Workers in Qatar clean a water fountain in Doha's growing City Center and West Bay District in October. But far bigger preparations will soon be underway following Qatar's successful bid to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
During the last few decades, the relatively sleepy port city of Doha on the Persian Gulf has been transformed into a glittering modern metropolis that will soon host soccer fanatics from around the globe. (See a Qatar map.)
The venue will be quite unlike any other to host the event, said Don Belt, senior editor for foreign affairs at National Geographic magazine and editor of the National Geographic book The World of Islam. (The Society owns National Geographic magazine and National Geographic News.)
Qatar (pronounced KUT-ter) is the most traditional and conservative society in the Persian Gulf, except for Saudi Arabia. It's also home to broiling desert temperatures, one major city, and little soccer tradition—many Qataris are more passionate about traditional pastimes such as camel racing and falconry.
"It's a real head-scratcher," Belt said. "I'm sure soccer fans all over the world are wondering about this one."
Qatar is steeped in conservative Islam, a culture soon to be encountered by football fans from around the world.
"The official religion is Islam, of course, and it's the same strand of Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia, Wahhabi Islam—although Qataris are much more moderate in their approach to Wahhabism," Belt said.
"It's still a conservative form of Islam, and I think 99 percent of the women wear the abaya," a traditional robe-like dress that covers the whole body except the face, feet, and hands.
While World Cup fans may express surprise, Qatar has hosted major international sporting events before: During opening ceremonies of the 2006 Asian Games, a welcoming host of Qataris hoisted torches at Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, as seen above.
Despite the conservative culture, the country's ruler, Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, has enacted social and political reforms considered revolutionary in the Arab world. The Emir has promoted sports, prompted women to vote and run for office, invited U.S. universities to open campuses in the country, and allowed the U.S. military to maintain a significant presence.
In 1996 the Emir launched the project for which Qatar is perhaps best known in the West—the Al Jazeera news organization.
Photograph by Paul Gilham, Getty Images/DAGOC
Qatar's Offshore Wealth
Roughly the size of Connecticut—4,400 square miles, or 11,400 square kilometers—Qatar juts into the Persian Gulf from its border with neighboring Saudi Arabia. The al-Thani family, who hailed from what is now Arabia's central desert, settled Qatar in the mid-1700s, ruling under British protection until they claimed independence in 1971.
During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the country's biggest export was Persian Gulf pearls. Today petroleum is top dog. An oil boom began in 1939, and much of Qatar's revenue comes from an offshore natural gas field that's one of the world's largest. Above, gas flares from Qatar's Balal offshore oil platform in 2004.
The North Field's 900 trillion cubic feet (25 trillion cubic meters) of gas is enough to heat every home in the United States for at least a century. Thanks to these resources, Qataris enjoy the second highest per capita income in the world, following Lichtenstein, and the second fastest growing economy, trailing only the Chinese administrative region of Macau.
Photograph by Behrouz Mehri, AFP/Getty Images
Desert Cycle Race
Riders in the 2006 Tour of Qatar cycling race stream past metal pipes and through the country's dominant landscape—scorching hot desert.
"Qatar has one city: Doha is really the only population center," Belt said. "That's interesting, because the World Cup is typically spread out across a country in many different cities and stadiums."
Qatar has just 840,000 people, and only about a third of those are native Arabs. The rest are guest workers from countries such as India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan—and nearly everyone lives in or around Doha.
Photograph by Franck Fife, AFP/Getty Images
Skyscrapers continue to sprout from the desert sands of Doha, a sign of the double-digit growth projected by the International Monetary Fund for the Qatari economy in 2011.
With the ongoing financial boom and Emir-driven cultural changes, visiting World Cup fans will likely find a unique experience in Qatar.
"It's going to be a very interesting encounter between the Muslim Arab world and the rest of the world," Belt said.