When Qatar was elected in 2010 to host the 2022 World Cup, many eyebrows were raised. A desert nation was not seen as the ideal place for a popular sporting tournament, even if the country was ready to pour billions to guarantee the best championship ever.

Since then, various countries opened investigations over an alleged case of bribery and corruption, after whistleblowers pointed to illegal payments made to FIFA members in order to win enough votes for Qatar’s bid.

The gas-rich country defended its election, and wants to dispel any doubts about how sustainable its championship will be. Even more, it is ready to teach others how to do it.

“We came up with a programme that we believe is unique, because it addresses a global challenge, which is sustainability, linked it with the organisation of major sports events, which have a huge footprint,” said Marwan K. Khraisheh, senior researcher director at Hamad Bin Khalifa (HBK) University, one of the persons responsible for the project.

HBK university, a leading national university in the country, teamed up with the Supreme Committee, in charge of the World Cup preparations, and with FIFA, to offer an online course through edX, an educational platform.

They brought together a dozen of instructors from around the world, with various expertise, to offer a two-course programme.

The first course focuses on five pillars of sustainability: human, social, economic, governance and environmental. The second part is about the implementation of the strategy.

How could Qatar share its experience about a successful implementation, when the organisers are in the middle of their own process?

Khraisheh argued that there is a lot to teach before the cup kicks off, including building the stadiums or organising the infrastructure. But Qatar is also ready to share their insights on anti-corruption and labour laws, two of the controversial areas affecting the event.

“After the World Cup, probably there will be lessons learned and it will be a good moment to reflect: what has been done, how to improve it for the next tournament and the legacy, because that is really important,” Khraisheh said.

Zero-waste plan

The country has pledged to achieve a zero-waste event in terms of energy and water consumption, and to push for clean mobility during the games. The country will also build the first fully reusable stadium for 40,000 fans, made of recyclable components and 1,000 containers.

Qatar also promised to improve the appalling conditions of migrant workers building the stadiums and World Cup infrastructure, including the introduction of a $200 monthly minimum wage and other labour reforms.

Pressure has mounted on the Qatari authorities to take action after reports surfaced in 2013 that 185 Nepalese workers had died on World Cup construction sites in 2013 alone because they had been denied food and water.

This is considered insufficient by Amnesty International. Despite the “significant promises” made by the Gulf nation, Qatar remains “a playground for unscrupulous employers,” it said in September, pointing out that some workers had not been paid for months, or were cheated by companies falsely citing financial difficulties.

Khraisheh said the country is also working on other initiatives to improve working conditions on World Cup sites.

“We are developing advanced vests with sensors to improve the welfare of workers in terms of cooling and maintaining their health,” he explained.

Bold vision

Hosting the World Cup is part of Qatar’s 2030 strategy to diversify its economy, which currently relies on gas exports for 60% of its GDP.

The Gulf nation is now nursing the hope of becoming an international hub for sports. This autumn, Qatar hosted the World Athletics Championships, and next December it will play host to the FIFA Clubs World Cup, which brings together the winners of the six continental confederations.

“We are really creating all the components for being a major international sports hub,” Khraisheh said.

The World Cup is seen as stepping stone towards this goal. Khraisheh is “very confident” that it will be not only “the most sustainable event” ever organised, but also the best World Cup in history.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]