re all coming together here in one big tribe.”

Together with Freeman, Ghanim presented al-Muftah, a 20-year-old man from Qatar who was born with a rare condition that stunts the development of the lower back. He recited a verse from the Holy Quran calling for global unity.

“O mankind! Indeed, We have created you from a male and a female, and We have made of you nations and tribes so that you may get to know each other,” he recited.

For the opening game where Qatar played against Ecuadorabout 60,000 fans were packed into the Al Bayt Stadium in the city of Al-Khor, the exterior of which was designed to resemble a traditional Bedouin tent.

Fireworks, song and dance marked the opening ceremony, with performances that mixed themes from the Qatari tradition with other cultures.

“It was such a moment of pride for me and I also think of all Qataris, even foreigners… we were all in tears,” said Kafoud.

“I don’t think that’s ever been done before, where we [Qataris] we have been able to show part of our Arab and Islamic heritage to the whole world.”

[Al Jazeera]
About 60,000 fans gathered at Al Bayt Stadium, the exterior of which was designed to resemble a traditional Bedouin tent [Katya Bohdan/Al Jazeera]

Hope for more change

Even after the World Cup is over, Kafoud said she is “looking forward to the change” she hopes to see.

“I hope these 28 days will have an impact [Qatari] society to become more open-minded and more welcoming of foreigners in general. Although there are many foreigners here – there are more foreigners than Qataris – but there is a divide, a division, and I hope after the World Cup it will be more united.”

The al-Ali family and their three children are excited to see the football matches in real life and have bought tickets for six different matches in different stadiums to get “the full experience”.

Their home, which they once feared was too isolated, is now near one of the stadiums hosting the tournament in Lusail, which includes matches with Portugal and Argentina, teams that will have the family cheering from the stands.

“We are fans of [Argentina’s Lionel] Messi and [Portugal’s Cristiano] Ronaldo and I understand it’s their last World Cup… so it’s nice to come and watch,” said al-Ali.

“I’ve been to the Arab Cup and I’ve been to the Asia Cup, so it’s so exciting to attend a World Cup now… Qatar brought the World Cup to us, so we need to take advantage, attend it and experience it .” .”

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