Kuwait’s ghost stadium prepares to breathe new life

CNN  — 

It was built to be Kuwait’s definitive sporting landmark – a palatial replica of Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium located in an actual emirate.

But since its completion back in 2007, Kuwait’s 60,000 capacity Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium has been little more than a vacant white elephant.

In stark contrast to the many ex-Olympic and World Cup sporting landmarks that have gone derelict following a fleeting crowd rush, the national stadium of this Gulf Arab monarchy of roughly four million has only ever hosted one senior level match since opening.

The curious lack of activity has turned the mammoth steel structure into a symbol of bureaucracy and a penchant for silence on hot topics in the region. Whispers on the culpability of the stadium’s closure have been plentiful (mainly to do with structural problems), while definitive public statements have been scarce.

“It’s a sad story; it’s a work of art,” Louay Al-Kharafi, a board member of Kharafi Group, the industrial conglomerate tasked with building the stadium, told CNN from his office in downtown Kuwait City.

Kharafi Group won the bid to build the stadium back in 2004 for a relatively paltry $189 million (by contrast, Emirates Stadium in London was completed in 2006 for $650 million). The company operates in over 25 countries and had a hand in the build out of South Africa’s 2010 World Cup.

“Nothing structural is wrong with the stadium,” said Al-Kharafi, while remaining adamant that no construction errors were committed by his team, nor had they ever faced any lawsuits over the construction of the stadium levied by the government. In fact, he said, the stadium has been ready to go all along.

“It’s simple; if there is a fault in the structure, just ask the contractor to fix it,” he added. “No one asked.”

Yet there has been open talk in Kuwait since November 6, 2010 when 58,604 people filled the grounds to watch the final of the 2010 Asian Federation Cup (won by Syrian club Al-Ittihad – still the only officially sanctioned match ever played on the pitch) that a few of the stadium’s support columns had been cracking.

In January, CNN visited Jaber Al Ahmad Stadium and had a tour of its facilities, led by Khalid Bonashi, the stadium’s security chief whose glass-paneled office offers dramatic field-level views of the architectural gem, designed to resemble a traditional dhow fishing boat from a distance.

With a bright blue sky overlooking the pitch, empty seats fanned across the horizon, save for the odd maintenance crew member. A fervent Arsenal supporter, Bonashi recalled his tour of Emirates Stadium in north London, when he paid special attention to features like its public announcement system, digitally triggered turnstiles, and luxurious directors’ box.

Back in Kuwait, Bonashi added enhancements of his own, including a phone ticketing application, rail bars in front of each level of seating to tackle crowd control (not uncommon in Europe), as well as a grand VIP concourse complete with a golf-cart custom ordered from the United States to roll dignitaries onto the pitch for special occasions.

The original drawings called for an elevator to descend the cart onto ground level from the VIP hall, however, despite the presence of a large-enough shaft, the plan was scraped.

Although he may not have been privy to investigative results, Bonashi considered the facility safe enough to host matches at the time, maintaining that rumors were at fault for crowds avoiding a February 2013 stadium-hosted attempt to break the Guinness World Record for a human flag.

The stadium has been closed to the public ever since.

Indeed, on that brisk winter day, everything in the stadium – from the perfectly manicured natural grass, to the fine sand on the athletics long jump box, to the clear water in the hydro-therapy pool, and the sparkling blue carpeting in the VIP box – looked immaculate.

While touring the complex, two cracks underneath the pedestrian walkway that circles the stadium were pointed out. It was clear that the columns had been worked on, perhaps to test their strength, and subsequently fortified. Whether those columns were at fault for the stadium’s closure – or whether something else was to blame – was entirely unclear, however.

“We’ve examined those cracks,” said Al-Kharafi. “We broke down the cracks (to check) the steel and it’s sound and safe.” Al-Kharafi noted that structural integrity tests were carried out with the cooperation of government agencies, and that they had all passed. CNN was not able to verify the test results.

With hardly any knowledge of what’s transpired, and a glaring reminder of the stadium’s fate at every drive to the outer edges of the expansive 6th Ring road highway, Kuwait’s public reaction has been a mixture of dramatic interpretation, shame and outrage.

“They’ve let these rumors fly,” Waleed Mohammed, a 46-year-old civil engineer employed in Kuwait’s Ministry of Public Works, said about government officials. “They haven’t done enough to answer the public’s suspicions.”

This, despite repeated enquires over the years by Kuwait’s democratically assembled parliament, and investigations launched by various government agencies, including the Kuwait Institute for Scientific Research (KISR).

KISR’s report – which was never released publicly – affirmed that cracks existed in a number of support beams, according to an October, 2013 article in the state-run Kuwait News Agency quoting the man in charge of running the stadium, Faisal Al-Jazzaf, head of the country’s Public Authority for Youth and Sports.

Progress, however, does appear to be imminent – with a target opening at the end of the year, according to Kuwait’s minister of information Sheikh Salman Al-Sabah.

Al-Sabah’s recent parliamentary announcement preceded a tweet from Kuwait’s football association that it would host the 2016 Gulf Cup of Nations, which kicks off in December – an opportunity seized when slated host Iraq pulled out in February.

Indeed, works are underway, according to Bonashi, who spoke to CNN by phone last week. “Yes, they are working on the stadium and making preparations,” he said, adding that Kuwait’s Combined Group – a rival construction company to Kharafi Group – is facilitating the repairs. “The mood is good; everything that is demanded, they are working on it,” he said.

Requests to speak to a representative of Combined Group were not returned.

Bonashi added that the onus of the project had been transferred to Kuwait’s Amiri Diwan, or the office of the royal court, often a last resort to cut through red tape by circumventing routine parliamentary questioning.

“It’s the trump card that got things rolling,” said civil engineer Mohammed, who expressed his relief that the “national embarrassment” would soon be ending.

Repeated requests by CNN to interview a representative of the Amiri Diwan were declined.

Over the years, derelict sporting facilities have littered the world’s former Olympic and World Cup hosts, including Sarajevo (1984 Winter Olympics), Athens (2004 Summer Olympics), South Africa (2010 World Cup), Brazil (2014 World Cup), and most recently, Sochi (2014 Winter Olympics).

Incredibly, the grounds outside of Brazil’s $550 million Mane Garrincha stadium in Brasilia had recently been used as a bus terminal, according to NPR.

Critics have argued that regional neighbor Qatar’s 2022 World Cup stadiums will face a similar fate, although initial designs called for the new stadium’s upper tiers to be removed and donated to Africa.

For Jaber Al-Ahmad International Stadium, however, the activity trajectory can only point upwards.

Despite all the red tape and ambiguity over the past nine years, the white elephant in the sand may well have an opportunity to raise its head at the Gulf Cup of Nations in December.

Its next task, however, will be ensuring that supporters come along for the ride.