DOHA, Qatar (AP) — The outspoken CEO of Qatar Airways lashed out Thursday at critics of his country hosting the upcoming FIFA World Cup, saying his nation will “always rub salt into the wound” of its adversaries.
Akbar Al Baker’s comments show the increasingly confrontational stance of Qatari officials as the start of the tournament approaches on Nov. 20 and as the spotlight on the small, energy-rich country intensifies. Already, some nations and soccer teams have expressed concern over how Qatar manages its vast population of low-paid migrant workers and its stance on LGBTQ rights.
Speaking from Qatar’s vast Hamad International Airport as officials unveiled an expansion there, Al Baker made a point to note it had taken Skytrax’s Best Airport Award from Singapore Changi Airport in the last two years.
“We always rub salt into the wound of our competitor, and of course, our adversaries, as you can see the measure of the negative media campaign against my beloved country Qatar,” he said. “Because people cannot accept that a small country like the state of Qatar has won the world’s largest sporting event.”
He added: “Congratulations to Qatar, my beloved country.” Some officials attending the news conference clapped in response.
His combativeness continued into a brief two-question news conference. Later asked about how the airport would transform to handle the influx of World Cup visitors, Al Baker responded: “I do know why this question is being asked because there have always been rumors against the capacity we will be able to handle.”
Al Baker, who long has served as Qatar Airways CEO, has made controversial comments in the past, including suggesting that women can’t run airlines and for calling American carriers “crap” and that their passengers were “always being served by grandmothers.” He later apologized for both remarks.
However, his hard-changing, confrontational approach carries into negotiations with manufacturers and others. Qatar Airways is now involved in a lawsuit with Airbus over its claims that its long-range Airbus A350s are seeing their fuselages “degrading at an accelerated rate.”
Both Hamad International Airport, a $15 billion airport that opened in 2014, and its former hub Doha International Airport will be handling incoming flights for the World Cup.
Al Baker said Qatar Airways, one of the major Gulf airlines that benefit from connecting East-West travel, had cut out 18 destinations from its schedules to allow for additional flights coming into Doha. He said authorities expected over a million people to pass through the two airports during the tournament.
“We have already made sure that all the capacity that are involved with extra flights and charter flights meet the maximum capacity per hour of each of the two airports,” Al Baker said. “So we are very well positioned in order to cater for this very large influx of passengers.”
Al Baker spoke at an event marking an expansion at Hamad International Airport, which he said will grow its capacity from 40 million passengers to 58 million. He said he hoped future expansions would grow it to handle 75 million passengers. That expansion includes The Orchard, an indoor tropical garden with 300 trees and 25,000 plants, as well as a large water feature.
A similar indoor garden is at Singapore Changi Airport, a design that Al Baker previously accused that airport of stealing from Qatar. Officials at Changi Airport have dismissed the allegation and its Jewel garden, complete with an indoor waterfall, opened in 2019.
“We don’t want it to be the biggest hub in the world,” Al Baker said, a nod at nearby Dubai International Airport, the world’s busiest for international travel. “But we in Qatar always look at quality. And this is what we will deliver.”
Gambrell reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.