Twenty years ago, I arrived at an airport in the middle of a desert peninsula in the Persian Gulf. The arrival hall was basic, not one to remember, and the duty free consisted of one room with items piled up on the floor. The passport control officers were unfriendly and the customs agents scrutinized every item of luggage. As I remember, there were only one or two decent hotels and little traffic on the road.
Qatar was engaged in a wasteful, low-intensity war with Bahrain over a few patches of sand in the sea. My first thought was why the Qataris can’t learn a thing or two from Dubai, which was in the birth pangs of a historic economic revolution.
Ten years later, I arrived in Qatar again, this time invited by the ministry of tourism to attend the country’s first ever tourism festival. I was met at the airport by a polite representative from the company hired to showcase Qatar’s tourism potential. The streets were new and had been planted with trees to break the monotony of the desert landscape. The group included a German designer with a posse of stunning Polish models. He told me that this is the new frontier in fashion. “I’m here to get into the market before anyone else,” he confided. I was still not convinced.
A decade later, Qatar launched its latest campaign, one that was seen on television stations around the globe: “Proud Sponsors of the 15th Asian Games … The Games of Your Life.” One would have had to be living in a monastery not to have seen it. I was surprised and impressed by Qatar’s aggressive approach. Then came the phone call asking me to cover the games. Qatar and I were hooking up again.
At the end of November, I once again landed in Doha and like everyone involved with the games – athletes, organizers and journalists – was ushered into a private terminal, greeted by a member of the games’ organizing committee. I was given accreditation, put on a bus and shuttled to an apartment complex, which would be my home for the next 15 days. I was also given meal cards, a locker key and a bagful of souvenirs. Buses to the various sporting venues ran like Swiss (or Japanese) watches and as a photographer, my access to each event was planned with precision.
Never in all my 25 years of covering the Middle East and Africa as a photographer had I seen such meticulous organization. The Qatari’s had retained the international know-how of the people who brought us the Sydney Olympics to ensure these games were the best ever.
Twenty years ago, or even ten years for that matter, I would have never imagined that Qatar, built on a peninsula of sand, could have pulled-off such an extravaganza. During the 15 days a total of 13,000 athletes from 39 countries competed in 45 disciplines. There were 1,700 journalists – 400 of whom were photographers – on the ground, covering the games. The Qataris had also hired hundreds of Indian computer engineers to patiently attend to our technical needs. They worked quickly and efficiently and did not get flustered. It was yet another example of the professionalism that underscored this event and proof of what can be done with vision.
Granted, Qatar had the money to blow and will have made a loss (attendance at most venues over the 15 days was far from bulging). But what a loss-leader! Yes, there were rumors that tickets were purchased well in advance by the ruler and given to students (schools were closed during the games) and guests so that the stands would look full for the TV cameras. Nevertheless, there was energy and a will to make these games the catalyst and benchmark for future sporting events. It’s no secret that Qatar wants to host the Summer Olympic Games in 2016 – even though it might be a tad hot.
Lebanon, my erstwhile home, has been given the honor of hosting the 2009 Asian Winter Games. It offers yet another opportunity for Lebanon to take center stage and showcase its own diversity. But for the Winter Games to be successful, Lebanon will have to put away its divisions and learn a thing or two about unity and brotherhood by watching how athletes from different countries with different beliefs can come together in competition.
As for Qatar, well it knew where its priorities lay. The barren peninsula has become an example of what the Middle East can achieve. Qatar had demonstrated it is a global player. It had arrived. It made its choice and is beat the drum of economic progress. It has chosen investment over conflict and growth over blinkered ideological stagnation.
And don’t write them off as hosts for a summer Olympics. They will surely find a way around the heat.