Since winning its bid for the FIFA World Cup a decade ago, Qatar has been eager to bolster its cultural clout with substantial investments leading up to the marquee event, which kicked off this week. The Persian Gulf country has debuted world-class museums, an ambitious public art program, starchitect-designed stadiums, and five-star hotels, but thousands of migrant worker deaths, dubious sustainability claims, and criminalization of homosexuality are overshadowing the hype.
The 22nd FIFA World Cup is a complicated affair. The decision to host the event in Qatar has proven highly contentious from day one, with the Persian Gulf country racing against the clock to realize zealous $300 billion construction plans as it anticipates an eye-popping 1.5 million visitors to attend the quadrennial soccer event. The development includes eight state-of-the-art stadiums designed by a roster of acclaimed architects, a 47-mile-long rail system, dozens of luxury hotels, world-class museums, and an expansion of Hamad International Airport, which usurped Singapore Changi Airport’s eight-year reign as the world’s best.
Qatar has delivered on those plans—proof of the country’s oil-driven wealth and aspirations to flaunt its cultural credentials. The construction boom hasn’t been seamless: The country is embroiled in controversy stemming from anti-LGBTQ laws, poor living conditions causing thousands of migrant worker deaths, a dubious human rights history, flimsy sustainability commitments, and allegations of bribery and corruption within FIFA. The Guardian estimates that an average of 12 migrant workers, many hailing from South Asian countries, have died every week since Qatar landed the World Cup. Others are trapped in the kafala system—an arrangement often compared to modern slavery resulting in unpaid wages, excessive hours, mountains of debt, and illegal recruitment.
Controversy aside, Qatar’s building fever has yielded an array of ambitious projects that have established its capital, Doha, as a formidable arts destination. Among them is the National Museum of Qatar designed by Jean Nouvel, whose petal-like structures form an unmissable landmark at the southern end of the Doha Corniche’s waterfront. Joining nearby is The Art Mill, a serene creative campus designed by Elemental, and the blocky Museum of Islamic Art, whose renovation brought the late I.M. Pei out of retirement. OMA, tapped for the Qatar Auto Museum, also completed the Qatar National Library, which brings millions of books and heritage texts related to Arab-Islamic civilization to the sprawling campus of Education City.
Further on the cultural front, Qatar Museums recently unveiled a massive public art program encompassing sculptures and installations from blue-chip names—Jeff Koons, Faye Toogood, Katharina Fritsch, Olafur Eliasson, Ernesto Neto, and Rashid Johnson—to parks, shopping centers, train stations, the airport, and the stadiums. The organization is chaired by Sheikha Al-Mayassa bint Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, sister of the ruling emir and one of the world’s most prolific art collectors, whose annual acquisitions budget is estimated to exceed $1 billion.
With flight bookings to Doha jumping more than 4,000 percent this year, accommodations are going fast. The country opened an influx of hotels in anticipation of high demand, including Marriott’s Andalusian-inspired 193-room Pearl Qatar, spanning the entire St. Regis Maria Arabia Island. Playing off the Hindi word for “personal style,” the country’s first Andaz property near tony West Bay is adorned in locally inspired motifs and artworks. The Waldorf Astoria Lusail, meanwhile, features resort-style amenities including a private beach, an on-site water park for children, a full-service Espa Life spa, and the Bywater brasserie inspired by New Orleans’ French Quarter. The Ned, an exclusive members club co-created by Soho House founder Nick Jones, follows up its New York debut with a location in the former Ministry of Interior Building, offering six restaurants, a tranquil spa, and a 150-piece art collection.
But as more than a million soccer fans descend on Qatar, all eyes will be on eight new starchitect-designed stadiums overflowing with architectural moxie. For the colorful Stadium 974, Fenwick-Iribarren Architects repurposed the same number of shipping containers—a nod to Qatar’s international dialing code. Zaha Hadid Architects relied on its signature sweeping forms for the boat-shaped Al Janoub, which features a fully retractable roof. Dar Al-Handasah oversaw two stadiums: the tent-like Al Bayt, which hosted the opening game, and the renovation of Khalifa International, which opened in 1976. The final match will be played at Lusail, a glimmering jewel clad in a curved exterior of gilded triangular panels, which designer Foster + Partners likens to a “golden vessel.”
Pulling off $300 billion worth of development over a decade is impressive, but Qatar—a country mostly populated by expats—“faces the risk of an empty feeling once the fans go home,” Simone Foxman and Adveith Nair write for Bloomberg. “The government hopes that an end to the World Cup frenzy will herald the dawn of a more viable knowledge and service-sector economy, but the path between a major sporting event and the next phase of economic growth remains unclear. That makes the post-tournament transition as important as the buildup if the investment will ultimately pay off.”