DOHA CORNICHE, Qatar (VN) — It is the final stage at the Tour of Qatar, and the peloton barrels along the waterfront promenade of the Doha Bay. They’re through the de-saturated desert and into the glossy city now, and Sheikh Khalid Bin Ali Bin Abdullah Al Thani looks on behind sunglasses, sitting in an enormous gold chair. Men bring him, and the rest of the spectators here, tea on gold trays. Khalid is the president of the Qatar Cycling Federation and part of the reason the Tour of Qatar exists. He sat down with VeloNews for an interview.
VeloNews: Are you happy with this year’s event?
Khalid: Yes. We’re very happy with the tour. Considering our timing in the early stages of the year, it’s good preparation for the teams. And since we started the Tour of Qatar, it was always about, “it’s too flat, we don’t have many mountains,” etc. But this is sport. You have to tackle all the different things, yeah? Different countries have different contours. The thing that we have here is strong winds, and it’s open. The desert.
VN: Do you think the local people are excited?
Khalid: Cycling is not deep in the culture here. But it has grown since we started the Tour of Qatar. And the biggest growth happens with the expatriate population. Before we had the Tour, people were hesitating to go cycling on the road, fearing that drivers are not used to seeing bicycles. But since they saw all the professionals riding here, and they are getting good courtesy from the drivers of Qatar, cycling is booming within the community. Especially the foreign community in Qatar, and there are a lot.
VN: Can it be bigger than it is now? Is that the hope?
Khalid: It’s growing bigger all the time. We did not reach the peak yet.
VN: You’re one of the organizers for the UCI Elite Road World Championships, to be held here in 2016. How will that race be? People say, “ah, it’s too flat.”
Khalid: It’s going to flat, but windy. We had a UCI team a couple of days ago. And they were suspicious, talking before they came. “Can’t you do us something, can’t you find a mountain or something?” But when they came here it was a windy day. They saw the race, and said, “We have no problem. The wind is enough.”
VN: Is it always windy?
Khalid: Not always. But because it’s flat, it’s open. You know, you get three or four days of the week with strong winds. It’s different. It’s open here. We don’t have the trees, we have the desert. So the effect of the wind is more.
VN: How much does it cost to put the Tour of Qatar on?
Khalid: It costs about $12 million U.S. Something like that.
VN: And do you feel like it’s worth it?
Khalid: Yes, of course. You see, Qataris have been always supporting Olympic movement, Olympic sports, especially the disciplines in the Summer Olympics. So the money we put into the sport, it’s more than worth it for us. We calculated it in money. We did that. We saw all the articles we gathered years before. All the articles that are written about the Tour of Qatar … we checked how much space all the magazines cost if you advertise. We figured about 18 million euros. Ok? That’s 6,000 articles about Tour of Qatar.
Khalid: Yes. We have it. ASO makes a study every year.
VN: When people see this bike race, live, on TV, in magazines, what do you hope they see?
Khalid: Now 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, that we can be trusted to do this. So the trust in Qatar, it has grown a lot from what we do. Also, cycling community is a special community, and you cannot get to them through other sports, through advertisements. You get to them through their magazines. I have seen that myself. In 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. And also cycling by itself is a very healthy sport for the community. Not talking about road cycling, any kind of riding bicycles.
VN: Are there people who say it costs too much money and you shouldn’t put it on?
Khalid: No. No. We are over this argument a long time ago because 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 know? When you travel abroad, you go anywhere and first off when you come to customs or passport or anywhere, people know Qatar much better than they did before. And you feel much better in yourself.
VN: Thanks for the time.