It has been overlooked so far in the middle of so many other urgent issues, but the state of Qatar is currently facing a ticklish existential question. Here is another standard-issue jaw-dropping fact about this place. Climate scientists have estimated that by the year 2070 Qatar will no longer be fit for human habitation. Wait. What?
Lodged between two seas, deprived of greenery or waterways, Qatar is warming at an alarming rate. At the same time Qatar produces more carbon per citizen, for export and domestic use, than any nation on earth. Here is a place that is basically sitting on a pile of gold, while simultaneously gnawing its own legs off. The end of the world? It’s on the check-list. The Supreme Committee is aware of your interest.
The answer, it seems, is to build new worlds. Welcome to Lusail, Lego-city of the gods, venue for Qatar’s World Cup final three weeks from now, and surely one of the strangest places on earth.
Walking around Doha there is a general sense of pastiche, of parody-castles conjured out of the air. Andy Warhol would love this place, would probably say something pithy about it, like all the realest things are fake-real, or real-fake. And Warhol would love Lusail most of all, a plastic city built for a hypothetical populace, $45bn (£37bn) in the making, a kind of super-Croydon, as designed by the god of fire.
This is a planned city, built wholesale from scratch, and coloured with a mimetic sense of humour. Lusail has a replica Place Vendôme. Lusail has a fake Beverly Hills (still under construction). There’s a fake Champs-Élysées, and a fake Rimini further down the way just past Entertainment Island, south of Entertainment City (opening date TBC).
Look at it for long enough and Lusail also explains a couple things. First, why Qatar actually has the World Cup in the first place. And more to the point, why Qatar, for all its mind-boggling dictator-state modernity, should not be seen as a distinct and separate world. This is not an alternate universe. Come to sunny Lusail and find something that seems, in many ways, highly familiar. First, though, the future shock.
Walking into town past the Iconic Stadium, venue for the World Cup final, you wind down Lusail Boulevard, pipeline to the heart of the city. In a World Cup week it is peopled by a trickle of awed tourists, a mix of Saudis, locals and football-shirted huddles, with a vague sense of some frontier adventure in train, astronauts discovering the Eiffel Tower on an alien beach.
The Boulevard is an amazing thing, a vast, gleaming causeway of perfect surfaces, electrified with sound and light, modelled on the Champs-Élysées, but the Champs-Élysées as reimagined by the members of Kraftwerk in a peyote trance.
Here is a vast gloss-finish colonnade. Here are looming mirrored edifices on both sides. Giant golden pepper grinder towers rise at its end point, because, well, why not? Shiny motorised wild-west carriages wait for someone who wants to ride in a shiny motorised wild-west carriage. Here is an enormous pristine Chuck E Cheese, seductively lit but also empty and sealed, the only sign of life in an orderly row of rat traps.
It is a perfect city-scape, albeit one that after about 50 metres becomes pretty much unbearable, an overload of the senses. The piped music is inescapable. Vast scrolling screens carry Stalinist-scale Neymar watch adverts. And as you struggle on, lost in this urban TikTok world, something else keeps happening. Gusts of cold air surge from the pavement gulleys, freezing your ankles. Of course, of course. The municipal authority of Lusail is forcibly cooling the streets. This is how we, humanity, will fight climate change. Crank the dial. Let’s air-condition the world.
Late on Saturday morning a blaze will break out in one of the towers of Lusail, sending a cloud of black smoke above the skyline. The future, it seems, is on fire. But don’t look up. Enjoy the high-spec present. As they say on the Qatar 2022 Supreme Delivery Committee: Now Is All.
And later that evening, speeding along the marbleised esplanade towards the lights of Winter Wonderland, a machine voice can be heard emerging from some hidden grill. “Please go back. You are out of the approved zone. Please stay in the approved zone.” It is a fair point well made. We are some way from the approved zone out here. Supercharged by Qatar’s’s despot-ball World Cup, a new world is being built. But for who?
The official version of Lusail is more prosaic and more reasonable. Qatar first announced the plans for this place in 2005, billing it as “a sustainable lifestyle and community … a haven that is set to attract the world in the coming years”. It is now close to being finished, arching all the way around what was once an empty bay, from The Iconic at one end down to the marina, the esplanade, the man-made islands, the distant Parisian domes.
Lusail is a place foreigners can buy (very expensive) Qatari real estate, most commonly on a 99-year lease. It will eventually host 450,000 people, 250,00 of them its privileged residents, the other 200,000 service people and workers. Lusail is building 36 new schools, a giraffe zoo, water parks and promenades, much of it designed around a mimesis of the old world, a post-modern Milton Keynes of the hyper-rich.
It is also beautiful, of course, and crammed with grandiose creative design. In the distance the outline of a vast metal whale shark sculpture floats above the boulevard, lashed on thin steel ropes. The giant shark in the sky is there to indicate (of course), Qatar’s total commitment to preserving wildlife and ecology. It hovers, dream-like, lovely, menacing.
And at the end of the boulevard are other walkways, other genres. At the end of the boulevard is, in fact, a surprisingly good Elvis impersonator, flanked by a peppy band and serenading a small crowd of street sweepers and tourists about the perils of stepping on his blue suede shoes. “Mmmmthangyverrymuch,” Elvis says, then launches into a lavish, deliciously melodic version of It’s Now Or Never, those fat sweet minor chords filling the empty air.
Further down there is a kind of ziggurat made from huge Rubik cubes and ringed by giant white swing pods. The heat by the water is soft, every surface bathed in red-blue light. Across the bay a mountainous roller coaster is being built. Crisp new football flags stand erect. A sculpted World Cup sign spells I Heart Qatar. Senses flushed, swooning a little, you feel the tug of the sweet, sweet, sports-washing.
Across the deserted bay Lusail Proper looms. There are cars here and people on the walkways, although most seem to be present to serve the people who don’t yet exist. Bugsy Malone-style open-top stretch limos idle. Five basking policemen whistle at a lone jaywalker. The lampposts evolve into curlicued ironwork. And entering the Vendôme through vast sliding doors beneath golden fake stone buttresses, a transition takes place.
Inside this is just another entrance point to the global luxury shopping-verse. The halls are patrolled by squadrons of security men. The dancing fountains at its centre are ringed by fancy eateries. As the sun dips the lights fill this place with gold. It is frankly incroyable, habibi. A large sign on one wall reads There Can Only Be Beautiful Things to Look Forward To. An encouraging thought. But is it true?
Because this thing is also unnerving. There is wealth and life here, but also the sense of a sealed world, an arc in the desert on a planet of eight billion people. Lusail’s public literature keeps using the word “sustainable”, which is an interesting notion. And now I am become Death: builder of vast and decorative shopping malls.
And yes, death does keep coming up around here. At Yacht Club tram station on the bay a sign reads “Football is a culture of peace and respect of human rights”. Next to it is a 24-hour hotline number to Qatar’s National Human Rights Committee. It is tempting go give it a call. “Hello? Is that the NHRC? I’d like to report the unexplored deaths of up to 6,500 migrant workers… Er… Hello…?”
Qatar’s World Cup development is an engineering miracle. But this is also a guilty miracle. As night creeps in along the lighted seafront, the loudest noises are the clanks and bangs from inside a darkened skeleton skyscraper. Is it falling down? No. This is the sound of people working, hammering this place of panels and precast blocs together, and with plenty of human waste along the way. The migrant workers haunt this place, ghosts at the feast, shadows on the edge of your vision at Qatar’s gleaming stadiums.
Very few things have ever been built on this scale and at this speed without human suffering. The Fifa president, Gianni Infantino, would like us to ponder three thousand years (is this right?) of European colonialism before even considering unionised rights and working safety standards for people building a needless vanity project right here and right now.
It is a nonsensical line from a despot’s glove puppet. Infantino spent his opening speech at this World Cup lambasting the power hungry elites in service of his own power hungry elite. His every public utterance is like having both ears violently syringed with a solution of walnut oil, amour propre and corporate lies.
And yet, and yet, and yet, there is of course a kernel truth in Infantino’s line of half-thought. There is a strong feeling at this World Cup, taking in the corruption at its source, the repressive laws of its host nation, the absurdity of its basic existence, of simply shouting and pointing at something opaque. And just as Lusail may be startling , as it is intended to be, the othering of Qatar is to be resisted. In fact, look closely and there is a kind of clarity in its more extreme notes.
For one thing it is hard not to be wowed by this new build city, to like it. Someone has to make something new. Why not this? And new things are always strange. There is also the fact the frantic development of Lusail and indeed this World Cup is born out of security threats. This play-place for the global rich is also a form of ballast against regional power grabs. Qatar was until recently a very small spot on the map, keeper of the world’s third largest energy reserves.
Football, sport, investment, the building of Lusail. This is all about connecting to the world, not so much to be liked, as to be respected, to be a player. Fifa is now on site. Qatar has ultimate visibility.
And beyond that Qatar is not, when you look more widely, some kind of rogue state peopled by a different kind of human being. In fact, the best way to look at it is perhaps as a very literal-minded and efficient expression of the forces at work across every other modern state. Qatar just does it wilder, harder and without apology. It is a reductio ad absurdum of the idea of supremely wealthy overlords, of the surveillance state, of an underclass of workers, of increasingly repressive laws, of the global carbon addiction. Do any of these sound familiar? In many ways Qatar is like your furiously able and efficient younger colleague; who has essentially looked at this, learnt the mannerisms, and said, yeah, we can do that.
So Qatar builds its Venice and its Paris on the fly, crams a hundred years of growth into a decade, without the cultural flora and fauna to hide its workings. Here it is doing the same thing with the World Cup. OK, we can have one of those. It’s going to be massive. Just like yours. This is the message of Lusail, and of the vast and echoey Iconic Stadium, a kind of warning from the future. Welcome to Winter Wonderland.
At the end of the bay the lights melt into the sea. Enormous shiny cars crawl along the double lane highway and turn back. This part of town is not empty. There is an industry of the World Cup here, some early settlers, native joggers, tourists luxuriating in the dreamy glaze of this waterfront Narnia. As the land ends past the Wonderland the scooter motor clicks off, extended beyond its range. Please go back. You are out of the zone.