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AL KHOR, QATAR – NOVEMBER 20: A general view during the opening ceremony prior to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group A match between Qatar and Ecuador at Al Bayt Stadium on November 20, 2022 in Al Khor, Qatar. (Photo by Mohamed Farag/Getty Images)
In praise of Qatar

In praise of Qatar

AL KHOR, QATAR – NOVEMBER 20: A general view during the opening ceremony prior to the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group A match between Qatar and Ecuador at Al Bayt Stadium on November 20, 2022 in Al Khor, Qatar. (Photo by Mohamed Farag/Getty Images)

A well-funded charm offensive is yielding results in Westminster

British MPs who received lavish trips paid for by Qatar’s Foreign Ministry have publicly praised and lobbied on behalf of the Gulf state.

In the run-up to the World Cup, Qatar spent nearly £250,000 on trips and other hospitality, making it the fourth biggest source of cash for MPs – despite a ban on politicians receiving donations or loans from foreigners. 

Qatar’s influence in Westminster focuses largely on the Qatar All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), which acts as an unofficial link between the two nations. 

Last year Doha was involved in ousting Alistair Carmichael, a Liberal Democrat MP, as the group’s chair, in favour of a Conservative, several sources told Tortoise. He was eventually replaced by former minister and Tory MP Alun Cairns. 

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing.

Cairns has praised Qatar, both in a drinks reception and in a Westminster Hall debate in which he focused on progress supposedly made there on hot potato topics like LGBTQ+ rights and workers’ conditions. In recent months the former secretary of state for Wales has also highlighted the “strategic relationship” between the UK and the Gulf state, and the “further deepening of relations”. 

David Mundell, another member of the Qatar APPG and fellow visitor to Doha, noted that despite criticism of LGBTQ+ rights, the UK had its own issue with homophobia, stressing that “we still need to focus on issues at home”.

Just a few weeks after visiting Doha last spring the Conservative MP Bill Wiggin asked then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson to fast-track plans for Qataris to get visa-free access to the UK. 

During the back-and-forth, in which he did not declare the trip, Wiggin said Qataris were “very wealthy people who are unlikely to stay”, adding: “The only people who are turning up turn up in rubber boats. Why can we not get the right people through our immigration system, instead of the wrong ones?” 

Pressed for a resolution within days, Johnson replied that there would be “some pretty fluid to-ing and fro-ing by our friends in the Gulf”.

Wiggin and Cairns were among several Tory MPs to join a UK delegation to the Doha Forum, an annual policy conference, alongside deputy speaker Nigel Evans and Craig Williamson, now Rishi Sunak’s parliamentary private secretary.

There were also academics, military experts, industrialists and others. One source described the group, organised by the strategic adviser Dominic Armstrong, as a collection of “opinion formers” – although the source admitted he had a bad impression of some of the MPs, who seemed to him to be “out for a freebie” and uninterested in the forum.

“It seemed to me they were enjoying the hospitality. Dominic’s brief was to find people who would be future cabinet ministers… But most of the rest of them seemed to be backbench retreads looking for a Qatari sugar daddy.” 

Qatar’s largesse seemed to swell ahead of the World Cup. Two sources say Naweed Khan, a former adviser to Baroness Warsi, appeared to be working for the Qataris on the parliamentary estate. 

One said he had been offering tickets to the football tournament “to pretty much anybody under the sun”. 

While Labour had issued a blanket ban on any parliamentarians attending, at least one Conservative peer (Lord Hannan) and one MP (Nigel Adams) were spotted at the tournament.

Qatar’s increased interactions with parliamentarians coincide with the release of a report warning of a “very real risk” of APPGs becoming conduits for “improper access and influence by paid lobbyists and commercial entities or by hostile state actors”. 

Speaking to the parliamentary standards committee for the report, Alison Giles, director of security for Parliament, warned specifically about the loophole that allows MPs to accept foreign donations.

She told the committee many APPGs would be “actively looking for the kind of support that foreign entities and Governments would be only too pleased to provide—a secretariat that might influence the agenda, funding for foreign visits, guest speakers and so on.”

In case the committee was in any doubt, Giles added that APPGs would be natural targets for foreign spies.

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