By Peter Larson
The road north (and forward)
The desert sand floods the landscape north of Doha, and on a blustery Saturday afternoon whips against the side of the car. My driver is nervous. He’s starting to blink a lot, the way he does whenever he’s lost. Good God, man! Keep your eyes on the road.
“No. Go right at the fork. I want to see the construction.”
“Sir is not going to the shooting club?”
I dealt with the same confoundedness when I called that morning. The dispatcher insisted I give a place name, or else threatened to book me on a 120-kilometer expedition to Al Ruwais. I gulped and tried to explain it again.
“What I mean is, it’s not really a place. Yet. I want the driver to take me to The Pearl and then keep going north for 15 kilometres and turn around.”
“I know there’s nothing there. I just want to see it.”
We didn’t make it the 15 kilometres. After five the lanes of the road had vanished. Sand crept in on both sides, and up ahead I could make out a security checkpoint.
Leaning metal signs stick up out of the ground and say “deep excavation,” pointing to a place where huge, yellow mechanical arms have dug out the sand…where dump trucks drive in the middle of the night and pour millions of riyals into the earth.
My driver (Ram) pulled the car up next to the guard shack and rolled down my window before I had time to object. Already I could see a leathery-faced guard taking off his sunglasses to check us out. The two of us in our off-white, late 90s, Hyundai beater…
“Well, this looks like the end of the road for us…we’ll just be going back now…OK, let’s go back, Ram. Hey Ram! Wake up there.”
And finally we left.
This is the place where 200,000 people will eventually live, where the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2022 FIFA World Cup will be held, and where Google Earth still shows 37 square kilometres of undisturbed dunes from the side of the highway to the coast. This is where Lusail will be, and you can feel that it’s not far off. A city ready to sprout from the sand. The dunes are long gone.
By 2022 Qatar will have spent an [undisclosed amount] to bring the World Cup to nine stadiums and a city that do not exist in the year 2012.
Brown Lloyd James is the PR firm handling the Lusail City account. It also worked on Qatar’s World Cup 2022 bid committee. And a host of other big names in town.
The technical term for a firm like Brown Lloyd James is gatekeeper.
Lusail City has been proclaimed the “city of the future,” and the realisation of Qatar’s national vision set forth by HH the Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani.
A modest city in size, really. 200,000 is nowhere near the world’s largest. But a city! One that will trounce many midsize American cities—including my own hometown Orlando—and a few of Los Angeles’ larger suburbs. One that will immediately become the second largest city in Qatar. One whose population now is none.
A broad estimate of the total cost can be pieced together from statements in the papers. President and founder of the World Travel Awards Graham Cooke was congratulating Qatar on being named the world’s leading business travel destination and was quoted in The Peninsula saying $100 billion worth of infrastructure is due to be done by 2022.
I went back to Lusail on an official visit. The guard was no less confused, but after a rambling exchange of gibberish, and an especially eager grin from Ram, he opened the gate.
I waited in the lobby to meet my subject, Magdy Youssef, director of the Lusail Real Estate Development Company. There was a scaled model of the city-to-be in the centre of the room, complete with two golf courses. By the time he arrived I was dead certain my natural draw off the tee would land me in at least three hazards on the front nine alone.
He flipped a switch and lit the 37 kilometres of waterfront styrofoam in a blue, LED glow. We walked the perimeter and he pointed out clusters of neat model buildings all equally spaced along streets lined with neat model trees.
And I was struck by how certain he was of it all, how unabashedly he used the future tense. By the end of the tour, even I was ready to walk the promenade and find a nice restaurant in the Marina District.
“With Lusail we have the luxury of being able to get a city right, from the beginning,” Youssef said. A luxury 100% underwritten by the Qatar Investment Authority, capitalised not long ago near $1 billion.
If you’re in the market…
Before we left the lobby to sit down, he pressed me for questions. I paused and studied the display.
“Maybe I missed it, but where’s the stadium set to be?” Lusail Iconic Stadium is the proposed site for the World Cup final. Once built it will seat more than 85,000—large enough to stand out in a forest of miniature villas and office parks.
At this point the handler from Brown Lloyd James spoke up. He blushed. The stadium would technically fall outside of the city limits. It was in the historical region called Lusail. Not the city.
His clarification was all good and well, but I repeated my question. He stepped back a few paces and pointed to a spot on the floor.
All the unknowns orbiting around 2022 might seem like a risk to the untrained eye. But if you’re in the market for a major international sporting event, and you didn’t just makeover your infrastructure, or cut ribbons on a few stadiums, don’t worry. That’s normal. Modern bidding precedent has relied almost exclusively on thin air. Fantasy stadiums. Imaginary airports. Make-believe hotels and highways. It’s how you pitch that matters. So hire a good public relations team to craft all this nonexistent material together, and a decent artist to imagine how it might look, and voila! You’ve got a bid.
For instance, Brazil won hosting rights for 2014, even as both FIFA President Sepp Blatter and then Brazilian President Lula da Silva declared the country had no existing stadium in condition to host the World Cup games. Brazil would need to build 12 new stadiums in the eight years before kickoff.
Recently FIFA General Secretary Jerome Valcke criticised the pace of Brazil’s construction, now just two years before the tournament.
It works out usually.
Take South Africa in 2010. It built five new stadiums and renovated another five. A 2009 labour dispute threatened delay when 70,000 construction workers walked off the job, but it was swiftly resolved and in the end deadlines were met.
Despite past incidents of bid skulduggery (e.g. Salt Lake Organizing Committee in 1998, Sydney in 1999…), today promises of big investment outweigh big checks.
That didn’t keep the international media from crying that 2022 had been bought. But of course it was bought! If you’re scouting venues for a major international sporting event, you’re buying and selling potential. And Qatar has a surplus. It can afford to offer FIFA the World Cup of its dreams, precisely because its stadiums only exist somewhere in the void of the tiled lobby floor.
A most spectacular spectacle
In the first decade of the 21st century, Qatar’s GDP grew on average more than 14% per year, according to data from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators. In 2004, 2007 and 2008 the GDP growth rate topped 20%.
The country’s roughly 300,000 citizens enjoy the highest national income per capita in the world.
In 10 years the population has more than doubled to 1.7 million.
And 40 kilometres west of Doha is Al Udeid Air Force Base, home to the forward headquarters of US Central Command.
Director of the Brookings Doha Center Salman Shaikh credits Qatar’s leadership for the decisions that launched it to its current geopolitical standing.
“This leadership takes risks,” he said. “It takes calculated risks. And even in terms of developing its natural resources, they took a risk in the mid to late 90s—one which could have gotten into a lot of financial trouble, but which is now bearing a lot of fruit.”
But the 11,000 square kilometre peninsula still has a problem.
Hassan Al Thawadi is the secretary general of the Qatar 2022 Supreme Committee. He spoke at Carnegie Mellon’s campus in Education City this month about the challenges of the World Cup bidding process.
He played the crowd well, peaking his presentation with a tear-jerking video montage of Qatar’s journey to selection day. However, as is the case with all things serious, Al Thawadi packaged Qatar’s most salient concern as a joke:
“To give you an example that I’m sure most of you have already experienced,” he said, “At the 2009 edition of Leaders in Football, one of the major conferences on the bidding circuit, our marketing team spent the majority of their time explaining to people where Qatar was on the map.”
When Qatar hosts the World Cup in 2022, its population will temporarily experience the largest spike in size in its history. Up to 500,000 visitors could be expected during the tournament.
One billion will be watching on TV.
The master plan
To be clear: Lusail existed before Qatar 2022. And, if you believe Youssef, it will be complete well before the World Cup arrives.
“It will be vibrant,” he said. “I expect when people are here visiting for the World Cup that staying at Lusail they will enjoy very vibrant living. It will be an exciting environment, where after the games they have a lot of things to do. We have a whole Entertainment City.”
Even accepting the distinction between Lusail and 2022, it is impossible to be blind to the part each plays in Qatar’s growth strategy. If the World Cup is designed to spur Qatar’s growth, Lusail is designed to help manage it.
The successful bid caused the Qatar Statistics Authority to revise its projected annual population growth rate from 4% to 9% in the years leading up to the tournament, according to data released in 2010.
But ‘growth strategy’?
I remember something Youssef said as he was showing me the model of Lusail. I told him how nice I thought it looked, and he made the comment that unlike most cities, where the landscape is an afterthought to the building, in Lusail the landscape would come first.
I remember his comment and wonder if the logic can be recycled: In most cities people create the demand to build. In Lusail the buildings would come first.
Boom or bust?
I visited The Pearl after work a few weeks ago. Like Lusail, The Pearl was planned—985 acres of reclaimed land, 350 metres into the Arabian Gulf. Like Lusail, The Pearl enjoyed incredible funding, controlled by the United Development Company, Qatar’s largest private sector shareholding company. It cost billions of dollars.
The Pearl and Lusail City: Qatar’s largest and larger domestic real estate projects.
Following the boardwalk it becomes immediately obvious The Pearl isn’t done yet. Cranes break the horizon, and the sound of a hammer echoes through the empty corridors of an incomplete high-rise.
Down below the path is lined with cafes and boutiques, but there are no lines. There are no people. The attendants spend their time brushing off the dust that has settled onto the handrails and window sills.
And I realise that here I am, walking around in Youssef’s model city. The one from the lobby. He was right about the landscaping. How dazzlingly vacant.
Further on I come to a road that leads across a torch-lit bridge onto the centre island.
On the other side a construction site has The Pearl’s best view of the Doha skyline. Manmade dunes are raised up from the dug-out sand, and signs point to the holes they left behind.
Under my feet I can feel the five-star hotel-to-be shifting, pushing upward. Almost here. The millions of riyals once planted in the sand have taken root and are shooting up. Poured concrete stalks erupting from the earth! Watch out.
When I got back Ram was waiting in the roundabout. I kicked the sand off my shoes and stepped into the car.
“Where to now, boss?”
The first day we drove to Lusail it took me two full minutes to lay out our route to nowhere. He interrupted me.
“I do not know where you are going, but I will take you there.”
(Peter Larson is an American journalism intern trying to decipher the development code in the desert sands)