This month, more than a million people are expected to descend on the tiny nation of Qatar, raising its population by more than 30 percent. The crowds will have one thing in mind: the world’s biggest soccer tournament, the FIFA World Cup.
Since the country was selected to host in 2010, Qatar has been embroiled in controversy, from international concerns about inhumane conditions for migrant workers that allegedly resulted in thousands of deaths, to questions about LGBTQ visitors’ safety in a country where homosexuality can be punishable by death.
But the first Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup aims to show its best to the world during the competition, which runs from November 20 to December 18.
Ahead of the first kick, here are five facts to know about Qatar.
1. It’s hot—really hot
Qatar is one of the hottest places on Earth, with an average summer temperature of 95°F and peak temperatures of 122°F.
As a result of that punishing heat, Qatar’s World Cup is being played in November—most countries’ off-season—instead of the usual peak of summer. But the hosts aren’t leaving anything to chance: though temperatures outside are only expected reach 75°F, energy-efficient cooling systems on the field aim to keep most stadiums to a comfortable 68°F.
Qatar’s scorching heat has gotten worse with human-caused climate change, with a lack of arable land, rainfall, and forests compounding the effects. With a stark rise in temperatures in recent years, Qatar has even resorted to air-conditioning outdoor spaces like sports venues and restaurant patios. In the capital city of Doha, for example, a newly launched air-conditioned running track wafts chilly air into a solar-paneled structure that shades athletes.
2. It’s tiny
Qatar is half the size of the state of New Hampshire. The country’s 4,466 square miles encompass a peninsula surrounded by the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Bahrain.
World Cup logistics this year reflect Qatar’s small size—all of its World Cup stadiums are within 21 miles of its capital’s city center. Over the last decade, Qatar has made big investments in infrastructure to help its World Cup visitors (and its own citizens) get around. The country is about halfway through a long-term transportation plan that includes a new metro system, improvements to its national bus and taxi fleet, and miles of new highway.
3. It’s diverse
Don’t be fooled by its diminutive size: People of many ethnic, lingual, and cultural backgrounds live in Qatar. Though the nation’s official language is Arabic, English is also commonly used, and Malayam, Urdu, Hindi, Farsi, and other South and Southeast Asian languages can also be heard.
Islam is also not its only religion: the nation is home to a sizeable number of members of religious minorities, including Buddhists, Hindus, Egyptian Copts, and followers of the Bahá’í faith.
The country’s diversity is due to the migrants that make up 94 percent of Qatar’s workforce. An estimated seven of 10 Qataris emigrated from countries like India, Pakistan, Nepal, and Iran. The majority of them work in trades or in unskilled jobs.
Qatar has touted its diversity throughout its World Cup bid, but the nation has faced sharp criticism for its human rights record. Workers’ rights groups report that construction workers who built the World Cup stadiums, most of them migrants, have faced discrimination, abuse, and wage theft. And an investigation by The Guardian found that 6,500 migrant workers have died since Qatar was chosen to host the tournament.
4. It’s a man’s world
Qatar has the world’s largest male-to-female ratio, with men outnumbering women nearly three to one. That number has spiked since the 1970s, in part because of its reliance on mostly male migrant workers.
That gender disparity, Qatari laws, and local conservative customs create an environment where discrimination and violence against women has become all too common, according to rights groups. Women must have men’s permission to do things like marry or travel abroad, and in a 2021 report, Human Rights Watch said those male guardianship policies violate both local and international law.
But oppression isn’t the only reality for Qatari women, who have made gains in education, pushed forward civil rights, and will now participate in the country’s political process. This year, women referees will officiate in the World Cup for the first time ever.
5. Its wealth goes back to ancient times
Today, Qatar is known for its money—it’s one of the world’s wealthiest nations, with an estimated GDP of $179.6 billion in 2021. That opulence will be on full display at Qatar’s newly constructed and renovated stadiums—one of which was designed as a temporary facility to be dismantled and reused in other forms. All told, the structures had a reported price tag of $5 to $10 billion, and the 2022 World Cup will reportedly cost a total of $220 billion, dwarfing the past most-expensive World Cup, Brazil’s $15 billion 2014 tourney.
Known for its modern wealth, with one of the world’s largest oil reserves and its generous economic regulations, the nation’s busy economy thrived in ancient times, too.
Because of its coastal location on prominent trade routes, Qatar played a major role in ancient commerce and was home to human settlements from the sixth millennium B.C. Everything from ceramics to pearls were produced and sold there, fueling prosperity. In the 1970s, archaeologists conducted excavations of second millennium B.C. sites on the Qatari Peninsula, where they discovered piles of shells from shellfish and snails—evidence of the production of purple dye (extracted from the animals’ mucus) prized throughout Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
Qatar’s World Cup plans may be modern, but they’ll take place in a historical context ripe with trade and cultural blending—qualities that will only continue to grow as fans around the world turn to Qatar this winter.