Doha, Qatar – Shehar Bano Rizvi moved from the ever-expanding, bubbling metropolis of Karachi to a quieter Doha shortly after her marriage in 2004.
The 23-year-old Pakistani expat was unimpressed 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 the shopping options few. In West Bay there was a lone five-star hotel, a basic shopping mall, and a few office buildings.
“My husband had a very basic driving rule for me: if you get lost, follow the signs to the Corniche [waterfront promenade] and you’ll be able to surf on the way home,” Rizvi said, recalling his early experiences in Doha at a time when apps were unknown.
Fast forward 18 years and West Bay is buzzing. It is Doha’s main business district and home to an increasingly busy skyline populated by more and more skyscrapers. Shiny new buildings along the Gulf shores soak up the sun all day and put on a shimmering light show at night.
Doha’s metamorphosis extends beyond here, however, with new districts, cultural hubs and cutting-edge venues transforming the urban landscape.
Human rights organizations and media reports have said that Qatar’s development has come at the cost of labor rights. Concerns about low wages, poor living conditions and worker safety have been consistently raised by rights groups and critics of the Gulf nation that hosts the World Cup.
In response, Qatari officials point to recent reforms to labor laws, including a universal minimum wage and an easing of restrictions on foreign workers who want to change employers. Officials have also criticized Western media for what they call biased and inaccurate coverage of Qatar and its preparations for the tournament.
Qatar, an energy-rich country that declared its independence just five decades ago, earned the right to host the World Cup in 2010. Its transformation has also coincided with a rapid increase in its population – now nearly three million people. , the vast majority of whom are immigrant workers, mostly from South Asian countries.
“Qatar’s independence was in 1971, so we have[d] certain policies that don’t fit right now,” Faisal al-Mudakha, editor-in-chief of the Gulf Times, saying Al Jazeera.
“Now we have the World Cup,” he said. “We are talking about 12 years of policy reform… [that is being] done because of the World Cup -but [has been] fast forward. And I think that after the World Cup, it will also continue on an as-needed basis and to comply with international law.”
focus on sport
Six-lane highways, a squeaky-clean subway system and commuter buses that now form Qatar’s transport hub were a distant dream in the early 2000s, when the idea of a small country like Qatar hosting a World Cup Soccer World Cup was beyond imagination.
“I remember attending the opening ceremony of the 2006 Asian Games not believing that a country the size of Qatar could host such a huge event,” said Rizvi, a photographer and author of a book on Pakistani cuisine.
“On that cold and rainy December night at the new Khalifa International Stadium, it became clear that Qatar was shifting its focus towards sport, culture and education.”
The country formalized that shift in subsequent years under its 2030 National Vision, an ambitious development plan aimed at diversifying its economy, reducing its carbon footprint, and achieving social progress.
Sports are a key pillar of that vision. Since 2012, Qatar has held an annual sports day every February. The occasion is marked as a public holiday, allowing residents to participate in sports and fitness-related activities.
Back then, according to Rizvi, the number of women and girls in sports was negligible.
“My daughter was into soccer as a child, but she gave it up after a while because there were no girls-only teams,” she said. “But now, as a teenager, she plays in an academy that has given her international exposure and the opportunity to meet her soccer idols.
“And it’s not just her, many Qatari teenage girls turn up to practice sessions and games with their parents, who seem genuinely proud and can be seen cheering on them from the sidelines.”
However, there has been indifferent progress in women’s football on the biggest stage. The Qatar women’s national soccer team has not played a competitive game in a few years and has been withdrawn from the FIFA rankings, while many teenage girls and young women stop playing as they grow up.
‘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 progress.
Sheikh Moza bint Nasser, the second wife of former emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, was instrumental in establishing 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, heads the arts and culture scene through the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA).
The organization has established several museums across the country that focus on Arab and Islamic art, Qatari national history, sports, and a soon-to-be-opened interactive children’s museum.
Cultural centers have become a popular leisure option for many who, for years, had few alternatives for entertainment.
“It was very basic,” said Eeman Abed, a Palestinian who has lived in Qatar for more than 20 years. “Go to the park, take a walk on the Corniche or eat out on the weekends,” he added with a shrug.
But as the country advanced and Doha became a thriving center of arts and culture, Abed added, it took many of its expatriates with it.
“We used to live in a small house in old Doha and after moving across the city over time, we have now settled in The Pearl,” he said, referring to the luxurious man-made island with Mediterranean-inspired living quarters and beaches.
Rizvi lived there 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 blared 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 exactly 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 already underway, all of Doha’s tourist attractions have been filled with international fans, from the West and beyond. They’re sampling local food and fashion, joking with local fans, and taking their festivities to the Gulf shores.