The country of 2.7 million inhabitants now has eight stadiums with more than 40,000 seats. These stadiums were designed for the World Cup, but their future raises questions.

The imposing silhouette of the Al Bayt stadium, in Al Khor, 50 km south of Doha (Qatar), stands out in the middle of the desert. On the stoop of his restaurant, located on the other side of the highway, Mohamed has followed this World Cup from afar. From far away even. “In case of a goal, you can’t hear the clamor of the stadium,” says the manager of Legend, a small local restaurant that caters mostly to blue-collar Indians and Pakistanis.

Last week, the TVs installed in the room were broadcasting music channels or Bollywood movies, while a match was being played at the same time. The World Cup may have taken place a few kilometers from the Legend, but for its customers, it’s as if it took place on the planet Mars. “We’re still waiting for foreign fans…”

Not sure if they would have slammed their last rials in the tandoori kitchen, though. It’s all about the target. “What hurt us most was the departure of the workers’ camp, who built this stadium and the new neighborhoods.” There were tens of thousands of them, now parked elsewhere. Their departure and the dismantling of their mobile homes, leaves the stadium as if stranded in the middle of a sea of sand.

This gigantic structure, reminiscent of a traditional Bedouin tent, is only the most spectacular illustration of the gigantism of this World Cup, 80% of which is being held in a single city*, Doha. With seven stadiums with 40,000 or more seats, Doha is on a par with London* in terms of the density of sports facilities, and even more than the whole of the French Ligue 1 combined. Without having the clubs and the fan base to use them.

An above-ground stadium in the desert
Of course, most of these stadiums will see their capacity reduced by half*. The upper part of the stands will be dismantled and donated to developing countries. The 974 stadium, built with containers, will even be dismantled after the competition. The aim is to turn it into a year-round living space. The Al Bayt stadium will host a restaurant, a five-star hotel and a sports clinic in the upper stands. A camel racing track will also be installed not far from the stadium and 30,000 fans will be able to crowd the stands for the local club’s matches.

“Are you kidding?” French coach Frederic Hantz, who coached the Al Khor club last year, laughs for long seconds on the other end of the line. “When we had 500 people in the stands, we were happy,” he said. Modou Diagne, the club’s solid defender, who arrived four months ago, agrees. “I set foot in this stadium for the first time for Senegal-England the other day. It is very beautiful, very modern. But it’s a world away from the one we play in. It’s different. Futuristic. It will attract people, that’s clear. But from there to fill it, I have big doubts…”

A few steps away from the stadium, stands a brand new district, with its subdivision of high houses and its small souk. Only the garland of the flags of the 32 qualified countries reminds us that the World Cup took place two blocks away. According to the official version of the Qatari Supreme Committee, “its vast green spaces house food and beverage stalls, as well as sports facilities, including running, cycling and horseback riding tracks.” On paper, only.

Spin-offs still unseen
On site, a couch store where salespeople watch for customers. There, a sporting goods store where the owner assures us that “in the evening, it’s a little more lively”. In his small air-conditioned pharmacy, Rajendra is also pacing back and forth, waiting for someone to come through the door. “We are still waiting for the fallout from the World Cup. It’s all very well to say that we’re going to expand Al Khor. But if we don’t create jobs, people will continue to crowd into Doha.” And the gleaming housing developments next door? “Half empty. At best.”

It makes you wonder what the World Cup has done for Al Khor, the only city outside the capital to have survived the initial project. On the corniche of the city, a tiny fan zone has been set up (200 chairs in front of a screen). Even for the quarter-final of Morocco, the substitute team of the locals, the place sounded hollow.

With his head covered by a woolen cap, Peters came from Doha like a Parisian going for a walk on the banks of the Marne. And he is the only one. “I wanted to experience a different atmosphere. And it worked. The stores located on the square where the screen is installed do not benefit at all from the World Cup. It is hardly if the souvenir shop sold ten T-shirts representing the stadium. “I haven’t seen a single tourist, I’m disappointed,” grumbles his neighbor.

Does this necessarily mean that the Al Bayt stadium will become a “white elephant”, a site that is abandoned as soon as the competition is over and gradually devoured by nature, as was the case after the Rio (2016) or Athens (2004) Olympics? Nothing is less certain, says the academic Raphaël Le Magoariec, who has worked in the emirate for ten years. Qatar does not think of its new stadiums in terms of usefulness, but in terms of power and influence,” he says. These stadiums give the country the opportunity to continue to be a contender for hosting major sporting events and thus to maintain its sports strategy as one of the pillars of its foreign policy.”

A political choice, not an economic one
Including by pitching a 37-meter high concrete and steel tent in the middle of the desert, or almost, on the pretext that the most powerful woman in the emirate, Sheikha Moza, was born there. This choice is more symbolic than sporting,” continues Raphaël Le Magoariec. Each stadium corresponds to a feature of the emirate’s discourse both in terms of its location and its architecture.”

The Al Thumama* stadium, for example, evokes the traditional men’s headdress, the Lusail* stadium, the handcrafted lanterns and their characteristic geometric patterns, or Al Janoub*, symbolizing the sails of the dhows, the traditional wooden boats.

Academic Steffen Hertog points out that Qatar is not the only country to have embarked on mega-projects beyond any consideration of profitability*. What he calls “soft power enclaves”, which the local populations watch from afar without appropriating them, exist in all the Gulf countries. “Since they do not correspond to the demands of the local population, their purpose, their very existence, is only justified for international use,” insists the author of a thesis on these pharaonic achievements in the Gulf. “A cultural, political use, much more than commercial. It will end in a financial abyss, but that is not the problem.”

Meanwhile, Modou Diagne resumed training last week, after a long truce during the event. Without the dates for the resumption of the second division championship are still known, after five short days*. Al Khor occupies the provisional first place. In the general indifference.