Diplomatic Pouch / February 19, 2015
By Larry Luxner
It’s no secret that the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar has become one of the wealthiest countries on Earth, thanks to its massive oil and natural gas deposits.
Now, Qatar — about a third the size of Maryland — wants to be known for something else: soccer.
Earlier this month, Qatari diplomat Ali Al-Hajri exchanged his business suit for gym clothes as he led a visit to Francis-Stevens Junior High School, located about a block from the Embassy of Qatar in Washington’s West End neighborhood.
There, he ceremoniously presented the school with 50 soccer balls and 500 white-and-maroon jerseys emblazoned with “State of Qatar” logos. The Feb. 10 goodwill event was attended by about a dozen embassy staffers and an auditorium-full of children — most of whom clearly seemed more interested in soccer than speeches.
“Qatar is a small country in the Middle East. We are a great friend to the United States,” Al-Hajri told the kids. “And today we’re celebrating a Qatari holiday called National Sports Day. What’s kind of cool is that we usually take the whole day off just to have fun playing our favorite sports.”
Added the school’s principal, Richard Trogisch: “We were so excited to get the call from the embassy about this amazing donation. We try to incorporate health and wellness programming, and encourage physical fitness among our students. This partnership with the Embassy of Qatar is a major investment, not only in our soccer program, but more importantly, into the long-term wellness of our students. We could not be happier that they chose our school.”
Al-Hajri said that Qataris, who love playing soccer and watching the FIFA World Cup — “the biggest, most exciting event of the year” — will be hosting that all-important event in 2022.
What he didn’t say is that Qatar, the first Arab state ever to win the games, is spending a mind-numbing $220 billion on infrastructure — about 60 times the $3.5 billion South Africa spent to host the 2010 games. That enormous sum includes the construction of half a dozen giant stadiums, as well as elaborate climate-control systems so soccer can be played in the desert emirate’s 115-degree July heat.
But nobody had heat on their minds on this frigid day in February, least of all the kids eager to get down to business.
“Today we want to celebrate our National Sports Day with you, so we brought you some jerseys and soccer balls. This is a little reminder that playing sports is a fun way to stay healthy,” Al-Hajri said. “Hopefully one day, you guys will come see the World Cup happening in Qatar.”