Doha, Qatar – People wait patiently in long queues in a barren, dusty area behind a metro station in Doha for a taste of delectable fried chicken from a well-known Saudi Arabian fast food chain.
In the run-up to the World Cup 2022 in Qatar, Al Baik rolled in with four food trucks, setting up shop behind the Messila metro station in the capital.
The menu is limited but the queues are serpentine. It takes 20 minutes to get to the counter where you can place your order, and an additional 30 minutes before you can get your hands on their famous broasted chicken and a side of fries.
Broasted? That’s chicken that has been well-seasoned in secret spices, rolled in batter and then pressure-fried, with the moisture nicely locked in.
Even though there is not much to choose from, the customers are happy, their excitement only building as they approach the pick-up counters.
The atmosphere is festive. People are singing songs and waving flags despite the presence of traffic wardens to maintain order and cones to ensure everyone stays in line. Security guards encourage those waiting to be patient, telling them the food will be worth it.
What’s all the fuss about?
There has been great anticipation since Al Baik posted videos showing their food trucks leaving for Qatar ahead of football’s biggest international event, which kicks off on Sunday.
Residents could not wait for the trucks to arrive, find a suitable parking spot – which is always an issue in Qatar – and open for business.
Doubly eager were those who had experienced the food in Saudi Arabia, especially during the Umrah and Hajj pilgrimages. The Umrah to Islam’s two holiest sites in the cities of Mecca and Medina can be undertaken at any time of the year, the Hajj takes place once annually.
For others, who had never tasted Al Baik’s food, but only heard about the hype from friends and colleagues, it was something new to savour and look forward to.
“I have no idea what it tastes like but I saw videos on TikTok showing big crowds so I thought it must be good,” Mohammad Subair, from India, tells Al Jazeera as he patiently waits for his turn to order.
There is only one item on the menu: A chicken nuggets meal. Subair’s wife and young son look on as he orders a mix of spicy and plain meals from one of the six men working behind the numerous counters.
Fried chicken? Check. What’s next?
Mohammad waits by the barricades as his friends collect their orders. He is a civil engineer from Sudan, but a football fan above all.
He has snapped up tickets for several matches, bought the jerseys of his favourite players and attended the test event for the FIFA Fan Festival as he ticks off activities on his checklist. Al Baik is one of them.
He is eating this famous chicken for the second time, and has an important question for the food company: “Why did they have to wait until the World Cup to bring it here?”
The answer lies partly in the Gulf crisis that began in June 2017 when Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut all diplomatic and trade ties with Qatar and imposed an air, land and sea blockade. It lasted three-and-a-half years with the four countries accusing Qatar of supporting “terrorism” and claiming it was too close to Iran.
But the borders have now opened to allow Saudi residents to enter Qatar and be a part of a tournament that all of the Arab world now wants to call its own.
Arab world’s first World Cup
“This (Al Baik’s opening) a sign that this World Cup is going to be beneficial for every country in the Middle East,” says Asad Shaikh, who works in IT support for the tournament’s organising committee.
He has just returned from Saudi Arabia after a quick trip to Mecca, where he first tried Al Baik.
He’s happy to report that the chicken tastes the same on both sides of the border.
As he answers a video call from his family in India, he pans the camera to show them the groups of men and women, big and small families cheerfully walking away with bags full of chicken.
Zayd Al-Jaber, who has been to the chain’s outlets in Saudi Arabia and Dubai, says the queues are not going any time soon.
“I have seen the craze for this chicken everywhere. Even pilgrims going to Mecca and Medina make a trip to Al Baik a part of their itinerary. It seems to be a part of their pilgrimage.”
Coming back for seconds
Sara Abed, who is from Palestine but has lived in Qatar all her life, is here with her mother, aunt and cousins. After finishing their second Al Baik meal in two days, the women stay on to chat about the World Cup and what it has brought to Qatar’s residents besides football action.
“For families who are not going to the matches, there are still so many entertainment options to choose from,” says Sara’s aunt, Eeman, and the women nod in unison.
The only problem, they say, is that Qatar has never dealt with crowds of this magnitude and that is where it could go haywire for the organisers.
Yet, despite some apprehensions, the general mood among residents is one of pride, and a sense of ownership for an event they have helped put together in some way.
The food trucks definitely add to the entertainment options for residents, tourists and football fans as Qatar gets all dressed up for the event.
Workers taking a break from their shift say that Al Baik will make its presence permanent and bring the full menu in two months. They expect the queues to only get longer.