DOHA, Qatar (VN) — For most of the day, the peloton is the only piece of color drifting over the ground, a blurred stream of confetti between the sun-bleached earth and the browned horizon.
Transmission lines fence in the sky, and soon-to-be pipelines rest above ground, the waiting veins to transport the natural-resource lifeblood of Qatar. Every day for a week the riders make their way through this place, with the wind pulling and pushing them across the tiny peninsula. For them, it’s a bike race, with flowers and a few smiles at the finish, though no podium girls. But for the State of Qatar, it’s something much more. It’s a billboard, a testament, to the country’s rising strength.
Sheikh Khalid Bin Ali Bin Abdullah Al Thani, the head of the Qatar Cycling Federation, estimated it costs about $12 million to put on the Tour of Qatar, but that the event nets about 18 million euros in would-be advertising expendentures via stories written about the race. All told, about 6,000 articles relating to the event are published each year, he said last weekend.
The main game? Show oil and natural gas extraction companies the country is stable enough for investment. ExxonMobil is already a primary sponsor, but there’s enough to go around. “The image we are giving the sport and the world is confidence in the country, because we are oil and gas and production. Especially gas. And if you are not a stable country, and you are not efficient, then you cannot get the trust of the clients. So what we demonstrate with sport, through this organization, is that we can be trusted to do this,” Khalid told me in Doha on the race’s final day. Qatar is also in line for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, though that event may be in doubt, as reported by The Guardian Sunday, and will host the UCI Elite Road World Championships in 2016.
In some ways the Tour of Qatar and these other events are mere extensions of the country’s wealth, growing from nothing the same way its post-modern skyscrapers appear visceral, arresting fountains of the mineral reserves below. The tour is one more thing a place should have to demonstrate that it’s powerful and capable. Which, at least in terms of resources, Qatar absolutely is.
The State of Qatar has the third-largest natural gas and oil reserves in the world, estimated at 25 billion barrels. Those resources have pushed the country to become the world’s richest per capita. According to Forbes, the estimated gross domestic product per capita was more than $88,000 in 2010, adjusted for purchasing power. That’s almost double the U.S. number.
Of course, the wealth in Qatar is distributed unequally, evidenced by the encampments on the edge of town with laundry slung from the mazes of chain-link fences and the gap-toothed shine of the Doha skyline in the distance. The bike race works its way through all of these spaces. It’s a small country that’s grown incredibly fast; these places that have bloomed from the ground so quickly are more like spatial transactions than cities, with little interaction at the street level. The exoskeletons of museums and colleges wait for their skins, but for now the scaffolding and beams appear only strangely glued toothpicks in the distance.
The riders sit on coolers at start lines in the shade of palm trees and talk to one another naturally. There isn’t much press running around hounding them, and why would there be? We’re in the middle of nowhere. There are tents at the starts and finishes with thick rugs laid down for floors, with men and women in flowing thobes and abayhas watching the school of fish that is a professional race, but between these points of A and B, start and finish, there are miles and miles of nothing at all. Enormous gold chairs for lucky spectators are set out at the finish lines, and men scurry about serving tea. The rural juxtaposition to the urban skyline is enormous. There is nothing for miles and miles but wind and wires. Once finished, the racers and the rest of us tuck back into the Ritz-Carlton.
“For Westerners it’s a different type of place of course, from where we train and compete most of the year,” Orica-GreenEdge’s Brett Lancaster said while sitting on the hood of a makeshift team car, pinning his numbers on. For all the machinations behind this, it is still a bike race in the wind. The actors in this great play are flown in like the rest of us to perform, however difficult the conditions.
“The real positive thing is that you have come in in pretty good condition. If you’re underdone — I’ve done that before and it’s not pleasant. Of course we stay in a beautiful hotel every night, which is nice, and quite good food,” Lancaster said. “We’ve had a great time just chilling out, getting some rays, you know?”
Sheikh Khalid says the Tour has gone swimmingly, and indeed it appears to, another bike race and another vehicle for Qatar to show itself as a place of promise and economy.
“In the United States I meet people and say Qatar, and they say, ‘Tour of Qatar.’ They know it from cycling. They don’t follow World Cup or other things. It has been very, very good for us,” he said. “The people of Qatar have seen what image sport gives Qatar in the world. And they are happy with it. When they go outside [the country] … they feel a pride. A long time ago, if you go anywhere and say ‘Qatar? What is Qatar? Where is Qatar?’ Nobody knows. It’s a little dot somewhere. But now, sport people know Qatar a lot. And that’s confidence for the people themselves … you go anywhere and first off when you come to customs or passport or anywhere, people know Qatar much better than they did before.”
The Tour of Qatar has ended now, and the wind weary racers are on to Oman. The third race in as many weeks in this region of the world starts Tuesday. The cycling world’s brief fascination with tiny Qatar has all but blown away for another year. The state is on to worlds, and construction for the World Cup continues in spite of grave human rights concerns regarding the country’s treatment of migrant workers. The gold chairs will be put away, and when we return, the only thing that will be the same in this ever-changing skyline will be the desert and the wind.