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A coup at Claridge’s: Qatar’s quiet move on London

A coup at Claridge’s: Qatar’s quiet move on London

A tiny Gulf state has bought up some of Britain’s prized assets. But at what cost?

Date commissioned
30 May 2022

Date published
27 June 2022


Why this story

What do the Shard, Harrods, Chelsea Barracks, and the Olympic Village have in common? It’d be correct to point out that they are iconic London brands. But they share something else: they all, in some way or another, belong in part to the Qataris. The tiny emirate of Qatar – which will soon host the World Cup – has, for some time now, been on a spending spree in Britain. It has stakes in Sainsbury’s, Barclays bank, and the company that owns Heathrow airport. Its stake in the Canary Wharf Group means it owns great swathes of central London. And then there’s Claridge’s. In the grand dame of the hotel industry, the most English of institutions, the Qatari elite are fighting a private battle with a Belfast-born hotelier. We want to ask: is there a price to Britain’s openness towards the Gulf state? Xavier Greenwood, producer and reporter

Transcript

“Excellencies, dignitaries, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends, fans of football around the world, representatives of the media, it is indeed a great day today…”

Host announcement, 2018 and 2022 World Cups

Paul Hayward, narrating: It’s December 2010. Zurich.

I’m in a conference hall waiting to find out who will host the 2018 and 2022 World Cups.

The room is buzzing with anticipation.

Prince William, David Beckham and David Cameron are in the delegation of England’s Football Association. They’re lobbying to bring the 2018 World Cup to England. Australia and the USA are hoping to get 2022.

Sepp Blatter, then president of Fifa, the body in charge of world football, takes to the stage. 

He opens the first envelope.

“2018 Fifa World Cup, ladies and gentlemen, will be organised in Russia.”

Sepp Blatter, World Cup host announcement ceremony

Paul Hayward, narrating: Then, the second.

The winner to organise the 2022 Fifa World Cup is Qatar.”

Sepp Blatter, World Cup host announcement ceremony

Paul Hayward, narrating: Later that evening, Vladimir Putin sweeps into town to celebrate Russia’s win.

His huge security detail steers him into our press conference room.

And I ask Putin what he expects Roman Abramovich, at the time Chelsea football club’s owner, to contribute to Russia’s World Cup planning? 

“He could pay for a stadium,” Putin says, pointing at Abramovich, who swivels in his chair to scowl at me.

It was a revealing interaction. But, at the time, I didn’t think much of it.

All eyes were on Qatar: a shock winner, and the first Arab nation to be given the World Cup.

That day I thought Russia and Qatar’s winning bids were about all they had in common.

But a pattern was emerging. Both were already shaping Britain’s economy, politics, and skyline. Russia, noisily, but Qatar with less fanfare.

We’re now counting the cost of the UK’s relationship with Russia. But what about Qatar, the tiny Gulf state that owns many of London’s landmark properties and has huge stakes in British businesses?

Are we making the same mistake again?

*

My name is Paul Hayward and for the past 30 years I’ve worked as a sports writer.

But this week I’m going to tell you a story about a very English institution.

Claridge’s, the grand dame of hotels, where a man called Paddy McKillen, a charming old school hotelier from Belfast, has been quietly shown the door.

Paddy McKillen has scuffled with difficult billionaires before, but now he’s facing his most formidable opponent: the Qatari elite.

This is a story about how the Qataris make being rich look effortless, but don’t like being challenged.

Dana Vachon: It’s interesting to think of it as Paddy McKillen against a sheikh. It’s not that. The Qataris are very sophisticated investors.

Paul Hayward, narrating: It’s about a country that has used its wealth and power to dampen controversy about the World Cup, embed its royal family in British life and apply leverage in climate change issues.

Compared to Russia, we don’t talk much about Qatar’s influence. But Britain is helping them achieve their aims.

From Tortoise, this is… A coup at Claridge’s: Qatar’s quiet move on London.

*

In the West End of London, just off Hyde Park, sits Mayfair, the most expensive square on the Monopoly board. A place of world-class restaurants and Savile Row suits, leafy squares and high-end art galleries. Fast cars… and small dogs… line the streets.

Peter York: There’s every sort of luxury. And very little provision for ordinary stuff. Where do you buy a bag of sugar? Everything is about decking yourself out to show what a very, very big banana you are.

Paul Hayward, narrating: But to find the essence of Qatari power in London, the statement the country is trying to make, you have to head to a triumvirate of Mayfair hotels: Claridge’s, The Connaught and The Berkeley.

All owned by Qatar’s Maybourne Hotel Group. Places most of us will never enter.

At the corner of Brook Street and Davies Street stands the finest of the lot. Red brick, stately and elegant, Claridge’s is decked with the flags of dignitaries who are staying there.

Katherine Hepburn, Winston Churchill, Madonna, Marlon Brando. A who’s who of the rich and powerful have passed through its doors. Its penthouse suite costs £100,000 a night. 

There aren’t many who can claim to really know the ins and outs of the 210-year-old hotel. A notable exception is Peter York.

Peter York: I mean, I haven’t got back to my Claridge’s bar habit, which was always nice.

Paul Hayward: And expensive. 

Peter York: No doubt – and expensive.

Paul Hayward, narrating: He’s best known for The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, which he co-authored in the early 1980s, a riotous style guide that tracked the social movements of well-heeled Londoners. 

He’s been going to Claridge’s for decades.

Peter York: I love walking through the front door of Claridge’s. As you go up those first set of stairs in what presents as a grand Edwardian commercial building there’s deco decoration with leaping fawns and so on to either side.

And then you come into that hall, which is rather delicious – and has black and white tiles and so on. And in the winter, a “roaring fire”. And then there’s the tea room beyond, which has been silvered up to high heaven in the latest decoration.

And then to your right, there’s a corridor that takes you to that nice bar, which is at the corner. And to your left is a corridor, which takes you along to the ballroom. And in that corridor there are glass cases showing… luxury goods.

Paul Hayward, narrating: An oasis in a chaotic city, Claridge’s exudes calm.

And for almost a century that was the case behind the scenes too. Reliably old money, it was owned by the family of the theatre producer Richard D’Oyly Carte. 

But in 1998 it was sold to two American private equity funds and then in 2004 to a moneyed band of Irish investors. That’s when everything changed.

Dana Vachon: If you look in my Vanity Fair piece there was another investor who I think spoke off the record. He said: “Paddy’s a real Belfast Catholic.” And I said: “What’s that?” And he said: “Paddy, he’d work every day he could. And if God gave him an eighth day, he’d work on the eighth day.”

Paul Hayward, narrating: This is Dana Vachon. He’s a novelist and journalist, some of whose family comes from Ireland. 

Back in 2014 he was granted a rare interview with a man called Paddy McKillen. He met him at the Chateau Marmont, a hotel on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.

Dana Vachon: We had a nice table and I think there were French fries involved. He wore a beautiful… I think I have a picture of it somewhere… claddagh ring with beautiful emeralds on it, that shone in the California light I thought quite beautifully. And, you know, as an American, you’re used to seeing these claddagh rings that maybe someone bought while drunk in Boston or whatever. And this was not that. This had been designed by some very talented people. He was wearing a visual reminder of his Irishness. And it was a very wealthy Irishness.

Paul Hayward, narrating: Paddy McKillen was brought up in Belfast during the Troubles. His family owned a chain of shops called DC Exhausts. They sold mufflers, the devices that reduce the noise from car engines. He left school at 16 and left Belfast too, escaping sectarian conflict for Dublin. 

In the 1980s and 1990s Paddy McKillen quietly built a real estate empire.

He became friends with Bono – the lead singer in U2. 

And in 2004 he added the crown jewel.

Teaming up with a Dublin stockbroker, the creators of the hit musical Riverdance, and the wealthy Green family, Paddy McKillen and a businessman called Derek Quinlan outbid a Saudi prince to buy a string of London hotels. 

It was a snap decision for Paddy McKillen. 

Here he is discussing the deal with the Italian journalist Alain Elkann.

“I was offered this project on a Wednesday and it had to be closed by the Friday. I made the decision instantly and we closed the project on a Friday. And I got on the flight from Dublin on the Saturday and I hadn’t even had time to visit the hotels that were ready to buy.”

Paddy McKillen, interviewed by Alain Elkann

Paul Hayward, narrating: Among them were the Berkeley, the Connaught, and, yes, Claridge’s.

Elkann: “What is special with Claridge’s?”

McKillen: “I think the history and legacy. You know we’ve found letters in our archives where Queen Victoria was here visiting Prince Eugenie. We find those handwritten letters in our archives. So this goes back generations, where amazing people stayed here. So we want to retain that legacy and build on it.”

Paddy McKillen, interviewed by Alain Elkann

Paul Hayward, narrating: Dana Vachon sensed the new owners’ relationship with that history.

Dana Vachon: I think to understand Claridge’s, you have to understand the British empire, right, as a trading empire always really runs through corporations. So the outposts of that empire are going to be these business hotels.

So that for me was the model of Claridge’s. And also it was really the thing that you had to understand about its significance in Irish eyes. The Irish were the experiment lab of colonialism. There was no getting around that.

So for these guys to take Claridge’s meant that they had achieved… one of them even said… this was the impossible dream. Now these were business people. So they didn’t view it in these historical terms, but really what they were talking about was something that symbolically at least affirmed the chance of an escape from history. It was a huge deal for them.

Paul Hayward, narrating: But the Irish dream soon turned into a nightmare.

Four years after the consortium bought Claridge’s, the financial crash hit and the age of the Celtic tiger was over.

Paddy McKillen’s money was safe. He’d diversified his investments. But his main business partner, Derek Quinlan, was left in dire straits. 

The British billionaires, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, came to Quinlan’s rescue and then tried to take over the hotels. But they didn’t reckon with Paddy McKillen.

Dana Vachon: The thing that got him in trouble was caring so much about the asset that everyone else’s decision making model would assume that he’d tap out because he should just care about his cash returns.

Paul Hayward, narrating: Paddy McKillen kept up the fight and in 2015 a white knight came to his rescue. 

“Qatar has reportedly added to its collection of luxury London hotels, after buying Claridge’s, the Berkeley, and the Connaught, from Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay.”

Levant TV news clip

Paul Hayward, narrating: The Barclay brothers were ousted and a group owned by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund struck a deal with Paddy McKillen.

McKillen would sell his stake to the Qataris – and in return he would be in charge of the redevelopment of the hotels in Mayfair. And then in 2022 he would be in line for 36 per cent of their increase in valuation.

While he waited for his deferred benefit, which would accrue seven years down the line, Paddy McKillen busied himself trying to secure his big payout.

He added new layers of opulence to Claridge’s, several of them underground, inspired by the Cu Chi tunnels dug by Vietnamese farmers outside Saigon. 

He set about developing a sprawling, astonishing penthouse suite, complete with ornamental lake, grand piano and landscaped garden.

He was, it seemed, well on the way to a fortune in 2022.

McKillen: “Every penny I spend here, I create in profit, I get my 36 per cent.”
Elkann: “So how is the situation now?

McKillen: “Amazing.”

Elkann: “You are also running…”
McKillen: “I’m the sole manager. Chairman, dogsbody, everything. I’m the chairman.”
Elkann: “So you work for the Qataris too?”
McKillen: “Yeah, well, I work for the company.”
Elkann: “So you’re also an employee of the company?
McKillen: “Not an employee. It’s more of a consultancy agreement.”
Elkann: “But you’re the solo boss?”

McKillen: “100 per cent. I’m the dictator [laughs].”

Paddy McKillen, interviewed by Alain Elkann

Paul Hayward, narrating: But little did he know… even after his saga with the Barclays… that his troubles were only just beginning.

David Roberts: I’m David Roberts, I’m an associate professor at King’s College London, adjunct faculty at Sciences Po and a few of the bits and pieces beside. But I focus on the Gulf – I have done for a long time – on politics, security, foreign policy. 

Paul Hayward, narrating: Qatar, as we know it today, isn’t a very old country.

But its relationship with the UK stretches back centuries. 

In the 1800s when Qatar was ruled by local sheikhs, it was a staging post for British merchant ships. It was a bit of a backwater.

David Roberts: The Brits didn’t care about the Gulf in any meaningful worship or form. It was a means to an end and the end was India. And then, of course, if we, Britain, had a foothold there, then some other terrible alternative imperial power couldn’t have a foothold there as well. So there was that kind of sentiment.

Paul Hayward, narrating: That all changed with the discovery of oil.

David Roberts: Early 20th century the Gulf begins to take on a new importance as this black stuff is found in prodigious quantities.

The Gulf transitions like no other place on earth, from these really hard scrabble, tough fishing, pearling, communities. And this miraculous thing just emerges from the ground and the new importance is there.

Paul Hayward, narrating: In 1916 Qatar became a British protectorate controlled by the empire. Then, 55 years later, it declared independence, and began growing into the state it is today.

David Roberts: The defining feature of Qatar is that it has a population around the size of Wolverhampton. Nothing against Wolverhampton, but it’s not many people.

Paul Hayward, narrating: Qatar’s total population is in fact several times bigger than Wolverhampton. Just under 3 million. 

But only around 300,000 are Qatari citizens. 

David Roberts: It is an exceptionally wealthy country, probably, by far, the richest per capita state in the world, because it’s got this enormous gas field that it shares with Iran.

Paul Hayward, narrating: It sits in a precarious position in the Arabian peninsula that connects Asia and Africa.

And how it dealt with that position changed in 1995 when the grandfather of the current emir – the ruling monarch – was usurped in a palace coup by his own son.

David Roberts: How to secure Qatar is, you know, the key question of all leaders.

How do you do that? When you’re this really small little state, you’ve got this enormous behemoth, Saudi Arabia, on one side. You’ve got Iraq to the north. You’ve got Iran just across the water. You share a gas field with them. It’s a tricky spot to be in. So how do you do it? The grandfather’s approach was through anonymity.

“We will hide ourselves under the auspices of Saudi Arabia. We won’t put our head above the parapet.” That is how we will do it. And that’s a coherent approach. We’ll try to avoid all the problems. 

But Hamed bin Khalifa, who is the father of the current emir, he had a fundamentally different answer to that question. He did not want to hide. He wanted Qatar absolutely and profoundly in the limelight.

Paul Hayward, narrating: Qatar opened itself up to the world.  And in 2005, enriched with oil and gas revenues, it set up a sovereign wealth fund to exploit that income. 

By then London was already awash with foreign money. Deregulation by Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s had opened the floodgates. 

Dr Susan Hawley: The Big Bang has really been the main government agenda of successive governments. The basis of them all is to open up Britain as much as possible to foreign capital, often with very few questions asked, and to make things as easy for business as possible.

Paul Hayward, narrating: Dr Susan Hawley is the executive director of Spotlight on Corruption, a charity that monitors how the UK enforces its anti-corruption laws.

Dr Susan Hawley: In any policy making, you have to balance the interest of making life easy for business and making sure that the public and the public interest is protected. And that is the delicate balance, which I think some people feel wasn’t got right during that period. And leading up to the financial crisis, we saw the fruits of that or the chickens coming home to roost.

Paul Hayward, narrating: The 2008 financial crisis was an opportunity for Qatar to save the day.

Barclays Bank raised £4 billion from Qatar at the height of the crash and the country still holds a 5 per cent stake. 

Qatar also stepped in to bankroll the Shard development in London when the financial crisis was putting other skyscraper projects on the back burner.

Prince Andrew opened the tower standing next to the Qatari prime minister.

“This is going to give this quarter of London a huge new boost and I hope that people that will come and work here and live around here will truly appreciate not only the hard work that the entire team have put together but also they’ll recognise the relationship and investment that has been put in by both the UK and Qatar.”

Prince Andrew inaugurating the Shard

Paul Hayward, narrating: The prince even abseiled down the building for charity.

“There’s a lot of psychobabble about this sort of thing but all you have to do is to get out of the safety line and sit down.”

Prince Andrew after abseiling down the Shard

Paul Hayward, narrating: Men about town, like Peter York, saw a new kind of wealth come to the city.

Peter York: The Gulf states’ taste is shiny. The Gulf states’ taste both in interior design and clothes involves a lot of gold. The ladies like a lot of jewelry.

Paul Hayward: So not much hipster chic.

Peter York: Not much hipster chic. In fact, no hipster chic at all.

Paul Hayward, narrating: You can find a video online of a Qatari royal driving the streets of London in a five million pound Bugatti. Passersby take pictures of it as it growls. The car is flown in and it’s flown out again.

But these flashes of opulence are a distraction. 

Because Qatar’s wealth in the UK is institutional.

Xavier Greenwood, who’s been reporting this episode with me, has been getting to grips with it.

Xavier Greenwood: So I don’t think I ever really realised just how much Qatari money was in the fabric of London.

I think it’s probably worth saying first of all that Qatar isn’t the only Gulf state to have spent a lot of money on UK assets. So, Saudi Arabia… UAE… those are just two of the places which have also invested a lot. 

I think Qatar is probably the most ostentatious of those states.

So the Qatar Investment Authority… that’s the sovereign wealth fund… It has stakes in Sainsbury’s, in Barclays, in the London Stock Exchange, and in the company that owns Heathrow Airport.

It also owns Harrods, the biggest department store in Europe.

“The world-famous department store is now being sold for a reported figure of £1.5 billion. Mr Al-Fayed who also owns Fulham football club is selling it to the Qatari royal family.”

On Demand News clip

Xavier Greenwood: It’s also the joint owner of the Canary Wharf Group. There were newspaper reports back in 2017 that it owned more of London than the Queen. 

Some of the Group’s developments include the Walkie Talkie building and One Canada Square. You might recognise One Canada Square – it’s a massive skyscraper in Canary Wharf – and it’s been featured in the Harry Potter and the James Bond movies.

Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund also has a real estate arm. 

It not only financed the Shard in 2008, it also bought Chelsea Barracks.

In 2009 it bought the US embassy building. And in 2011 the Olympic Village.

It’s also involved in a development in Elephant and Castle and in Lewisham in south London.

And then there’s also One Hyde Park. 

Now One Hyde Park is fairly incredible. So it’s probably one of the most exclusive addresses in London. 

The complex has bulletproof glass, it has panic rooms. The guards there are trained by British Special Forces. Last year the penthouse went on sale for £175 million.

One Hyde Park was developed by a property company controlled by the former Qatari prime minister. He’s a guy called HBJ. 

One other thing that’s worth noting here.

The Sunday Times reported that in 2015 HBJ gave Prince Charles millions of euros in cash. Some of it was reportedly packed inside a suitcase and inside bags from Fortnum & Mason, the posh department store.

The money was a donation to the Prince of Wales’s charitable fund. Prince Charles’s representatives say all the correct processes were followed. 

Overall, Qatar has invested tens of billions of pounds in the UK economy. 

That’s obviously pretty amazing to me. 

I suppose what’s more interesting is what the Qataris have chosen to invest in: these are iconic British brands, including Claridge’s, of course.

Paul Hayward, narrating: Now the last time you heard about Claridge’s, remember, Paddy McKillen was hoping for a big payout.  

The Maybourne Hotel Group, which includes Claridge’s, the Berkeley, and the Connaught, had been sold to the Qataris.

Paddy McKillen would renovate the hotels, and then in 2022, seven years after he struck his deal, he’d get a load of cash – 36 per cent of the increase in valuation of the hotels – the fruits of his success in turning luxury assets into super luxury assets.

Paddy McKillen and the Qataris were a team.

And McKillen’s fate, it seemed, was in his own hands. 

*

But now it’s 2022.

And Paddy McKillen is not so confident.  

It’s payout time and he thinks the hotels have shot up in value, partly because of his renovations. 

He believes he should be owed £1 billion – or more.

Sources close to him say he just wants a fair price – they have suggested that the hotels could be valued at more than £5 billion.

But the owners of the Maybourne Hotel Group – that is the Qataris – are understood to contest McKillen’s valuation. 

And they’re unlikely to back down. 

These hotels are known in the trade as, “palace brands”. They’re way above five-star status. They’re where heads of state like to stay, and guards of honour are common for royal arrivals. One insider told us the Gulf states will “always fight” to own these bastions of privilege.

In April, the fight hotted up.

According to McKillen’s camp, he and his associate Liam Cunningham were removed from the board of Maybourne hotels, they say, without warning. Neither is believed to have been at the meeting when the decision was taken.

The two sides began to threaten each other with legal action. 

McKillen’s camp claim he was barred from the Maybourne hotels and told he wouldn’t be allowed to talk to guests or staff.

They also say Cunningham’s staff e-mail account and phone were disconnected.

We asked the Maybourne Group to put their side of the story. They refused to comment.

*

“Sheikh Hamad, thank you so much for joining us. In addition to your government title, you’re also a very prolific investor. So I want to start there…”

Qatar Economic Forum

Paul Hayward, narrating: It’s worth dwelling a little on who Paddy McKillen is fighting. 

He believes it’s a man known as HBJ.

“Well as you know people say the economy has changed after Covid…”

HBJ speaking at Qatar Economic Forum

Paul Hayward, narrating: His full name is Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani.

A father to 15 children, he was Qatar’s prime minister between 2007 and 2013 – during which time he oversaw the sovereign wealth fund. 

He wielded enormous power: Qatar’s previous emir is reported to have said that while he ran the country, HBJ owned it.

Just listen to the introduction he receives at a conference in Europe.

“This is a man who is legendary for many reasons. When you think of Qatar today, you think of the richest country in the world, you think of a country with enormous resources, you think of a country that is trying to punch above its weight to host the World Cup. That Qatar was created by Hamad bin Jassim, our guest.”

Introduction to HBJ at Yalta European Strategy conference

Paul Hayward, narrating: You might recognise his name from a little earlier, because he was one of the people behind the luxurious One Hyde Park development. 

HBJ is thought to be one of the richest men in the world and he’s the figurehead for many of Qatar’s London acquisitions, even though he is no longer in charge of the country’s sovereign wealth fund and no longer serving as prime minister.

He is, by all accounts, a daunting opponent.

*

This summer two major banks will value the Maybourne Group at current market rates. 

If they disagree, a third will adjudicate.

It’s a nervous wait for Paddy McKillen, who could end up with nothing.

I asked Dana Vachon, who covered Paddy McKillen’s last big fight with the Barclay brothers, whether he thought a legal defeat would destroy him.

Dana Vachon: No, because he’s fought. My experience with him is that he’s a person who has his own code. He’s presided over an incredible renovation of those hotels. He regards them like museums and they are. I think in most, in most outcomes he’s coming out of this as one of the great hoteliers of his generation and not a broken man at all.

Paul Hayward, narrating: Paddy McKillen can probably afford to lose. But he’s desperate not to.

And it’s easy to see why the odds are stacked against him.

In May, the emir of Qatar visited the UK. 

Just hours before seeing the Queen in Windsor Castle, he came to Downing Street to chat with Boris Johnson.

Number Ten uploaded a video of the meeting – complete with inspirational music.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to welcome our old friend, my friend, his highness, the emir of Qatar. And it’s a friendship that is very, very historic, but is also developing now very fast – and we have a huge amount to do together.”

Boris Johnson in Number Ten Youtube clip

Paul Hayward, narrating: The emir promised a further £10 billion of investment in the UK economy. 

“As you know this year is a special year – we are going to be hosting the World Cup. We’re very happy that we’re going to unite the world after this pandemic for the last couple of years. And I invite the prime minister to come and see the World Cup.”

Emir of Qatar in Number Ten YouTube clip

Paul Hayward, narrating: That announcement felt routine. Parliamentary debates have placed the value of Qatar’s stake in the UK at around £40 billion. And rising: Qatar is high on the list of the government’s desired trading partners post Brexit. 

And Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has only strengthened Qatar’s hand. 

Its abundant supply of liquefied natural gas has given it even more leverage over Britain, and means that Qatar’s energy minister can play kingmaker.

“We’re really investing into the UK heavily to make sure that you have ample supplies in the future. We’re only making you bigger as a capacity holder if you will and we look to supply the UK with LNG for a very long time – us and others.”

Qatar energy minister on Sky News

Paul Hayward, narrating: Qatar’s close relationship with Britain’s politicians extends far beyond energy needs. 

Records show the all-party parliamentary group – or APPG – on Qatar has received £220,000 worth of trips and hospitality from the state since the start of last year. 

If you’re not familiar with Westminster lingo, an APPG is a group representing a particular interest of MPs.

MPs have visited Doha to discuss preparations for the World Cup and some have enjoyed Qatari hospitality at Goodwood races.

And Qatar appears to be more than just a passive actor in parliament.

Alistair Carmichael, a Liberal Democrat MP, used to be chair of the Qatar APPG. 

But a member of the committee told me Qatar’s foreign ministry wanted a Tory chairman ahead of their World Cup to provide a direct link with government. The Qataris got their wish. 

Transparency campaigners called the change an example of parliamentary groups being “hijacked”.

I talked to Alastair Carmichael, who played down the importance of Qatari lobbying.

He told me that if you go to a foreign country as a guest of the government then they will pay for the flights – sometimes in business – and the accommodation. He said what was important was that it was transparent. 

He argued such trips didn’t give Qatar any particular advantage, beyond the fact that MPs have a better understanding of the country because they’ve been there and seen what’s happening for themselves. 

*

Whatever you think of that defence, Qatar and the UK have an almost symbiotic relationship.

Qatar Airways repatriated 100,000 Brits during the Covid pandemic. 

Over 1,100 UK companies operate in Qatar. 

British universities have built campuses in Doha. 

And UK firms have helped in the construction of Qatar’s World Cup. 

The formation of a joint UK-Qatar squadron of fighter jets, which will patrol the skies at that tournament, is perhaps the best symbol of how the two nations are entwined.

But there’s still a lingering question.

What does Qatar seek to get out of its investment in some of Britain’s most iconic institutions?

We put that question to Dr David Roberts, the professor you heard from earlier.

Dr David Roberts: Historically the investment kind of side of things hasn’t lacked the due diligence. They don’t have a fast stream of tens of thousands of the brightest and best, as it were, coming together and applying to the civil service. They just don’t have the numbers. So you need to find shortcuts and you can find trusted individuals. ​​If you are one of these extremely wealthy Qataris who has lived in London for a very long time, these sorts of links are really important.

Paul Hayward, narrating: It’s about more than practicality though. It’s about the image Qatar wants to convey.

Dr David Roberts: I asked someone in the QIA many years ago why Qatar didn’t invest more in China. And the response was something verbatim, like, why would you want to go to the depth of China to kick the tires, when you are spending two or three months in London over the summer, when you can just pop down to Claridge’s, as you say, or wherever it is? I think it fits their overall branded portfolio of luxuriness, without a doubt. They don’t do things by halves to be flippant about it. 

Paul Hayward, narrating: And about pleasing its citizens too. 

Dr David Roberts: Qatar is not a democracy in any meaningful way. And so if you are spending the people’s money, notionally that’s what it is, of course, then is it better to spend it doing some complex derivative scheme that no one knows? It might make more money, I guess, but no one really knows it – or to say “Harrods”, “the Shard”, “Claridges”, or whatever it is.

I really think that’s important, such that Qataris are quite pleased that their little state, their microscopic state, owns Harrods, the world’s most exclusive shop, in one of the world’s leading financial centres.

Paul Hayward, narrating: Dr Susan Hawley from Spotlight on Corruption thinks it’s right we interrogate the motivations of Qatar and other major investors in Britain.

Dr Susan Hawley: I think what we should care about is whether this branding is about reputation washing – and whether having your name across a big tower in London is all about making people blind to whatever… human rights abuses, kleptocratic, autocratic…

You don’t see the Norwegian sovereign world fund plastering – or maybe you do – but I haven’t seen it plastering Norway all over London because maybe it doesn’t need to watch its brand, you know?

That is the side of Britain that acts as a massive laundromat for reputations that I think is most concerning and we should care about. I think we should be thinking, what is the kind of Britain we do want to live in? 

Paul Hayward, narrating: And let Peter York, that doyenne of London’s golden acres, spare a last thought for Claridge’s.

Peter York: I don’t think it does help London have this wealth because it’s living on borrowed money and it’s living on borrowed time. It’s politically compromising and actually erodes the appeal – the international appeal – of some of our iconic spots. Now in the case of a very nice hotel, like Claridge’s, they’ve been at some pains not to turn it over to a golden marble land, but it has been scrubbed up like mad recently. Going back to Claridge’s recently, everything has been done up to the nines. That faint pleasant decay, as some people call it, isn’t there anymore.

Paul Hayward, narrating: Qatar and Russia are not synonymous in their influence on British life.

From Russia came riches plundered from the commanding heights of the collapsed Soviet system – from minerals, steel, oil and gas. 

Qatar’s money is sovereign wealth – on the face of it, more fairly earned.

But wealth on this scale buys enablers and it generates political influence in Westminster, malign or not.

London’s skyline looks very different when you know that many of the most famous parts have become Qatari brands – tools of future-proofing.

You may not care whether Paddy McKillen wins his private battle to be paid what he claims he’s owed. The rich fighting the rich can feel like a sideshow in a cost of living crisis. And with or without McKillen, Claridge’s may well last for another 210 years.

But there’s a reason why this dispute matters. 

Because the might of Qatar – their desire to annex so many London landmarks; their toughness behind closed doors – raises important questions: who owns the UK, what is it being used for, and are they playing fair?

In 20 years, Londoners could inhabit a kind of “Doha 2”, as somebody involved in the war over Claridge’s called it. 

The wake-up call over Russia didn’t end British acquiescence. It’s happening on a much grander scale – but more quietly – with Qatar.

This episode was reported by me, Paul Hayward, and Xavier Greenwood. It was produced by Xavier Greenwood, the sound designer was Tom Burchell and the editor was Jasper Corbett.

How we got here

I’ve been a sports writer for three decades, but it wasn’t until 2010 that Qatar hit the headlines in sport. In a conference hall with Bill Clinton, Prince William and David Beckham, I watched Fifa award the 2018 World Cup to Russia. And, then, the 2022 World Cup to Qatar. Russia’s tournament was a showcase for Vladimir Putin’s brand of nationalism. Trains, planes, hotels and stadiums functioned well. Moscow was still westernising, we thought. We know how that turned out. 

In November it’s Qatar’s turn to host the World Cup. Plenty has been written about human rights abuses in the country in the lead up to the tournament. But the British government has been obediently quiet. In fact – in May – Qatar’s ruler received a warm welcome from Boris Johnson and the Queen. Why is our relationship so cosy? The answer, surely, is money. In this week’s Slow Newscast we investigate a battle inside Claridge’s, an English institution, and try to unpick how Qatari wealth is shaping Britain’s politics, economy – and skyline. Paul Hayward, contributing editor


Past reporting

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