- Built from scratch over the past 20 years, Lusail is a monument to Qatar’s ambition and wild excesses.
The World Cup final will take place on Sunday in a giant golden basket of a stadium, located in the middle of a futuristic, $45 billion city called Lusail. Twelve miles north of Doha, it comes with skyscrapers, a university, wide-open boulevards and a marina for luxury yachts–all of it lit up like a petrostate Las Vegas.
Twenty years ago, the entire city was no more than a pile of sand.
“There was nothing there, it was like a dirt road,” said Brian Jennett, an urban planner and architect who worked on the initial designs for the city. “Not everybody is totally confident that any project like this is going to happen when you’re drawing it. One in 10, 1 in 20, 1 in 100 of these things might happen.”
Qatar made sure that Lusail was the one that did. Initially conceived as part of the tiny emirate’s Vision 2030 project, designed to diversify the economy and position it as a global player, Lusail was planned as a tourism hub. But when Qatar won the hosting rights for the World Cup in 2010, the late addition of an 89,000-seat stadium gave the brand new city a brand new purpose.
Now, as it stages the world’s most-watched sporting event on Sunday, Lusail stands as a symbol of Qatar’s naked ambition, rapid modernization and its wild excess.
“Basically, we were building a city from scratch,” Abdulrahman Al-Ishaq, Lusail City’s master planning manager, has said.
Lusail also serves as a foundation for what Qatar might pursue next, now that it has successfully staged a functioning World Cup despite years of unrelenting protest over its views of women, the LGBT population and its treatment of migrant workers.
Though there were a handful of flashpoints in the first week, including security overreaches involving fans with rainbow flags and the abrupt decision to ban the sale of beer in and around stadiums two days before the opening game, the tournament has run more or less smoothly.
Considering Qatar’s ability to build a city from nothing in the middle of the desert in the space of 15 years, it’s hardly surprising that the country was able to stage a 64-game soccer tournament with few operating problems. A new transit system functioned as planned, and Qatar seemed to handle the large influx of foreign visitors who came in and out of the country as their teams rose and fell.
“Thanks to everyone involved, Qatar, all the volunteers to make this the best World Cup ever,” FIFA president Gianni Infantino said on Friday, four years after also calling Russia 2018 the best World Cup ever.
Qatar’s ambitions for Lusail don’t stop there. There are already plans to bring other high-profile sporting events here. The city will stage knockout-round matches in next season’s AFC Champions League tournament and a Formula 1 Grand Prix, while Qatar prepares to host the 2023 Asian Cup and is rumored to be preparing a bid for the 2036 Summer Olympics.
As one of the most rapidly modernizing countries on the planet, run by a royal family with total authority and unimaginable wealth, Qatar is able to invent projects on a scale that few others conceive or hope to pull off. But all that wealth comes with a certain degree of absurdity.
Everywhere you turn in Lusail, Qatar has installed flourishes of extravagance simply because it can. One pair of towers, which houses a luxury hotel, looks like an enormous pair of horns, though the official explanation is that they represent a pair of scimitar swords. A billion-dollar mall, designed to look like Paris, comes with its own canal system and laser light shows every hour. Hanging over Lusail Boulevard is a 98-foot sculpture of a whale shark.
Tourists at this World Cup may have blinked into Lusail’s flashing lights and wondered why much of the city exists. Lusail answered, “Why not?” Even the city’s original planners were sometimes dumbfounded by Qatar’s requests.
While projects like Lusail might look like science-fiction, Qatar isn’t the only Gulf country in the business of materializing futuristic cities out of nowhere. Saudi Arabia, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has begun work on a $500 billion mega-city project on the Red Sea called Neom.
“You work in a realm of imaginative, fantastical ideas,” Jennett said. “That’s when you’re like, ‘Are we right? Or are we so limited by our own experience that we can’t imagine the level of ambition, the amount of money, the chip on the shoulder that they may have [about] being invisible to much of the rest of the world.”
Invisible is one thing Lusail isn’t. Bounded by the sea to the east and the Al Khor Expressway to the west, the city covers some 15 square miles and is built to house 250,000 residents in gleaming new high-rises, many of which are still under construction. In a country where most citizens spend their time driving from place to place, Lusail’s planners envisioned two radical new features: a functioning tram system and wide pedestrian walkways, highlighted by the mile-long Lusail Boulevard, which boasts more than 50 food outlets and was modeled on the Champs-Elysées. It cost more than $350 million.
The expense was almost immaterial to Qatar, which has the world’s third largest proven reserves of natural gas, ahead of Saudi Arabia and the U.S. But the human cost became the biggest stain on the entire project. Human rights groups estimate that several hundred to several thousand migrant workers, primarily from South Asia, died while building projects connected to the World Cup and Qatar’s enormous construction boom. Qatar has said the number of deaths was 37.
“Whether it should be celebrated or not, this is a huge human endeavor,” said Jennett. “They couldn’t have done this 30 years ago. But technologies have advanced, globalization has advanced to a level where it’s now possible. The technical achievement alone, it’s like the space race.”
Lusail wasn’t originally designed for some of the future events Qatar might chase, such as the Olympics. But Qatar has proven over and over again that it isn’t afraid of making drastic and expensive changes on the fly. Fifteen years ago, the stadium hosting Sunday’s World Cup final wasn’t in the city plans at all.
“Nothing is ever completely blank. But this was a bit more of a blank canvas than most,” Jennett said. “This is obviously not the way that cities are built normally.”
(Write to Jonathan Clegg at Jonathan.Clegg@wsj.com and Joshua Robinson at Joshua.Robinson@wsj.com)
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