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Meet the Indian ‘team’ powering the Qatar World Cup

As the FIFA World Cup gathers pace in Qatar, Indians are expected to be the largest group of visitors from a non-playing nation—demand for private jets from India have gone through the roof and a one-way ticket from Delhi to Doha could now cost 60,000 or more.

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Container kiosks developed by QBOX Containers & Food Truck

Azeem, however, isn’t a visitor waiting to be mesmerized by the prowess of Lionel Andrés Messi. He has played a stellar role in getting the tiny desert peninsula ready, ever since Qatar won the bid for hosting the 2022 World Cup in 2010.

A second-generation Indian expat, Azeem is the founder of Coastal Qatar, a conglomerate into construction, trading, steel fabrication, and manufacturing. He worked in Kuwait in the 1990s and settled down in Qatar in 2001. Coastal Qatar started in 2005.

For the World Cup, his company has installed 350,000 seats across six stadiums; provided secondary steel for some; built 2,000 toilet cubicles; changing rooms for the players and lighting poles.

Coastal Qatar, today, has 700 employees. “As the demographic balance in the country is maintained through the number of visas issued, we source high-skilled jobs from India due to the availability (of talent). Other workers come from Sri Lanka, Nepal, etc,” says Azeem.

A LuLu store in Qatar

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A LuLu store in Qatar

According to the ministry of external affairs, there are about 750,000 Indians in Qatar, a quarter of its population. They work in medicine, engineering, banking, finance, media as well as in blue-collar jobs such as driving, cleaning and plumbing, among others. Thousands of them, both highly skilled and the semi-skilled, have played their small part in the run-up to the World Cup—in construction, infrastructure and manufacturing. Many of them will continue playing a role over the next 28 days, particularly those working in the services sector, in businesses that cut across hospitality, tourism, retail, logistics and hospitals.

Mint spoke with several Indian expats like Azeem and professionals living in Qatar. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the success of this mega sporting event, one that has courted enough controversy already, partly rests on their shoulders.

About 1.5 million football fans are expected to flock to Qatar over the next one month. But they are a tiny speck considering that nearly half the world watches the World Cup. During the 2018 World Cup in Russia, 3.57 billion tuned in. Qatar will have a point to prove.

The playmakers

In 2010, when Qatar won the bid for hosting the World Cup, it caught many by surprise. The country didn’t really have a tradition in football and the 2006 Asian Games was the only major sporting tournament on its resume. Its stadiums were not world-class; the supporting infrastructure was missing. Moreover, a hot and humid climate was viewed as a major drawback.

Earlier this month, Sepp Blatter, the former president of FIFA, criticized Qatar as a venue in an interview to a Swiss newspaper. “It is too small a country,” he has been quoted saying. “Football and the World Cup are too big for it”.

To be fair, Qatar has come a long way since 2010. The Hamad International Airport has expanded; there is a new metro; new roads; new man-made islands. This infrastructure, however, will be tested as the size of traffic swells during the tournament.

“A lot of the infrastructure—including the new metro and airport expansion—was planned under Qatar’s National Vision 2030 (launched in 2008). The World Cup brought a sense of urgency to these projects,” says Azeem.

Mohamed Althaf, director of LuLu Group International in Qatar

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Mohamed Althaf, director of LuLu Group International in Qatar

Before this World Cup, Qatar had only one FIFA-standard stadium. FIFA stadiums have to meet a host of guidelines including how they are built, the funding, technical parameters such as length and breadth of the field as well as the quality of grass on the pitch.

In the run up to the tournament, Qatar built seven new FIFA-standard stadiums. All this construction required hordes of Indian workers and expertise.

One stadium, the Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium, was built by L&T Construction, a division of Indian conglomerate Larsen & Toubro (L&T). The 40,000-seater, whose façade represents different aspects of Qatari culture, was constructed after demolishing an old stadium—reportedly, more than 80% of the construction material came from the previous structure.

Qatar’s extreme climate underlines the need for cooling technology. Some of this technology came from Galfar Al Misnad, a company led by Satish G. Pillai. “Our landmark projects like Al Bayt Stadium and Doha Metro Red Line North, in association with JVs, have cemented Galfar Al Misnad’s role as an integral contributor towards the preparations for the prestigious FIFA World Cup 2022 and a trustworthy partner in nation building jobs,” Pillai, executive director at the company, writes in a post on its website.

Another company, Popular Electricals & Trading Co., claims to have provided electrical products to all the FIFA stadiums in the country. The company is led by Pattali Appukuttan Lathesh, an executive who started out in 2001 in a “small shop with only a few materials, a capital of Qatari Riyal 2,500, and two workers to assist him…”

Feast kick-off

Mohamed Althaf is a director at LuLu Group International, one of the biggest retail chains in Qatar. He migrated to Qatar from India in the early 2000s and now, employs 6,000—half of them are Indians.

Althaf, who is also a football fan, believes every visitor to Qatar during the World Cup are in for a “feast”. But for that to happen, his chain has to plan the backend logistics really well.

“80% of food is imported in Qatar. Despite the geopolitical crisis, we have kept the food inflation low. This is not because of government subsidies but because we have planned our logistics well,” says Althaf.

Qatar has a data platform that is shared across government authorities, travel portals, hotels and retail outlets. It has allowed the company to plan and stock, he adds.

LuLu has opened seven new express stores that stocks essential food and daily-use items at metros, near FIFA stadiums and fan accommodation venues, all in the last two weeks.

The retail chain also opened two hypermarkets (bigger stores) in the country recently, taking their count to 20. These hypermarkets have shelves dedicated to different nationalities (Koreans, Mexicans, etc); different dietary preferences (vegan, gluten-free, nut-allergies, etc). In addition, LuLu has two modes of online deliveries—LuLu webstore, which delivers in two-three hours, and express delivery for 1,500 essential items within an hour.

All this requires more people working round the clock. The company has increased its workforce by 30% in preparation for the World Cup.

Safari Group, another company in the retail industry, has hiked its stock by 20% at its stores. It is also opening two more outlets over November and December, increasing the total number of outlets to five, informed Shaheen Backer, the company’s managing director. The store timing has been extended from 16 to 18 hours. In fact, the store could stay open for 24 hours if need be, Backer adds. The company employs 2,000, about 40-50% of them are Indians.

Another essential item is medicines. With 92 outlets, Wellcare Pharmacy is one of the biggest chains in Qatar. 13 new pharmacies were opened this year in an attempt to reach all major localities within 15 minutes of driving time. The stock of over-the-counter drugs has been upped by 40%, with an increased availability of covid-19 antigen test kits and condoms, informs a company representative.

Wellcare Pharmacy was co-founded by Asharaf K.P., a pharmacist, in 2000. He is also an executive committee member at the Indian Business and Professionals Council in Doha, a body that tries to boost Indo-Qatar trade.

Meanwhile, an Indian-owned hospital chain, Naseem Healthcare, is in the official list of private facilities suggested for fans by the country’s ministry of public health. In a statement to Mint, the hospital said that one of its branches will be open 24 hours during the World Cup period to cater to health emergencies.

Hospitals in the Gulf region are powered by Indian nurses—Qatar is no exception. Of the 12,000 nurses that work at the Hamad Medical Corporation, Qatar’s principal public health provider, 55% are Indians, says Mini Siby, president of the United Nurses of India-Qatar, an association of nurses. About 1,000 nurses from Hamad will be deployed as volunteers during the World Cup, half of them Indians.

Corners for fun

What’s a World Cup without fun? Some Indian companies want to make sure football fans have a good time beyond the stadium.

Nelson Jos, an Indian, is founder of a destination management company called Travel Designer. He is hoping to handle the travel needs of over 500 people every day during the tournament—from hotel bookings to excursions outside Doha.

Fans at Lusail Boulevard

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Fans at Lusail Boulevard

Fan zones, offering food, music and big screens, have come up, too. One such zone, for Mexico, has been designed by an Indian-led company, ME Visual. “We have about 120 employees; 60% are Indians,” says Richin Abraham, the chief operating officer at ME. The Mexico fan zone is a large pavilion of 15,000 sq metres with three huge screens. It is expected to host 20,000-30,000 people every day, Abraham adds. In addition, his company has worked on the branding for FIFA stadiums as well as for Qatar Airways, creating a mood for the World Cup at these venues, using graphics and lights.

No one will go hungry at these fan zones—QBOX Containers & Food Truck, founded by an expat Indian Nisham Ismail, has helped open 60-65 shops and stalls. The company sells self-standing container kiosks, which could be used as food stalls, shops, and for portable accommodation. Ismail’s clients include Baskin Robbins, Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, and Ikea, among others.

Foul play?

There is glitz, glamour, food, and fun. But there is no escaping the criticism Qatar finds itself trapped in— serious charges of human and labour rights violation; sordid tales of exploitation, racism, wage theft, passport confiscation and many more.

In a recent study, UK-based human rights organization Equidem interacted with 982 workers primarily engaged in building the eight stadiums. It reported significant rights violations in all of them. Over 60% of the workers were Indians. “The most common issues that workers reported were wage theft, nationality-based discrimination and overwork within a larger workplace culture of fear. We also found many instances of forced labour,” says Namrata Raju, India director for Equidem.

Nishad Azeem with staff of Coastal Qatar at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah

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Nishad Azeem with staff of Coastal Qatar at the Al Janoub Stadium in Al Wakrah

Mint spoke to a few workers who narrated their story. They didn’t want to be identified since they feared backlash from their employers and the local government.

“They offered me a high salary, more than double of what I would get in other countries in the region. However, after the first three months, the payments were never on time. They still owe me a part of my salary,” says a construction worker who returned to India after working in Qatar for six years.

Others complained of poor working conditions and long hours. There are reports of workplace deaths and injuries—the numbers are disputed.

When asked about such reports, the Supreme Committee for Delivery & Legacy (SC), which oversaw preparations for the World Cup, has responded saying that Qatar has gone “above and beyond”.

“I don’t think any country can claim to have done as much as Qatar in the past 10 years to improve the working conditions, living standards, and the introduction of minimum wage,” Nasser Al Khater, CEO of the 2022 World Cup, said in an interview to Al Jazeera. The Qatari government has also accused the European critics of being “racist” in their portrayal of the country.

Raju agrees that Qatar has been reforming its labour laws and policies. However, there are gaps in practice, she holds.

Indian business owners Mint reached out to reiterated SC’s stance. “We are not saying that things here are perfect, but there have been significant improvements in laws and enforcement. The negative campaigns in some of the western media is not representative of the actual situation here,” says Azeem of Coastal Qatar.

Now, only a super successful World Cup can drown out some of this criticism. Qatar’s government, and its businesses, will be hoping that Messi, Ronaldo, Lewandowski, Neymar and Mbappe work their magic on the pitch.

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