How Qatar became this year's World Cup host : Throughline Football, aka soccer, is life. At least, it is for many people across the globe. There are few things that are universally beloved but this sport comes close. And as teams on nearly every continent prepare for the start of the World Cup, all eyes are on one tiny country at the tip of the desert. Qatar. The first Arab country ever to secure the World Cup bid. But it's been a long and complicated road to get to this moment. Espionage. Embargoes. Covert deals. This is the story of Qatar's decades-long pursuit of the World Cup bid and its role in the nation's transformation into a global power.

How Qatar became this year's World Cup host

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JAMES MONTAGUE: My first ever memory - really strong football memory - was the 1986 World Cup.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: The Azteca Stadium awash with color - a vibrant atmosphere for this World Cup quarterfinal between Argentina and England.

MONTAGUE: And this was a very special World Cup.


VICTOR HUGO MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

MONTAGUE: It was Mexico in 1986 - this faraway land, which might as well have been on the moon.


MORALES: (Speaking Spanish).

MONTAGUE: The quarterfinal was, again, England versus Argentina.


BARRY DAVIES: Maradona just walked away from Hoddle then...

MONTAGUE: I just remember watching that game...


MORALES: Maradona.

MONTAGUE: ...And...


DAVIES: And Maradona gives Argentina the lead. The England players protesting to the referee...

MONTAGUE: ...Maradona basically punches the ball into the net with his hand. I remember waiting for the referee to blow his whistle. It was so obvious. It was so obvious this was a foul. And he didn't.


DAVIES: And the goal is given...


MONTAGUE: I mean, I remember crying my eyes out 'cause it didn't - it wasn't fair. Like, it didn't - this was like - my innocence was shattered in that moment.


This is James Montague. He was 5 years old, living in the small city of Chelmsford, in England, when he watched Argentina's Diego Maradona punch a goal into England's net - using his hand. Sure, it was one of the most blatant acts of cheating in sports history. But since the referee didn't have a clear view of it and instant replay didn't exist yet, the goal was counted.

MONTAGUE: It's called the hand of God because, you know, God himself came down and wanted to smoke the English. You know, this is how Maradona thought.

ABDELFATAH: Maradona said he saw it as a kind of retribution for British colonialism. Argentina beat England 2-1 and went on to win the whole thing, making Maradona a villain to some, a hero to others.

NAZEEH: I was so a young guy. I was, I think, 8 or 9 years, but I remember it.


NAZEEH: It was the greatest World Cup in the history. I think that. Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: Why was it the greatest World Cup in history?

NAZEEH: Because of Maradona.


NAZEEH: When he play football, you feel he is like magic.

ABDELFATAH: This is my uncle - or amo - Nazeeh. He remembers watching the '86 World Cup live on a tiny box TV in his small town of Awajan, in Jordan, where he grew up. And of course, Maradona's performance in the Argentina-England game was the highlight.

NAZEEH: Yeah, yeah - which he make a goal by his hand. Yeah.


NAZEEH: And he said this is the hand of God. Yeah, yeah.

ABDELFATAH: Were you like, oh, this isn't fair? Or were you like, no - goal. This is...

NAZEEH: Yeah, yeah. We feel happy because it's a goal. For us, it's a goal, and he - they won. They defeated England. We hate England. Yeah, we don't like...

ABDELFATAH: Since he was a kid, my Amo Nazeeh has looked forward to the moment, every four years, when countries from nearly every continent convene in one corner of the world to face off in the ultimate tournament of football - or, as we'll call it in most of this episode for all our American listeners, soccer.


MONTAGUE: Every four years, this incredible festival of football will take place that would be, for many people, a window unto a world that you would never see in any other place. And I think that's why it evokes so many strong emotions of what still were the most important, biggest sports event in the world.




UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #4: Look at this magisterial pass.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #6: Oh, my God - an insane goal.



TRINIDAD CARDONA AND DAVIDO: (Singing) Hayya, hayya, hayya.


(Singing) Hayya, hayya, ha.

You know what it is, baby.

(Singing) Hayya, hayya, hayya. Hayya, hayya, ha.


(Singing) Hayya, hayya, hayya.


(Singing) Hayya, hayya, ha.


(Singing) Hayya, hayya, hayya.


(Singing) Hayya, hayya, ha.


This is the official World Cup anthem for 2022, which is set to kick off in just a few days in Qatar. It's the first Arab country to ever host the World Cup.

ABDELFATAH: Another first - the World Cup is happening in November instead of June and July, when it's normally held. The entire global event specially moved to a cooler time of year to avoid the ridiculously hot summers of the Persian Gulf - or Khaleej in Arabic.

ARABLOUEI: Qatar is a very small peninsula country, mostly made up of arid desert, that shares a land border with Saudi Arabia and a sea border in the Persian Gulf with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Iran. How small is it exactly?

MONTAGUE: You know, whenever I write for an American newspaper, they will then insert Connecticut, I think.

ABDELFATAH: James Montague, who we met on that fateful day in 1986, grew up to become a sports journalist. He's written for The Guardian, The New York Times, CNN, and Sports Illustrated even described him as, quote, "the Indiana Jones of soccer writing."

MONTAGUE: I don't think I've ever been to Connecticut.

ARABLOUEI: Now, what isn't small is Qatar's bank account. It's among the richest countries in the world. The average income of Qatar's 300,000 citizens is the highest of any country in the world. Plus, they don't pay taxes and get free health care and free education. But they make up just 10% of Qatar's population. The other 90% - immigrants from around the world - don't get those perks.

MONTAGUE: It's just spent $200 billion at least on hosting this World Cup - on winning the bid, building the stadiums, building the infrastructure.

ABDELFATAH: Over the last couple of decades, James has traveled extensively throughout the Middle East, including to Qatar.

MONTAGUE: My first book and last book was "When Friday Comes," which is the kind of story - the modern story of football in the region and especially the rise of the Gulf.

ABDELFATAH: James says, on these travels, he got to experience the region in a way many people don't get to.

MONTAGUE: I do realize I'm - you know, I'm a white man. I'm a white Westerner, white English person. And so I had a, in some ways, kind of quite privileged position in that respect. And because a lot of people will say, if you're a football writer or a sports writer, you're a bit of an idiot, you know, it also gave you incredible access to spaces that you never really would've - it would've been much harder to get. And this was, like, the key to the way that I then ended up seeing the Middle East.

ABDELFATAH: In the Middle East, like in much of the world, football - soccer - is life.

NAZEEH: You feel that the players like Maradona play from all his heart. He want to give the football everything he has.

ABDELFATAH: But what no one could have predicted was that, of all the countries in the region, Qatar would be the first to host a World Cup. So how did we get here?


ARABLOUEI: Coming up, we'll pull back the curtain on Qatar's decades-long pursuit of soccer greatness and the role of sport in branding the country as a global power. It's a story of backroom deals, exploitation and a really aspirational musical.


KEVIN: This is Kevin (ph). I'm calling to you from Bansko, a tiny town in Bulgaria. But I've listened to you guys in Finland and Thailand and Malta and all over the world. I can't express how much I love you guys and the work you do. And you are listening to THROUGHLINE by NPR.



NAZEEH: (Speaking Arabic) - reaching for the hand of God.


ABDELFATAH: It's November, 2005. The curtain has just been raised inside a theater in Doha, Qatar's capital.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As characters, singing) Within this tent is magic. Inside this tarp, a tale, a wondrous tale that soon we will unveil.

ABDELFATAH: The emir - or king - of Qatar at the time, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, is in the audience watching a musical staged in English alongside hundreds of his guests. Hamad bin Khalifa commissioned this musical to mark a special occasion, the launch of a new program in Qatar called the Aspire Academy.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (As characters, singing) It's Aspire, Aspire, Aspire...

ABDELFATAH: The goal of Aspire would be to scout and develop young athletes and build up the profile of Qatar's national soccer team. Over the next few days, Qatar planned to pull out all the stops to let the world know about its new academy. And it needed international journalists to help spread the word.


MONTAGUE: I was living in the Middle East at the time. And I got an email saying that Pelé and Maradona were going to be in Qatar to open this - what I thought was a leisure center, like a...


MONTAGUE: ...Called the Aspire Academy. And I was like, wow, could I see Pelé and Maradona?

ABDELFATAH: Two soccer legends, both beloved by many, who couldn't have been more different from one another.

MONTAGUE: Maradona, probably the first man who wasn't in my family to make me cry back in 1986, when he scores, you know, the hand of God.


MARK BURROWS: There was a dark side to him, his career plagued as much by scandal as glory.

MONTAGUE: He's kind of uncontrollable.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: The World Cup winner getting into trouble for slapping a journalist.

MONTAGUE: He gets heavily addicted to cocaine. He's kind of involved in the mafia. I mean, there's all sorts of dodgy things going on. Pelé, by contrast...


PELÉ: I born in a small town, you know, in the land of Brazil called Three Hearts.

MONTAGUE: Comes from a different era and kind of leads an exemplary life.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Speaking Swedish).

MONTAGUE: He scores hundreds and hundreds of goals.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: (Speaking Swedish).

MONTAGUE: Youngest scorer in the World Cup finals, you know? He wins World Cup, after World Cup, after World Cup. You wouldn't see Pelé scoring a goal against England with his hand.


ARABLOUEI: There was an intense debate going on at this time over who was the GOAT.

MONTAGUE: The greatest player of all time.

ARABLOUEI: And let's just say, the last thing you'd expect is that they both show up, shake hands and pose for pictures at a press conference together. But that's exactly what they did in Qatar.

MONTAGUE: I remember going and seeing them both there. And it was like - I mean, I touched Maradona. I mean, that's, like, something I'll remember...


MONTAGUE: ...For the rest of my life. I mean, it was incredible.

ARABLOUEI: Maybe it was the power of soccer that brought them there. Or more likely, Qatar persuaded them to come.

MONTAGUE: By paying them, like, just shedloads of money.

ABDELFATAH: No one realized it at the time. But this moment, the launch of Aspire, was when Qatar began its journey to the World Cup, a seemingly impossible dream for this tiny country that had sprung up in the desert just decades earlier.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Roadless, almost unknown, unmapped. In September 1933, two American geologists waded ashore on the nearby coast to begin a search in this strange, barren land.

ABDELFATAH: In the 1930s, American geologists, with help from local Bedouin guides, discovered huge amounts of oil in the still-unmapped deserts of the Arab Gulf.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing in non-English language).

ABDELFATAH: The largest oil field was located in the newly proclaimed kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It was a treasure trove of liquid gold that would bring unimaginable wealth to a region where, for centuries, tribal rule had reigned supreme.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: It's a hard life in Arabia, and it breeds hard men. But it's as perfectly adjusted now to the hard land it's lived in as it was in the days of Abraham, the father of all the tribes.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Tribes were essentially clans and families, and Bedouin life meaning they lived in the deserts and they lived off the land and the sea, the waters.

ABDELFATAH: At the time, the British Empire still had a strong foothold in the Middle East.

BATRAWY: Unlike the colonial rule that we saw in countries like India, it was different in the Gulf. It was more of a protectorate and an agreement that the British would have a say in the foreign policies of these societies in exchange for formal protections as well.

ABDELFATAH: And as more and more oil and gas fields were discovered in the Gulf, they began to do business with the various emirates or kingdoms in the region. The rulers of these kingdoms were sheiks who had been chosen to make political decisions.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: At the wheel of this car is a man torn between two worlds. He's an Arab sheik who was born in an old Arabia and will die in a new one.

BATRAWY: The discovery of oil and gas absolutely upends and transforms every single aspect of life and society in this part of the world.

ABDELFATAH: This is Aya Batrawy, NPR international correspondent based in Dubai.

BATRAWY: And I've spent the past decade reporting in the Gulf and around the Gulf, including in Qatar.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: Now as never before, the drive for new oil reserves in the Middle East is of vital importance for the great powers. Every month sees fresh activity, and today, thanks to British and American cooperation...

MONTAGUE: After the Second World War, Britain is a broken country. It can't fund its colonial ambitions anymore. It's a fading power. And so there is this burst of decolonization.

ARABLOUEI: In a decolonized world, the Gulf kingdoms begin to morph into discrete countries - Saudi Arabia, the biggest country, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and tiny Qatar, which is ruled by the al-Thani family.

ABDELFATAH: Oil was discovered in Qatar relatively late, only becoming significant around the late 1940s, early 1950s.

ARABLOUEI: And in the 1970s, Qatar unearthed some of the world's largest natural gas reserves.

BATRAWY: Its change really happens with the discovery of gas, this massive underwater gas field that it shares with Iran that keeps homes around the world warm and keeps economies running.

ABDELFATAH: Up to this point, it was a sleepy place known for fishing and pearl diving. But suddenly, with these discoveries, the country began to rapidly develop, which required Qatar to import labor.

ARABLOUEI: Cheap labor from poorer countries around the world.

ABDELFATAH: Perhaps the most visible sign of this development was the Sheraton Hotel. Aerial photographs from that time show the hotel jutting into the sky along an otherwise barren stretch of desert. Its modernist pyramid design, kind of "The Jetsons" meets Aztec temple, was a symbol of the change to come.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: Saudi Arabia and Iran and Kuwait, which have 130 billion barrels of oil, own more than half of the world's known oil reserves. For at least the next 50 years, our oil supply is going to depend largely on what these three countries and eight other Middle Eastern countries with smaller oil reserves decide to do about their oil production.

ABDELFATAH: This newfound treasure put the Gulf countries at the center of global politics. Everyone wanted a piece of it, and that gave these countries power like never before.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: There was an announcement that prices for Arab oil were going up, a huge increase voted in an overnight meeting without even consulting Western buyers.

ARABLOUEI: In 1973, these nations used that power to retaliate against the U.S. and other allied countries for supporting Israel, which had been expanding into Palestinian territories.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: In non-diplomatic language, that means that we'd better get along with the Middle Eastern nations because we're using almost two billion barrels more of oil a year than we produce.

ARABLOUEI: But more oil, more money, more power created a perfect storm for more conflict.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: The wreckage of an Iranian jet fighter shot down over Iraq in the war that's shaken the whole Gulf region and the wider world beyond.

ARABLOUEI: In 1980, Iraq's dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in an attempt to take control of its oil fields. An intense bloody war ensued that lasted nearly a decade.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: The most dangerous place for merchant shipping today is the Gulf, surrounded by the Gulf War. What's happening is that the war on land between Iran and Iraq is spilling over into the sea, with Western tankers being the sitting targets for both sides.

ABDELFATAH: Meanwhile, there was a more covert battle taking hold of the region.

MONTAGUE: The geopolitical battle between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a battle of influence across the Middle East.

ABDELFATAH: Both Saudi Arabia and Iran touted themselves as the vanguards of Islam, and although Saudi Arabia is Sunni and Iran is Shia, they similarly enforced a strict interpretation of the faith, like rigid gender segregation, covering for women and limited LGBTQ rights. But their politics were opposite in many ways. Iran was overtly anti-Israel and the West. Saudi Arabia was quickly becoming an unlikely ally for both. Qatar often found itself caught in the shadow of Saudi Arabia, beholden to its interests.

BATRAWY: Because the ruling al-Thani family of Qatar originates from the landlocked region of Saudi Arabia, where the ruling al-Saud of Saudi Arabia also originate from. And they share similar conservative religious Sunni leanings as well.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: Officials warning this is not over.

ABDELFATAH: By the early 1990s, as conflict continued to plague the region...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #11: We heard the sound of the explosion a few seconds later.

ABDELFATAH: ...Many Qataris who had grown up with this geopolitical reality were fed up, including the son of the emir of Qatar.

ARABLOUEI: Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.



MONTAGUE: He'd taken over from his father, Khalifa, in a kind of bloodless palace coup.

BATRAWY: He really set Qatar on its current course of foreign policy, getting out from under the shadow of Saudi Arabia and building its own national identity.

ABDELFATAH: When Hamad bin Khalifa became the emir in 1995, he began to build up the country's institutions, like health care and education.

MONTAGUE: He talked about bringing in a constitutional monarchy built on the British system.

ABDELFATAH: He set up world-class universities.

MONTAGUE: He openly talked about universal suffrage.

ARABLOUEI: Under Hamad bin Khalifa, Qatar became the first country in the Arabian Peninsula to let women vote alongside men, though women's rights in the Gulf would continue to lag behind much of the world. And he created more opportunities for Qatar to rebrand itself as more than just a place with oil and gas.

ABDELFATAH: In 1996, Hamad bin Khalifa spent a billion dollars to build Al Udeid Air Base. This base would become the U.S. military's main central command point in the Middle East in a post-9/11 world. And that same year...


MONTAGUE: He introduced Al Jazeera. First Al Jazeera Arabic...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #12: (Speaking Arabic).

ABDELFATAH: Hamad bin Khalifa launched Al Jazeera Arabic just months after the BBC's Arabic-language TV station shut down.

BATRAWY: And it was really the first 24/7 Arabic satellite news channel beaming into people's homes, and not just in the Middle East but anywhere in the world if you had a satellite.

ABDELFATAH: A satellite like the one we had on top of my house in New Jersey. Al Jazeera was on all the time growing up. It was the only news my parents trusted. It offered an innovative, sometimes shocking perspective on the news of the region. There were also talk shows that openly debated issues of morality and religion in Islam.

ARABLOUEI: This prompted plenty of criticism, especially from Saudi Arabia, which denounced the station as Qatari propaganda and really didn't like the fact that Qatar was charting a new independent path for itself. But Al Jazeera would continue to expand into the 21st century with Al Jazeera America and Al Jazeera English.

MONTAGUE: Which then becomes one of the premier international news organizations.

BATRAWY: Americans will remember it as the channel after 9/11 that had those exclusive videos and interviews with Osama bin Laden.

ABDELFATAH: The establishment of Al Jazeera sent a message to the world - Qatar was prepared to make bold moves to assert its place on the world stage.


BRATISLAVA SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA AND CHOIR: (Singing) And aspire, yes, aspire to live on.

ABDELFATAH: Which brings us back to another bold move that will make more sense in hindsight - the dramatic launch of the new Aspire Academy.

MONTAGUE: If you want a shortcut to international prominence and you want people to know who you are, sport and football is probably the quickest way you can get there because there's no greater billboard in the world than football.

ABDELFATAH: Because being a power in world football could be a means to achieve outsized political and cultural power.


ARABLOUEI: Coming up, Qatar makes a bid for the World Cup.

BRITTANY: This is Brittany (ph) from Lutz, Fla. You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.


NAZEEH: (Speaking Arabic) - the game within the game.

MONTAGUE: I've always been obsessed with football and football stories, and I'd started to see political stories through football. I remember one of the first ones I came across was - I was just browsing the FIFA website, and I came across the fact that one of FIFA's members was Palestine - not the occupied territories, not Gaza, not the West Bank, not the Palestinian people, but Palestine, an entity called Palestine. And you know that that's a very rare thing to have in the international arena, to have Palestine named that way and officially recognized.

And so when I started looking into that - I wanted to do a story about the Palestinian national team. So I'd have to fly to Jordan. And then I'd get into a taxi. And it'd be an hour to get to the border. And you really saw the full weight of the Israeli state. And, you know, this is a horrific place, and it was this modern architecture of repression that you'd pass through. And they said, why are you here? And I said, well, I'm - I didn't mention I was doing a Palestinian football story. I mentioned that I wanted to go and see Hapoel Haifa play, one of the biggest teams in Israel. And their captain, Yossi Benayoun, also the Israeli national team captain, played for West Ham United. And she asked me, who's your favorite player? And I said, Yossi Benayoun. And she just melted and stamped my passport, and I was through.


ARABLOUEI: It was the mid-2000s when James found himself at the border of one of the most contentious places in the world. At the time, the United Nations did not officially acknowledge Palestine's independence, but the organization for the world's most popular sport did.

MONTAGUE: So how did they become a member of FIFA?


SEPP BLATTER: I will not go into just an adventure because I have too much respect for the FIFA. And that's why I am confident going tomorrow morning in this election.

ABDELFATAH: Joseph Sepp Blatter won election as FIFA president on June 8, 1998, and that same year, with Sepp Blatter's support, FIFA officially recognized Palestine as an independent entity.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #13: What is it exactly that FIFA does?

BLATTER: The aim of FIFA is not only to develop this game and to organize competition, but to try to make a little bit - a little bit - a better world.

ABDELFATAH: Joseph Sepp Blatter, a Swiss sports executive, helped organize the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games in Munich and Montreal. Once he got to FIFA, he would instill a new vision, to make it more truly global.

ARABLOUEI: See; the World Cup games had only been held in European, South American and North American countries. That meant over 100 countries and millions of people between Asia and Africa were left out of what was supposed to be the World Cup.


BLATTER: Two hundred and nine national associations are members of FIFA. That's more than the United Nations. And organized football is now played in all corners of the world.

ABDELFATAH: So fast-forward to where we left Qatar in 2005, when the emir, Hamad bin Khalifa, inaugurated the Aspire Academy to help build up their national soccer team and maybe have a shot at qualifying for the World Cup, which Qatar had never done.

MONTAGUE: Its ambitions just didn't tally at all to reality.

ABDELFATAH: In 2006, Qatar's team didn't qualify for the World Cup. Qatar made a bid to host the 2016 and 2020 Summer Olympics. It didn't get either. So a lot was riding on Qatar's bid to host the World Cup. Remember; like many countries in the past, it saw sport as a rapid path to international prominence.

MONTAGUE: There is a power to hosting. It is an opportunity to send a message about where your place is in the world.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #8: And a chance for Palestine. It's in. What a goal.

MONTAGUE: The Palestinian national football team is desperate to qualify for a World Cup.


UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #9: Jordan 5, Palestine 1.

MONTAGUE: Because the power of having that flag on the international stage is one of the most potent political symbols you could do, to be there as a nation amongst equals on the international stage. And so hosting a World Cup is that times a hundred. And for a country like Qatar that was developing at a breakneck speed, this was the most important element.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #14: What will it mean to the region if the world's greatest sporting event comes to the Middle East for the very first time? It's happened in South Africa - football uniting the people of the world in a way that only sport can. Will it happen again here in the Middle East?


MONTAGUE: When that came out - when that news came out, that Qatar wanted to host the World Cup, I mean, it was just - it was absurd. Like, how are you going to host the World Cup? I mean, it's 50 degrees in the summer.

ARABLOUEI: Which comes in at a nice, toasty 122 degrees Fahrenheit.

MONTAGUE: Trust me. I've lived through enough Gulf summers. You can't - 15 minutes in that, and you're - I mean, you're in trouble. Anybody that had gone to Qatar would have laughed and said, this is impossible. How can a country the size Qatar ever host the World Cup finals? You know, you're going to need eight to 10 stadiums. There's going to be millions of people arriving. It just can't handle it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: In a few minutes from now, we will know which nations will host FIFA's flagship competition in 2018 and in 2022.

MONTAGUE: Yeah, so there's Australia, Japan, Qatar, South Korea and the U.S.

ARABLOUEI: And Qatar was the only one that was labeled by FIFA as a high risk.

MONTAGUE: High risk assessment because of the temperature. And they were going to make a decision in December 2010.

ARABLOUEI: So Qatar scrambled to find a new way to address its impossible problem - how to turn down the heat.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #15: A proposed fully air-conditioned venue for the World Cup, The Khalifa International Stadium, has been completed.

MONTAGUE: And they came up with a solution, which was essentially, they were going to have massive air-conditioned stadiums, and that would somehow deal with it. And the stadiums were going to be collapsible so they could take them down and rebuild them in African countries. And its cooling technology would be there, which would transform watching football in those countries and perhaps even transform, you know, society in developing worlds - I mean, really highfalutin stuff. And, I mean, it sounded like an absolutely crazy suggestion.

ARABLOUEI: And on top of that, the World Cup, which is normally held in June or July, was moved to November for the first time ever due to the scorching summers in Qatar.


BLATTER: The winner to organize the 2022 FIFA World Cup is Qatar.


ABDELFATAH: Do you remember where you were when that news came out? Were you in the Middle East at the time?

BATRAWY: Yes, I was in Cairo. And I vividly remember Cairo being part of the pitch that Qatar presented to the world as this will be the first World Cup in the Middle East and having scenes and shots from Cairo as part of their pitch that this is not just a World Cup for Qatar but for the region.

ABDELFATAH: The Emir, Hamad Bin Khalifa, had secured his goal. Qatar was going to host one of the biggest sporting events in the world. But for many people outside the region...

MONTAGUE: I can imagine that for a lot of people seeing the word Qatar, probably the first time they've ever heard the country's name before, it was just - it was shock.

ABDELFATAH: That's when the questions came flooding in.

MONTAGUE: Who? Where? How?

ABDELFATAH: How did the seemingly impossible happen?

ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: To say that FIFA is operating under a cloud of scandal would be a great understatement here.

MONTAGUE: There has been just so many allegations of corruption against the Qatari bid, the political machinations going on in terms of government deals, gas deals between countries that would have a vote on who would host the World Cup finals.

STEFAN FATSIS, BYLINE: There were reports of collusion among countries involved in the voting, and there was spending that was clearly designed to influence votes.

MONTAGUE: But there hasn't been a smoking gun. And so they just played the game better than anyone else because they were extremely strategic.

ABDELFATAH: And remember when Pelé and Maradona met up in Qatar for the opening of the Aspire Academy? Well, in hindsight, many see that as part of the game plan of winning the World Cup.

ARABLOUEI: Twenty-two people from countries around the world voted on who would get to host the 2022 World Cup. And leading up to the vote, it just so happened that Aspire Academy was setting up a bunch of programs around the world.


ANDREAS BLEICHER: Qatar in general tries to help developing countries. So we in Aspire, as a sports academy, wanted to do a humanitarian project in sport. And as football is the biggest sport in Qatar and in the world, we wanted to do it in football.

MONTAGUE: A kind of humanitarian project to bring African kids, Asian kids, South American kids, Central American kids to Qatar at a young age where they would be trained up. And they would have an education, they'd be fed, and then they would develop into professional players. But these academies - a lot of them ended up being built in the countries where people just happened to have a vote. Then just, like, the penny dropped. And you're like, wow, that is pretty smart, to be honest. I mean, I hadn't seen that. I'm pretty sure Pelé and Maradona didn't see that. And so they played the game very, very well.

ABDELFATAH: And the last thing that might have tipped the scales in Qatar's favor was a dream Sepp Blatter had carried for years - to win a Nobel Peace Prize. If we rewind to the moments right before Qatar learned it won the 2020 bid, this happened.


BLATTER: So the 2018 FIFA World Cup, ladies and gentlemen, will be organized in Russia.


ABDELFATAH: Russia. In the same announcement giving Qatar the 2022 World Cup, Russia got awarded hosting rights for 2018.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #16: That's right. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview that Blatter should be awarded the highest honor in the world, a Nobel Prize. Putin told...

MONTAGUE: You know, this is the Middle East's first bid, Arab world's first bid. This could be a symbol of hope and change and bring peace. And people will come together - you know, some kind of peace-through-football thing.

ARABLOUEI: Qatar was happy. Hamad bin Khalifa was happy. But in December 2010, right around the time Qatar got the World Cup...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #17: We are breaking into programming here on Al Jazeera 11:45 GMT...

ARABLOUEI: ...The Arab Spring began...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #18: The streets of central Tunis are a battleground.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #19: They called it a day of rage. It is fast turning into that.

ARABLOUEI: ...Pushing the region quickly into a period of anything but peace.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Chanting in Arabic).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Chanting in Arabic).

ARABLOUEI: And amid all of that, Qatar would be facing scrutiny unlike anything before.

MONTAGUE: It brought this microscope onto the country, onto them as people that they were not prepared for. So from the beginning, people started looking deeper into, OK, what kind of country is this? What kind of laws do they have? How are these stadiums going to be built? Who's going to build them?


ABDELFATAH: Coming up, Qatar gets ready for the World Cup, and the age-old lesson, be careful what you wish for.


NICHOLE CHARBONNEAU: Hi. This is Nichole Charbonneau from Marion, Mass., and you are listening THROUGHLINE from NPR.


NAZEEH: (Speaking Arabic) - under the microscope.

MONTAGUE: One of the first things you notice, of course, is, essentially, there is a kind of economic apartheid.


MONTAGUE: You would see workers just working in the most awful conditions. And I would visit these sites and speak to the men - who were suicidal. I mean, they're essentially indentured slaves. They were there by this system called kafala.

ABDELFATAH: Kafala is the system in the Gulf and surrounding region that funnels a supply of cheap migrant labor. This was key to Qatar and its neighbors being able to grow quickly from unmapped places in the desert to some of the richest and most influential countries in the world.

BATRAWY: These countries would not have been able to build the cities that they have today - the hospitals, the schools, the residential buildings, the neighborhoods, the malls, the airports - without these migrant workers.

ABDELFATAH: Which, on the surface, is something many countries, including the U.S., have done. But the global attention that came along with Qatar winning the World Cup shined a bright light on just how extreme the kafala system was.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) Together, we are 125 workers who are stuck here. We're prisoners.

MONTAGUE: An employer takes basically guardianship of an employee.

BATRAWY: So your Visa, your residency, your livelihood, your ability and your permission to work and operate in the country and rent an apartment and open a bank account is tied to your employer.

MONTAGUE: And it's just ripe for abuse.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: We have not received any salary for months and cannot send money home.

ARABLOUEI: The overwhelming majority of Qatar's workforce are foreigners, and the bulk of that is migrant labor. This includes white-collar workers. But the people facing the hardest conditions, workers mainly from South Asia and Africa, are also the least skilled and mainly working construction or domestic work. Employers often take passports away from workers when they arrive in the country and change the terms of employment.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #20: Workers from India, Nepal, Somalia, the Philippines and an array of other developing nations live squeezed into overcrowded company accommodation.

MONTAGUE: You've got no chance of becoming a citizen. You are kept in camps far away from the rest of the population, preventing you really from mixing with other people. Nobody wanted to know this story.


BLATTER: The winner is Qatar.


MONTAGUE: Straight away, the criticism for this, which I hadn't seen any appetite for before 2010, suddenly becomes absolutely central to the narrative around Qatar's World Cup, because who are building these World Cup stadiums? Who are building these hotels? Who's going to be building the metro system? It's going to be these workers under this incredible system.


ABDELFATAH: Because the kafala system had been established in the Gulf for years, some people living in Qatar were taken off guard by this response in the media, wondering whether the fact that this was an Arab and Muslim country was motivating the criticism. After all, a lot of it was coming from Western countries who had been doing business with Qatar and the other Gulf countries for years without raising the alarm.


MONTAGUE: Hypocrisy - blind hypocrisy - I mean, we're absolutely beholden to them. I mean, we need their money. We need their inward investment. They own, you know, prestige real estate. We sell them weapons. They own our football clubs. It's money and influence. And to be honest, every World Cup bidding process is a filthy process.

ARABLOUEI: But media reports surrounding Qatar didn't stop. Within months, the International Trade Union Confederation started protesting FIFA's decision. They pointed to kafala, and in 2013, the unions brought a complaint to the U.N.'s International Labor Organization, or ILO, and Qatar responded.

MONTAGUE: Slowly, it dawned on them that this was doing too much damage to their reputation, and it has forced a reform process.

ARABLOUEI: In the years that followed, Qatar tried to appease its critics, introducing reforms starting in 2014 that brought better wages, improved living conditions and even included penalties against employers who don't follow the rules. The U.N.'s ILO would eventually announce that the reforms have essentially ended the kafala system in Qatar. But major rights groups, like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have maintained that labor abuses continued.

MONTAGUE: I've kept in touch with, you know, many of the workers who I've interviewed over the years. In many cases, they tell me it has improved. Their conditions have improved. Their wages have improved. But it's still a system that places men - and it's largely men - in camps outside cities and treats them as third-class citizens. There'll never be a passport, an Emirati passport or a Qatari passport, given to them for their role in creating this country, for creating this tournament.

ABDELFATAH: Some estimates show that over 6,500 foreign workers in Qatar have died since the country got hosting rights for the World Cup. Extreme heat is likely one factor, among others.

ARABLOUEI: While stories about kafala were casting shadows on Qatar, FIFA itself was about to get a major shake-up of its own.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #21: Breaking news now. So to interrupt, FIFA President Sepp Blatter is resigning from his position.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #22: An embattled leader who faces his toughest test since he took the presidency of the FIFA in 1998.

ARABLOUEI: FIFA was under fire. The allegations of corruption within the organization spanned back years and implicated more than a dozen high-ranking officials. Although it's technically a nonprofit, FIFA's business model left a lot of room for the organization to rake in a lot of money. And some members of FIFA took things too far.

ABDELFATAH: Much of this happened under the presidency of Sepp Blatter, the same man who saw soccer as a way to unite the world and Qatar as a way to expand soccer's reach across the globe. But in 2015, he stepped down as FIFA's president.


BLATTER: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (Singing in Arabic).


ABDELFATAH: As Qatar was busy fending off its critics who were addressing human rights issues like the kafala system within its borders, outside, perhaps the biggest challenge to Qatar's World Cup had been brewing.

MONTAGUE: In a way, what almost kind of destabilizes completely its World Cup is this Arab Spring.

ABDELFATAH: The Arab Spring threw the region into chaos.

MONTAGUE: What was at one point seen as a kind of World Cup for the Middle East and as a unifying - potentially unifying kind of event for the whole of the Middle East suddenly sees Qatar on opposite sides of its neighbors in almost every theater.


ABDELFATAH: While there were protests in the Middle East and North Africa in support of democracy, pushing back against political corruption and inequality, in Qatar, it was quiet.

BATRAWY: You have to understand the cultural context of Qatar. It's close-knit. It remains tribal in that sense, and they truly, you know, believe in their leader.

ABDELFATAH: But behind the scenes, things were more complicated. Throughout Hamad bin Khalifa's time as emir, as part of his mission to boost Qatar's profile on the world stage, he had positioned Qatar as the region's hakim, which in Arabic means judge or referee. It was often the go-to place for mediation in the region.

BATRAWY: Whether that was hosting Taliban officials and some Hamas leaders from Gaza or whether that's talks between U.S. officials and the Taliban.

ABDELFATAH: In a way, the strategy was pretty simple - maximize friends; minimize enemies.

BATRAWY: We've seen the Qatari emir go to Tehran and meet with Iran's president and carry back messages to Washington.

ABDELFATAH: But during the Arab Spring, the lines became more blurry.

MONTAGUE: So in Egypt, it backs the new government of Mohamed Morsi attached to the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE and Saudi see the Muslim Brotherhood as an existential threat. So they're in opposition there. They're in opposition backing different groups in Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Many people believe that in doing so, you've also funded a lot of militant groups in Syria, such as ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra.

BATRAWY: I think the definition of terrorism's a moving target in the world. And Qatar would argue that they absolutely do not support groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaida but that the groups that have been labeled and branded as terrorists are not. They're simply groups that have their own political leanings.

MONTAGUE: So it's just a patchwork of extremely complicated groups that they're backing, but they're often - they often find themselves on opposite sides of the same battlefield.

ABDELFATAH: Qatar was able to pursue this strategy of playing all sides in large part because it was under the umbrella of the United States, who, remember, has its main central command in the region at a military base in the country. But that umbrella would face a torrential downpour that would threaten Qatar's World Cup bid again.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #23: Some people are calling this the biggest political crisis to hit the Middle East in years. Overnight, several Arab countries decided to completely sever ties with Qatar.

ARABLOUEI: On June 55, 2017, Qatar's neighbors, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, all cut off diplomatic ties.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #24: One of the things that the Arab nations want to have happen is they want to shut down the Al Jazeera network.

MONTAGUE: You know, essentially the broadcasting company of the Arab Spring.

BATRAWY: Al Jazeera carried live protests. I mean, they started launching subdivisions and sub-satellite channels just focused on Egypt.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #25: Critics accuse Al Jazeera Arabic of being a platform for hate speech and sectarian incitement.

ABDELFATAH: Neighboring Gulf countries cut off Qatar's access to sea and airspace. Saudi Arabia shut down Qatar's only land route, which stopped imports, including food.

BATRAWY: Like, I remember right after, you know, Saudi Arabia shut the border, there were cows being flown in. I mean, they actually flew in cows to make sure that they would have the milk and the dairy that they needed.

ARABLOUEI: This was a culmination of built-up tension that started back in 1995. And since then, Qatar had grown on the world stage.

BATRAWY: Iran stepped in and provided them with the initial goods that they needed as shelves were emptying out those first few days. Turkey certainly stepped up.

ARABLOUEI: Meanwhile...


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #26: Qatar is still holding tight to its dream of hosting the 2022 World Cup. The clock is ticking, and the country can't afford any delays.

ARABLOUEI: FIFA was again getting intense international pressure, including from Arab nations involved in the embargo, to pull the World Cup from Qatar.

MONTAGUE: Its neighbors, its rivals had zeroed in on the fact that this was how you hit Qatar hard.

ARABLOUEI: But the embargo remained in a stalemate, neither side giving concessions.

MONTAGUE: You know, it's a very difficult situation for Qatar. They have to scramble to find the building materials for the World Cup.

BATRAWY: So Qatar was quickly able to find other ways to solve its problems, and it had the money to throw at it. It just spent money and did what it had to do.

ABDELFATAH: The stalemate finally came to an end in January 2021, 3 1/2 years after it began. An agreement was brokered with the help of Kuwait and the United States. But the tension between Qatar and its neighbors remains.


ARABLOUEI: Over the last decade, against many odds, Qatar has held on to the bid, and it's still easy to wonder if hosting the World Cup is really worth all that.


MONTAGUE: In a way, I kind of - I almost feel sorry for Qatar, you know? They had this crazy dream, and they kind of have pursued it, and it wasn't what they thought it would be. And they've had their name dragged through the mud. And at some point they were so far in, they couldn't get out. I don't feel as sorry as I do for the millions of workers whose lives have been ruined. But, you know, there is an element of this, is, with Qatar and the World Cup, be careful what you wish for 'cause sometimes you might get it.


ARABLOUEI: The controversies surrounding Qatar continue in the lead-up to the opening games.

ABDELFATAH: LGBTQ activists are calling attention to Qatar's anti-LGBTQ policies. Homosexuality is illegal there, and reports in the international media on gay rights are censored. Qatar insists all are welcome to the country for the World Cup without discrimination.

ARABLOUEI: Some environmental and human rights activists say the reforms have not gone far enough and are calling for a boycott of the World Cup.

ABDELFATAH: And just last week, former FIFA president Sepp Blatter remarked that picking Qatar was a mistake, citing the political pressure around the decision and adding, quote, "it's a country that's too small. Football and the World Cup are too big for that."


ABDELFATAH: That's it for this week's show. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

ABDELFATAH: This episode was produced by me...

ARABLOUEI: ...And me and...










ABDELFATAH: Fact-checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks to Tamar Charney and Anya Grundmann.

ABDELFATAH: And a special thank you to Larry Kaplow, Fatma Tanis, Didi Schanche and Aya Batrawy. This episode was mixed by James Willetts. Music for this episode was composed by Ramtin and his band, Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

ARABLOUEI: And finally, if you have an idea or like something you heard on the show, please write us at or hit us up on Twitter at @ThroughlineNPR.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

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