WHILE the eyes of the world are on Qatar, and football fans from across the globe pour into a country that is more than seven times smaller than Ireland, Wexford woman Rachel O'Connor, her husband Luke and their two children Liam (3) and Conor (1) were headed in the opposite direction.
With Doha becoming quite busy, the two schoolteachers decided to depart Qatar, their home for the past six years, for a visit back home to Ballygarrett in Wexford before World Cup fever took full hold.
However, watching on from the sidelines at the global spectacle and the coverage it is receiving in Western media, Rachel can't help but feel angered by the way her adopted homeland is being perceived.
"I definitely feel that the coverage of Qatar and the build-up to the World Cup has been really unfair," she said. “I think everybody living there, including expats like us, are annoyed about the press coverage. A lot of our friends are unfollowing accounts on social media etc because they’re simply reporting lies.
"I read one piece the other day where a man said he had to walk six miles in the blistering heat to get a beer. I know exactly where he was and I know he was less than five minutes from a hotel where he could’ve got a beer.
"It is very annoying for expats living out there seeing this coverage. Look, Qatar is not a perfect country, but they are trying to improve. No country is perfect. Some of the coverage around the World Cup feels incredibly harsh.
"Qatari people are great hosts. They’ve introduced free public transport for the football; free healthcare for those attending etc. They are really trying and I feel for them seeing them unfairly shunned in the papers by people telling lies. I can say that they're telling lies because I live there and I know.”
As our neighbours England took on Iran in the Khalifa stadium, they did so just up the road from where Rachel and her family call home. She says that the work done in advance of the tournament was major, in terms of creating new parks, adding greenery, resurfacing roads etc.
However, this work and the work on the stadiums came with a very human toll. While the data is difficult to properly ascertain, it’s been estimated that more than 6,500 migrant workers from the likes of India and Pakistan have died in Qatar since World Cup preparations began, the inference being that it came down to appalling working conditions on these construction sites.
"You see migrant workers on the building sites when you're out there," Rachel says. “You can see that they work very hard, but then it looks like any other building site I've seen anywhere else. I’ve never seen anything untoward. I know that in the really hot weather they don’t work and they’ll work at night etc.
"I think some of the figures that are being thrown around in relation to migrant workers are way off. They factor in all migrants who died while in Qatar, no matter what the cause of death is. I've been told that by expats who work in healthcare.
"I don’t know the exact conditions that the migrant workers are working in. All I know is that I've never seen anything untoward and they just look like normal building sites.”
Other issues which have taken centre stage are women's and LGBTQ rights as Qatar as a conservative Muslim country implements its own strict rules.
"When we moved over there, we knew the rules," Rachel explains. “Also, it helped that we were married. In general, public displays of affection are not tolerated, but within the hotels (where you can also drink) holding hands or a peck would be tolerated.
"It wouldn't be tolerated for myself and Luke to kiss in a public mall, for example, so in a way, the same rules apply to gay people. I’d have gay friends in Doha who have had relationships over there and while it's illegal, they don't actively seek out gay people. The attitude is more or less ‘don't put it in our faces’. They are big on marriage in general though and they don't really want to even see unmarried heterosexual people living together.”
The availability of alcohol has been another major off the pitch talking point at the World Cup, but Rachel says it's not something that's been a massive issue for her and her husband in their six years in the Middle East.
"Every hotel has drink,” she explains. “So essentially, wherever you go, there is a hotel or a mall. You won’t be able to buy alcohol in a mall. As Qatari residents, we have an alcohol licence which entitles us to buy alcohol in a specialised shop and bring it home for personal use. But every hotel has alcohol and you'll find people wearing Western clothes.
"If I was going to a shopping mall, I'd kind of have to have down to my knees covered and then a t-shirt or something. It’s not massively strict as long as you’re not wearing like a small string top or something. Then in government buildings, you’d have to make sure your shoulders and knees are covered and as a teacher I’d be expected to dress like that in work too. It’s not a big deal.”
Despite these cultural differences, Rachel says that Qatar is an extremely safe place and resents the image of it as being unsafe for women.
"Doha is one of the safest cities in the world. You could leave your handbag in the trolley in the supermarket and go off to a different aisle and nothing would happen. It’s unfair to describe it as being unsafe. It's very safe. Even more so maybe because of the rules around drinking. My neighbour brought her two children to the England game (v Iran) and they had a great time. She felt completely safe. Would a woman and two children feel completely safe going to a football match in other countries?
“Qatari people can come across a bit abrupt because of the language barrier, but they are very generous and kind people. They are very well educated. A lot of Qatari people study abroad and bring those experiences home with them and there’s a lot of expats, so it’s a real mix and things are changing there too.”
While the debates around human rights and cultural differences have been as loud as those around what’s happening on the pitch, Rachel is hopeful that as the World Cup continues, people will maybe see a different side to the host nation.
"There are a few fans coming out and describing a positive experience over there now,” she said. “Hopefully we’ll see more of that. It's early days, but all of the footage I’m seeing and reports from friends etc is that it’s very safe and things are going very well.
"It is different in Qatar. They are trying to keep their own culture but also trying to keep up with the times. That's a difficult balance. But some of the coverage and decisions not to cover the opening ceremony are bordering on bullying.”
In the meantime, Rachel, Luke, Liam and Conor will be watching on from afar with family and friends as the World Cup unfolds and will be hoping that the Qatar national team can get a win or two under their belts for those back in their adopted homeland.