When the soccer World Cup kicks off in Qatar on Nov. 20, it will accomplish two milestones. It will be the first World Cup played in the Arab world, bringing the globe’s favorite game to one of the regions where it is most loved. It will also be the first to be held in the Northern Hemisphere during its winter — essential in a nation where in June and July, when the tournament is normally held, the average daily high is around 107 degrees.
Qatar is one of the world’s smallest, but richest, countries: a tiny peninsula of land, barely the size of Connecticut, jutting into the turquoise waters of the Arabian gulf. It will host all games within Doha, the capital, and its satellite towns. The nation has seized on the global sporting and cultural event as an opportunity to announce itself on the world stage. Its brand-new stadiums, hotels, roads and metro system — built at hundreds of billions of dollars of expense — are designed to paint the picture of a futuristic hub of sports, tourism and education.
Yet the lead-up to this World Cup has been dominated like no other by negative headlines.
Human rights groups have drawn attention to unpaid wages, restrictive labor practices and unexplained deaths among low-income migrants, some of whom built the air-conditioned stadiums where the games will unfold. Soccer fans have criticized the decision to hold the world’s largest party in a country where homosexuality is illegal — and to one with too few hotels and very expensive beer. And an F.B.I. investigation of corruption in global soccer has cast a shadow over Qatar’s hosting of the tournament.
Qatar’s gloss and grit speak to its broader contradictions. Before the discovery of hydrocarbons, it was one of the poorest places on the planet, its economy reliant on pearl diving. Today it drips with seemingly limitless wealth and ambition. It touts itself as a beacon of free speech and education, home to the media giant Al Jazeera and satellite campuses of Georgetown, Cornell and Northwestern. But the local news media cannot officially quote the country’s ruler without written permission. And for all the allegations of worker abuses, tens of thousands of migrants still flock there in search of a better life.
To help improve your understanding of the place, here are five books that shed light on some of its most important aspects.
Al-Jazeera: How Arab TV News Challenged the World, by Hugh Miles (2005)
This is a highly-readable account of the satellite news service that shot to Western attention over its coverage of the U.S.-led “war on terror.” The book charts the channel’s birth and development, helping to demolish myths and misunderstandings about the Arab world along the way.
The Girl Who Fell to Earth: A Memoir, by Sophia Al-Maria (2012)
A moving and funny coming-of-age memoir by a Qatari American artist, this is one of the rare insights into life for Qatari nationals, who make up only 11 percent of the population of Qatar and are famously reticent in the company of outsiders.
Qatar and the Gulf Crisis, by Kristian Coates Ulrichsen (2020)
Qatar’s biggest modern crisis unfolded from 2017-21 when, without warning, its neighbors placed the country under economic and political embargo, in a dramatic escalation of a long-running regional rivalry. This account moves from origin to (almost) conclusion, capturing how badly the initiative backfired, strengthening Qatar’s independence and global standing.
Red Card: FIFA and the Fall of the Most Powerful Men in Sports, by Ken Bensinger (2018)
Several books cover FIFA, corruption and the awarding of the hosting rights to the 2018 and 2022 World Cups. This one, by a New York Times reporter, gets the nod for its pace, clarity and unrivaled access to the F.B.I. and I.R.S. — the key instigators of the huge (and ongoing) corruption case being brought against many of those who run the global game.
Changing Qatar: Culture, Citizenship, and Rapid Modernization, by Geoff Harkness (2020)
A cleareyed account of Qatar’s many communities by a sociologist previously based in Doha. The author is sympathetic to the country’s challenges, but doesn’t pull his punches when exploring issues around free speech, ***, and the treatment of migrant workers.
John McManus is the author of “Inside Qatar: Hidden Stories from One of the Richest Nations on Earth,” an account of life in the country told through the eyes of those who call it home.