In a country fighting to gain an identity greater than the oil exports from which it derives so much of its wealth, Qatar is reaching out to football, to cycling and the IOC to transform a desert, into a sporting paradise. But can it ever truly succeed? Al Hinds explores the Gulf state's efforts to date.
There is a highway that runs the length of Qatar, north-south, the A1, an eight lane carriageway that wouldn't be out of place in an urban jungle like Los Angeles. It's a brand new piece of infrastructure, beautifully constructed, with plans to extend and expand it in the coming years.
Why this road was built however is a mystery. Outside of the country's capital Doha it services an infinitesimally small flow of traffic, best illustrated by one's ability from kilometres afar to make out the odd pedestrian slowly loping out to cross. Not a car in sight.
Desert stretches endlessly to one's left and right, and the road really does go to nowhere. Doha holds more than 90 per cent of the Qatari population, the towns around it, are haphazard collections of houses, many abandoned or in severe disrepair. Only a short while ago these towns were the cogs of a Qatari economy based around fishing, now they are little more than artefacts.
The existence of the A1, resourced by the country's vast oil wealth, juxtaposed by these towns serves as a symbol of what the country wants to become versus what it currently is. A flashy show with little substance, an ongoing conflict of identity the country is doing its best to wrestle with.
Not that it can be faulted for trying to churn its black gold into a future for its people - but trying to make the desert grow, seems a certain contradiction. Then again, most things in Qatar and in the Gulf are. Nonetheless, as in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, the UAE, that is the end goal.
If there's any consistency to Qatar at all it's that unnecessary largesse and doing things most wouldn't think are logical, are par for the course. If there is a will for something to happen you can rest assured it will not only be done, but done in a way in which no expense is spared. Foreigners, who now make up close to 80 per cent of the local population, have flocked to the country chasing their piece of the pie.
Sporting events have not resisted the allure either. The 2016 UCI Road World Championships, 2022 FIFA World Cup, MotoGP, even the Olympics is being mooted as Doha bound at some time in the future. This all despite the reality of Qatar's geography which I can't underline enough, is a desert. Not that it seems to matter.
It's unclear whether when Eddy Merckx, the brainchild of the Tour of Qatar, suggested, perhaps innocently to Qatar Cycling President Sheikh Khalid bin Ali al-Thani he should put on an event in the country, he was being serious. The idea seems even now, a little half-baked. A country with no culture of cycling, suddenly the host of a professional event. But Merckx is a wily man, and must have had some inkling that the Qataris are open-minded. After a little over a year of planning the event was launched for the first time in 2002.
There are a lot of reasons, even now that I think having an event in Qatar is ill-advised. It doesn't draw a crowd; deserts as it transpires do not make very good viewing locations. Qataris don't engage with the sport or participate. I've been in Qatar a week now and seen just one bike that wasn't involved in a race. It was ridden by a British ex-pat. It's hot, lacks scenery for a television audience, is an automobile Mecca, and is dead-flat.. I could go on.
Beguilingly, it works. The cross-wind, echelon racing have made the event a must for the cobbled classics stars preparing for February, March and April. The super highways, like the A1 that are deserted by the cars they were built for, are a boon for cycling races. Forget about road closures, Qatar has constructed a cycling playground without even knowing it. The country goes out of its way to provide for the race in every way possible, and pays substantial fees to broadcasters to put the race on television. Qatar has even, as of 2009, supported a women's race. Oh yeah, and the riders like it.
I'm not sold on how the event helps to grow sport in the region or for that matter globally. As far as I can see, there's little relationship between the two. The decision to have a world championship in Qatar for me is thus a mistake. But the Tour of Qatar, a race put on with the total support of authorities and unlimited resources is a breath of fresh air at a time when such things seem, in cycling and around the world, scarcer than ever.
Yes, there's little underlying the Tour, little substance, little foundation. The race itself, a veneer that distracts one from what the place it runs through actually is. But does that even matter? Not in Qatar.
The Tour is an extension of the country as a whole, a concept that shouldn't work, but does, a puzzling contradiction. It's a place that seems to constantly enable the impossible. And at least for now, a place that cycling needs.
Alex Hinds is in Qatar courtesy of Amaury Sport Organisation.