Arab fans in Doha ahead of the start of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar: "As Arab women we’re proud that Qatar is doing a world-class job of hosting the world’s biggest sporting event. The atmosphere here is fantastic," says Rajaa, who only wants to give her first name

Qatar 2022 and the Arab world
"It’s our World Cup"

In Doha, Arabs from Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria are gathering to celebrate the first ever FIFA World Cup to be held on Arab soil. The criticism from Europe? Over the top, they say. Dunja Ramadan reports from Doha

The Egyptians sit in a small cafe at the heart of the Souq Waqif in Doha, the marketplace that’s been made to look old. It’s still 30 degrees here in the evening, the men are outside drinking their karak or cardamom-scented black tea; the mood is relaxed. How do we know they’re Egyptian? The group passes around a pharaoh’s headdress to the person currently speaking.

"Egypt’s not in the competition, but that’s why I’m here, to cheer on the other Arab nations,” says 65-year-old Ahmed Hussein, who flew here from Cairo on Tuesday.

Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are in the competition, and if Arab fans have anything to do with it, one of these nations will be taking home the title. "Qatar has made many compromises: alcohol is allowed, unmarried people can spend the night in hotels, gay people are also welcome. What more could you want?" asks Hussein, who also went to watch the tournament in Russia in 2018.

Then someone else tugs at his pharaoh headdress. Mohammed Sabri has something to get off his chest: "Qatar is one hundred percent ready for this World Cup. The first World Cup on Arab soil, we’re celebrating with Qatar, we’re all brothers," says the 48-year-old Egyptian who’s been living in Qatar for the past 15 years.

Arab fans in Doha before the start of the 2022 World Cup (photo: Dunja Ramadan)
And the criticism from Europe, the rights of migrant workers, the comments on homosexuality? "The Europeans are always finding fault with us Arabs in general. It’s difficult for them to see that we’re making progress," says Rajaa, a Moroccan woman from Casablanca who works in finance and came to Doha for the World Cup. "What Qatar has achieved is world-class, but the Europeans are always ready to put us down," she says

Comments that elicit grins from a few people in the gathering. After all, just a few years ago, Qatar was anything but popular with Egyptians. Together with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, Egypt imposed an economic embargo on the emirate in 2017. Doha was accused of maintaining unacceptably close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, to Turkey and Iran. In any case, it’s a running joke among Egyptians, Iraqis and Syrians to say that the Gulf Arabs have a lot of cash, but no history.

"The atmosphere here is fantastic"

A few metres further along, 24-year-old Rajaa and 25-year-old Amina are strolling through the narrow alleyways. The two Moroccans from Casablanca work in finance and are here in Doha for the first time, for three weeks. "As Arab women we’re proud that Qatar is doing a world-class job of hosting the world’s biggest sporting event. The atmosphere here is fantastic," says Rajaa, who only wants to give her first name.

And the criticism from Europe, the rights of migrant workers, the comments on homosexuality? Rajaa switches from Arabic to French: "The Europeans are always finding fault with us Arabs in general. It’s difficult for them to see that we’re making progress. What Qatar has achieved is world-class, but the Europeans are always ready to put us down," she says. Both women have been to France and prefer to talk about racism against Arabs.

Samah from Tunisia, who’s been living in Doha for 14 years, also doesn’t think much of the criticism aimed at Qatar. The sports teacher is wearing a red fez and nibbling on a chapati. "Westerners should come here and make up their own minds, instead of clinging to cliches," she says.

Her friends Slouma and Safwan back her up: "Finally, we Arabs are coming together and celebrating. God only knows we’ve got enough problems, so just let us enjoy ourselves for once," says Slouma, who works as a security guard in Doha. His eyes start to mist over as he speaks and Safwan, who works in a gym, takes over: "At last we can show our true face: this’ll be the best World Cup there’s ever been," says Safwan.

Then Samah quotes an Arab proverb: "They could find no fault with the rose, so they said it was red." Some might say they're always finding a fly in the ointment.

2022 World Cup opening ceremony (photo: Ken Satomi/Yomiuri Shimbun/picture-alliance)
An opening of superlatives: in cafes from Erbil to Istanbul, from Gaza to Algiers, people from all over the Arab world watched Qatar's 2022 World Cup opening ceremony on TV

But, come on, comparing Qatar to a rose? Mohamed Elhendawy has lived in Doha for eight years and takes a pragmatic view of all the effusive praise: "People are first and foremost happy that finally, there’s a bit of life in this ghost town," he says. The Egyptian points to the bustling streets, the singing and dancing fans, the vibrant sea of flags. "There’s simply never been the like before, there was nothing going on here. This lack of joie de vivre, it weighed heavily on the soul," says the 31-year-old, who interrupts the conversation several times to greet friends.

"For Qatar, the World Cup is historic"

And then there are all the people walking around, it’s just crazy, says Elhendawy. What does he mean, exactly? "Doha was a car city, today many people are jumping on buses, taking the subway or just going for a walk. That’s a totally different feeling," says the bank employee.

He finds the debate over whether Doha really needs so much infrastructure a tricky one. "Every modern city has a subway, whether Doha needs it, well that’s still up to the people here," says Elhendawy. Most Qataris see the FIFA World Cup as an investment in the future of their country, he continues.

He himself hopes the sports competition will be a game changer. "For Qatar, the World Cup is historic, just as a revolution would be for other countries. You could also say: a civilisational shock," says Elhendawy.

He hopes the tournament will make Qatar a more cosmopolitan, tolerant and joyful place to live, although he concedes that many people, primarily older Qataris, view the new atmosphere with scepticism. As the Tunisians and Moroccans sing Arabic folk songs, don red wigs and jiggle their hips; and some women even walk by wearing short skirts, they simply glance up briefly from their smartphones.

Meanwhile, the police officers stand in front of their station in the heart of the souk. When the mood threatens to change, they immediately hurry over with serious expressions on their faces. A squabble between Tunisians, a small crowd has formed. No one wants any drama, not now, right at the start of the World Cup. The images beamed out into the world should be positive ones. The policemen ask the brawlers to stand aside, in a brotherly fashion, of course.

Dunja Ramadan

© Suddeutsche Zeitung 2022

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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