The football World Cup in Qatar is about to start. It is the first time that the tournament will take place in the Middle East. In a country that is the world’s largest exporter of liquid gas and where almost exclusively migrant workers live.

For the first time in its nearly 100-year history, the World Cup will be held in an Arab country this year. The small emirate of Qatar on the east coast of the Arabian Peninsula, in the middle of the tense Persian Gulf, makes its debut as the first host of the table football world spectacle in the Middle East.

Another premiere: For the first time, the tournament will not be held in the summer months because the high temperatures on the dry, subtropical peninsula make this impossible. A lot was discussed in the run-up to the World Cup about the unusual hosts in the Gulf. The tenor: a “WM of shame” in autocratic absurdistan, which is full of prohibitions.

At the same time, Qatar has been able to make a name for itself as a foreign policy actor in a troubled region in recent years – the evacuation of tens of thousands of people from Afghanistan would not have been possible without the small emirate – and is currently a popular discussion partner when it comes to energy partnerships.

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So it’s high time to take a closer look at the small Gulf state. This article marks the beginning of a series of articles in cooperation with the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation and provides a first, introductory overview.

Qatar is a fairly young country, both in terms of its history since gaining independence from the UK in 1971, as well as its population (average age 32) and ruling dynasty. At 42, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, is the youngest current reigning monarch in the world.

Sheikh Tamim has ruled the emirate since June 2013 after his father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, voluntarily renounced the monarchy in a move unprecedented in the Arab world. The Emir is governed by a Prime Minister, who is also a member of the Al Thani royal family, and a cabinet composed of Qatar’s own and other prominent families.

In a 2003 referendum, the people of Qatar overwhelmingly approved the first constitution since independence. According to this, the source of state power is the people. There is no parliament or political parties, but there is a so-called Shura Council (majlis ash-shura) – an advisory assembly of the Emir.

The Council has 45 seats, 15 of which are appointed by the Emir. The other two-thirds were determined in the country’s first elections in 2021 – a (small) milestone on the way to greater participation in Qatar, despite restrictions on voting rights for certain nationals.

However, the important security, economic and foreign policy decisions will continue to be made by the Emir himself. The decision to hold the long-delayed elections came a year earlier, when Qatar was still under a political blockade by its neighbors Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain and Egypt.

Since the small emirate boasted of its support for revolutionary forces in the Arab world as a result of the “Arab Spring” since 2011, relations with its neighboring countries have been strained.

Simon Engelkes has been a consultant in the Middle East and North Africa team at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation since March 2020. He studied political science in Berlin and Beirut and terrorism research at King’s College London.

The three-year blockade was lifted last year. Guests from Saudi Arabia and the UAE will therefore also be able to take part in this year’s World Cup, for example in the opening game at the end of November. This will be held at al-Bayt Stadium in the coastal city of al-Khor.

The name and design of the stadium, which was newly built for the World Cup, is based on the traditional tents of the nomadic peoples in Qatar and the Gulf region (bayt ash-scha’ar). Aside from isolated trading villages like Al-Khor, Qatar used to be mostly inhabited by Bedouin tribes.

In the mid-18th century, nomadic tribes from the interior of the Arabian Peninsula migrated to what is now Qatar, including the Al-Thanis, who gradually took control of the desert peninsula after founding the village of al-Bid – now the capital Doha.

While Qatar still had around 50,000 inhabitants in the 1950s, over 2.8 million people live in the emirate today. But only about ten percent of them are Qatari citizens. Most of the country’s population are migrant workers from abroad.

Due to the majority of South and Southeast Asian origins of these workers, South Asians alone make up more than half of all residents in Qatar. As most of the workers are male, Qatar also has the highest proportion of men in the world at 75 percent.

In the run-up to the World Cup, labor migration became a core element of global reporting on Qatar. Accusations of inadequate employee protection and inhumane working conditions were regularly raised, especially during the construction of the stadiums and the associated infrastructure; Accidents, unpaid work and abuse of guest workers are said to have occurred.

Responding to pressure from human rights organizations and international trade unions, the host country has since enacted far-reaching labor reforms, including limitations on working hours, the introduction of a minimum wage, inspections at construction sites and the abolition of the notorious kafala system.

The latter is widespread in the Arab Gulf states as well as in Lebanon and Jordan and prevents, among other things, guest workers from changing employers or leaving the country without the consent of their “guarantor” (kafeel), who keeps their passport.

As early as August 2020, Qatar had lifted restrictions on migrant workers leaving the country and changing jobs without employer permission.

In addition to Bedouin heritage and labor migration, Qatar is known to us for one thing in particular: gas. QatarEnergy, the emirate’s state-owned energy company, has also been an official sponsor of the World Cup since March 2022. The country has the third largest natural gas reserves in the world after Russia and Iran and is heavily dependent on fossil fuel exports.

As a result, the country has attracted the attention of the German public in particular, even independently of the World Cup. As the world’s largest exporter of liquefied natural gas, it has become an attractive partner for Europe’s energy supply, which is under increasing pressure against the background of the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, as part of its national vision for 2030, Qatar is relying on privatization, decentralization and diversification to make the country less dependent on oil and gas. And the climate should also benefit from this: Qatar boasts about the ambitious claim to host the first “climate-neutral” FIFA World Cup, which has been criticized by climate experts.

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The emissions from the preparation and hosting of the tournament are to be offset by energy-efficient venues, stadiums that can be dismantled from shipping containers and planted trees and shrubs.

The first “World Cup in the desert” will be an extraordinary football experience in many respects. With a view to the place, the period and the local circumstances, we are breaking new ground in many ways this year.

At the same time, the tournament offers an opportunity for many to take a look inside an Arab Gulf state and a region that is so often viewed only from the outside. It remains to be seen what will remain of the World Cup after the award ceremony on December 18th – especially for the small golf emirate itself.