- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 4, 2017

DOHA, Qatar — Officials here are working overtime to prevent a bitter feud with Qatar’s Persian Gulf neighbors from spilling over into a critical arena: the soccer pitch.

Organizers insist in interviews that the blockade imposed by Saudi Arabia and other Arab states since June has had no negative impact on preparations for a centerpiece of their nation’s rise on the global stage: playing host to the World Cup, the sport’s quadrennial showcase, in 2022.

“The blockade has not changed any of our plans or timelines,” said Fatma Al-nuaimi, head spokeswoman for the Qatari outfit managing preparations for the global extravaganza that brings with it dozens of national teams and as many as a half-million fans from around the globe for a month of competition.

Russia hosts the tournament next year, so the Qataris have plenty of time to get ready. Officials with FIFA, the soccer world’s organizing body, say they are optimistic that the diplomatic crisis dividing the region will be resolved by 2022.

But while construction is ahead of schedule on a slate of stadiums in Doha, some here say they are worried about an entirely different kind of crisis when Qatar becomes the first Arab nation ever to host the event.

“I’ve got to be honest,” said one British resident in the Qatari capital, who asked not to be named. “How the heck is this conservative Islamic country, where booze is only allowed at high-end hotels, going to manage all the drunken Brits who come for the World Cup?”

The Qataris say they aren’t worried.

“We’ll be ready,” said one official, a member of the nation’s ruling royal family, who laughed out loud when asked about the concerns over coffee on a recent morning in Doha.

“We’re well aware of this issue and are taking steps to prepare,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, adding that Qatari Ministry of Interior officials have traveled to the United Kingdom for special training with the Manchester police force on “how deal with British soccer hooligans and game day shenanigans.”

On a more official note, Ms. Al-nuaimi said that “alcohol is not part of our culture, but hospitality is, and alcohol will be available in designated areas during the tournament.”

Ms. Al-nuaimi said Qatar “sent an observation team” to European soccer championships last year in France, where the chaos grew so wild between gangs of drunken fans that riot police had to break out tear gas and water cannons to halt the violence.

Ms. Al-nuaimi said Doha is working closely with Interpol on security preparations in general, although it remains to be seen whether that will quell criticism from the nation’s neighbors — particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — which claim that Qatar supports and finances terrorist groups.

Last month, the Arab Federation for Human Rights called on FIFA to rescind Qatar’s hosting of the 2022 World Cup at a press conference in Geneva, FIFA’s headquarters. The federation cited what it said was Doha’s poor record on human rights, especially violations of workers’ rights, and the financing of terrorism.

Qatar has repeatedly denied Saudi and UAE charges of its backing of terrorist groups, and the terrorism factor was far in the background on a recent tour of the nation’s preparations for the World Cup.

In a word, the arenas being constructed are eye-popping, and the most magnificent is the half-built Al Wakrah Stadium.

American comedian Jon Stewart drew international attention to Al Wakrah’s futuristic design a few years ago by saying it looked like “a giant steel vagina.” In reality, it was the brainchild of Zaha Hadid, the renowned Iraqi-British architect who died last year. Her followers say the stadium’s look was inspired by the sails of traditional Arab sailing vessels known as dhows.

Holding the soccer championship in a sweltering climate presents logistical challenges of its own. A report by the International Trade Union Confederation said more than 1,000 mostly foreign migrant workers have died so far working in Qatar’s heat to prepare for the 2022 games. Qatari officials dispute the report, claiming it was based on “projected,” not real numbers. They also say they’re sensitive to worker conditions and hope to use the World Cup push as a way to improve labor conditions in general.

As for heat affecting the players and the international hordes of fans who’ll descend on the country to watch the matches?

Not to worry, organizers said. Al Wakrah, along with several other stadiums, will be fully air conditioned to keep players and fans protected from outdoor temperatures that can climb as high as 120 degrees.

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