[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered UK relations with Qatar.
I begin by declaring an interest as a participant in two delegations to Qatar. The first was in 2010. I was privileged to participate in the Forum on Democracy, Development and Free Trade. For whatever reason, I found myself pushing Princess Diana’s stepmother around in a wheelchair as we looked around a museum. It was a wonderful trip.
In February this year, I took part in a parliamentary delegation sponsored by the Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During that visit, I had the honour of meeting His Highness the Emir and leading Government Ministers. No one who was on the delegation is in Westminster Hall at the moment, but they were a splendid collection of colleagues. If we were in a hot air balloon and someone suddenly had to be ejected, I would be very loth to choose any of them. They were splendid colleagues on a wonderful trip.
I assure Members that there was no agenda-setting by our hosts; we were given free rein over who we should see and where we should go. I should quickly tell Members that it was absolutely not my idea to see how camels produce babies, but watching the event gave me some insight into the expression “having the hump.” [Laughter.] I am glad someone got the joke.
Our hosts were open to Members seeing and visiting whatever they wished. I thank His Excellency the Qatari ambassador to the United Kingdom, a very impressive gentleman; Ibrahim Pasha, who was just wonderful in the way he organised the trip, and who may or may not be a possible future son-in-law; and all the staff at the Qatari embassy in London for organising such a transparent trip for UK parliamentarians.
I thought it would be helpful to give an overview of the current Qatari diplomatic crisis. Since my right hon. Friend the Minister and I—and indeed you, Sir Henry—have been in the House, I do not think we have ever known the middle east as an area entirely without issues. We have to be very careful in what we say and what we do; I am sure the Minister is going to tread a very careful line, and I certainly do not intend to be judgmental—I shall leave that for others.
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain severed diplomatic and economic trade relations with Qatar over allegations of Qatari support for terrorism. Those Gulf states were soon joined by Egypt, the Maldives, Yemen and Libya. That effectively enacted a trade embargo or blockade on Qatar, which gained global media coverage, because airspace and land routes were closed to Qatar. That succeeded in limiting access to basic goods, such as food and medicine, for the 2.7 million residents of Qatar.
The states placed 13 demands on Qatar, which it had to meet if they were to lift the embargo. Those were rejected as detrimental to Qatar’s sovereignty, with Qatar denying its support for Islamist groups. Kuwait—a country I greatly admire—has offered to act as an intermediary between Qatar and the other states in an attempt to broker a solution to the crisis. I understand that the British Government support that suggestion, and I am sure that sentiment is shared by hon. Members present today—particularly the chair of the all-party parliamentary British-Qatar group, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael).
The subject of this debate is our relationship with Qatar and how we can further that relationship against the backdrop of this crisis. In exploring that, I will talk about four issues: labour reforms, human rights, defence and security, and economic ties and sport.
Despite being a small country geographically, Qatar consistently ranks as one of the richest countries in the world per capita, and it has experienced a period of rapid growth, due in part to the FIFA World cup. However, with that development come challenges. Thousands of workers have moved to Qatar to work on infrastructure projects, and the law governing those workers has gained international attention.
When my good and hon. Friend talks of per capita income, is he talking just of Qataris, or is he including the people who come to work in the country and increase the build, as it were?
That is a very good point, and I will come to that a little later in my remarks on the economy. My good and hon. Friend has made an excellent point.
Human Rights Watch and other groups have raised concerns about conditions that workers face while working on building sites, such as football stadiums. I did not go to the football stadiums myself, but other members of the delegation did. One gentleman was killed under terrible circumstances while involved in the construction that was taking place. Human Rights Watch says that people have been exposed to extreme heat and humidity, have lived in poor accommodation and have earned low wages. As I said, workers are reported to have died on such projects, although I think the Qatari Government would dispute the figures. Even though the figures are disputed, the British Government would obviously have some concerns about that issue.
I think Qatar has made progress in recent months in introducing new laws that provide greater protection and freedom for migrant and domestic workers. I was pleased to hear that Impactt, a UK-based ethical trade consultancy, has been working closely with the state as its external compliance monitor for the World cup, and some of our delegation met a number of officials. Work has involved an extensive audit of working conditions at sites under construction, and Impactt’s second report, published in February, highlighted the progress on recruitment fees and enhanced worker representation. I believe that the United Kingdom will always support the upholding of workers’ rights, and I welcome Qatar’s labour reforms.
On the point about labour market reforms, did my hon. Friend become aware on his visit to Qatar and in his discussions with officials there—as I have become aware—that they genuinely sense that the eyes of the world are on them in the run-up to the World cup? They are making genuine attempts to demonstrate that their labour market reforms are real, and they are delivering real improvements to the lives of the guest and migrant workers in the country.
My right hon. Friend has made the point far better than I would be able to. It is a real lesson in not lecturing people: with a little bit of encouragement, and the knowledge that the world is looking very carefully, a lot of progress has been made. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right.
Qatar has made similar progress in the field of human rights. The state has been at the forefront in the promotion of a free press in the region. Indeed, the chairman of the Qatar Media Corporation recently acknowledged that the right to knowledge and expression is universally recognised as a right that transcends cultures and nations.
As part of the recent parliamentary delegation to Qatar, I had the honour of meeting the Shura council. That 35-member assembly, which advises the Emir, is made up of both male and female members, with the number of women increasing. Although it is currently an appointed body, it is set to have a democratic element, with the first Qatari legislative election currently scheduled for 2019. That little bit of progress will introduce democracy to the country for the first time. Although we have heard such democratic soundbites since 2006, this is most certainly going to happen.
Rather perversely, the diplomatic crisis has, arguably, exacerbated human rights issues in the country. Non-governmental organisations have highlighted the detrimental effect of the embargo on the flow of medical supplies, the impact on education and how the embargo has separated families. However, as always, the United Kingdom is a champion of human rights, and everything possible should be done to prevent the abuse of human rights in the country—especially abuses said to have emanated from the crisis.
The third issue I want to touch on is defence and security, and also co-operation with the United Kingdom. We work with regional powers in the middle east in promoting stability and fighting terrorism. The Royal Navy recently re-established a permanent base at HMS Jufair in Bahrain. Although that is a key strategic base for our operations in the region, we should acknowledge our deep and enduring military co-operation with Qatar. Bilateral co-operation between London and Doha is an equally pivotal partnership and is in the interest of our mutual security. Qatari cadets train at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. Joint training operations between the RAF and the Qatar Emiri air force regularly take place at al-Udeid airbase. The base is at the heart of Qatari-British collaboration, and it played a vital role in our operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan. More recently, it has been at the forefront of Operation Shader and our engagement with the so-called Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, the emirate has been a valued member of the coalition against ISIS, and it shares our opposition to the Syrian President.
It was announced in January that our two nations should establish a joint operations air fleet. This group will not only enhance our bilateral fight against terrorism but be crucial in the protection of Qatari airspace during the World cup tournament.
When defence is mentioned, my ears prick up. Having visited Qatar prior to becoming a Member of Parliament, I am clear that quite a number of British service officers are serving with the Americans in Qatar. They are very well received by the country.
I welcome that added information from my hon. Friend. No doubt, the Minister will pick up on that point in his response.
Notwithstanding the intelligence standpoint, Qatar is a valued ally of the United Kingdom. The country is a member of the Global Counterterrorism Forum, and in 2014 it signed a security pact with the United Kingdom. That ensured that our security agencies work together in countering the dangers of jihadism and cyber-warfare. This profound defence partnership not only ensures our safety but contributes considerably to the UK’s economy.
I am pleased to say that, in December last year, the UK signed the largest export deal for Typhoon aircraft in a decade. The delivery of 25 Typhoons by BAE Systems to Qatar is valued at some £6 billion. The deal is essential to sustaining jobs at BAE’s Warton site, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies). There have been further conversations to increase the number of Hawk trainer aircraft that will be delivered to Qatar, and for MBDA to supply missiles for the Typhoons.
I now want to speak about trade and investment with Qatar. As we are all aware, the United Kingdom is set to leave the European Union by 29 March next year. Regardless of which side Members are on in the argument over Brexit, we should all agree that, in the post-Brexit world, new alliances must be forged and links with established trading partners must be invigorated. Qatar is one such trading avenue that should be enriched. I am grateful to the City of London for sending me an email this morning to let me know that, in 2016, the UK exported £3 billion of goods and services to Qatar and had a trade surplus of £0.9 billion in services with it. Two years ago, the then Lord Mayor had high-level meetings, and the current Lord Mayor, Charles Bowman, recently met representatives of the Qatar Financial Centre in London. I welcome all that.
There is no greater indication of the UK’s global appeal than the statistics I have given. Qatar is estimated to have £40 billion invested in the UK economy, including the £5 billion announced during the 2017 Qatar-UK Business and Investment Forum. Foreign direct investment from Qatar shows no sign of being deterred by the UK’s exit from the EU. In fact, our delegation would humbly claim credit if it was boosted.
Although Qatari investment may be focused on London, it ranges across industries—my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde benefits from that. It ranges from banking to aerospace, and from property to hospitality. Qatar has a unique and broad multitude of investments in the UK. Those investments include Canary Wharf, including the HSBC tower and Barclays; 20 Fenchurch Street, known affectionately as the Walkie Talkie; the Shard; Heathrow airport; British Airways, by way of Qatar Airways’s stake in the International Airlines Group; the former US embassy in Grosvenor Square; Claridge’s; the Savoy; Harrods; Sainsbury’s; and the 2012 Olympic village. Such is the degree of Qatar’s UK interests, it was reported in March last year that Qataris own more of our capital than the Mayor of London’s office, and own a staggering three times more than Her Majesty the Queen. That is quite astonishing.
Furthermore, 29% of the United Kingdom’s gas imports are made up of liquefied natural gas, the majority of which comes from Qatar via the South Hook LNG terminal at Milford Haven, which is in turn over two-thirds owned by the emirate. Those imports contribute heavily to the diversity of the UK energy industry, and I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) will elaborate on that point.
None the less, an increasing number of UK companies are operating and investing in Qatar. It is well located between Europe and the far east, while the scale of its infrastructure projects makes it a viable location for UK investment. That is evidenced by the 120 UK-based companies that have engaged with Qatar in the past three years across an array of sectors. In fact, in terms of trade in goods and services between the UK and Qatar, we registered a trade surplus in six of the 10 years between 2007 and 2016.
We can all remember the scenes of jubilation in the Qatari royal family when they won the World cup bid. Privately, I was totally cynical about it: I thought it was absolutely ridiculous, not least because of the physical geography and the fact that it is so very hot there. Although I have not seen the facilities, a number of colleagues on the delegation have, and those facilities are absolutely wonderful. I was totally wrong about my initial view of Qatar winning the bid, and I hope it may help the general feeling towards the region.
Mr Kane, the captain of the England team, said that England could win the World cup, and yes we could—we could also win the Eurovision song contest, but unfortunately we did not. I am prepared to say that we could win the World cup when we go to the event in Qatar. It will be the first time that the tournament has been staged in the region, and it is extremely encouraging that so many British companies are involved in the project.
Professional services firms, which are the bedrock of the UK’s economy, have been prominent in building the World cup infrastructure. Architects Foster and Partners have designed the Lusail stadium, the largest venue, which is set to host the final of the tournament. Furthermore, Zaha Hadid Architects has designed the al-Wakrah stadium. Consultancy firms such as Arup, Turner & Townsend, Gleeds and RLB have also pioneered innovative projects such as climate control for a range of facilities. Some of the UK’s biggest construction firms have been equally prominent. Interserve has Qatari operations, and Balfour Beatty has been involved in World cup projects and the Qatar expressway programme in recent years.
There can be no doubt that links between Qatar and the United Kingdom are wide-ranging and historic. It is imperative that those ties endure through the contemporary embargo and strengthen as the United Kingdom transitions from being a member of the European Union to being an independent trading nation. Our relationship with Qatar should give us much to be confident about and serve as an example of how we are a truly global Britain.
It is a pleasure, as ever, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) on securing the debate, which is timely for a number of reasons, and on the way he set out his case. He did so in a fair degree of detail, which I will not bother Members by repeating. He highlighted the importance of Qatar as both a trading partner and a security partner for the United Kingdom at this time. That relationship is important, but it will never be simple or straightforward.
Before I go any further, I too should remind Members of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Last year and the year before, I was part of a delegation to Qatar funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and I serve as chair of the all-party parliamentary British-Qatar group.
Let me pick up the point the hon. Gentleman made about the conduct of such delegations. As chair of the all-party group, I led the delegation in February last year. There has never been any restriction on the movement of any member of the delegations of which I have been part. I can say with some feeling, having led the second delegation, that MPs and peers have a tendency to wander off, talk to people and do their own thing. That was certainly the case—I might even have been guilty of it once or twice—when we visited the workers’ villages that were built by Qatar to accommodate migrant workers engaged in construction contracts, particularly for Qatar 2022. Those were illuminating moments. Those people did not always give us exactly the same message as the one we were given by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or anyone else with the group, but there was certainly no restriction. It was also clear to those of us who were part of the delegation that the migrant workers we engaged with felt uninhibited and free to tell us about their experiences.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the problem with the blockade is that those very workers were probably the first to suffer from it?
There might be other contestants for the claim of being the first, but those workers are certainly a significant interest group that will be affected. Qatar has been measured in its response to the blockade—I will come on to that—but at an economic, political and strategic price.
Notwithstanding the fact that I regularly raise a number of issues with the Qatari Government, my engagements with them, both as a member of delegations and as chair of the all-party group, have always been positive, open and frank. As the hon. Member for Southend West indicated, we have seen significant progress in areas that are important to Members across the party divide. I think in particular of the progress on labour rights. The eventual abolition of the kafala system, which did not come easily, was a significant piece of progress in that regard. We should pay tribute to the people—particularly those in the trade union movement in this country—who have worked hard and sometimes had to deliver very difficult messages, but have stuck with it and never compromised in their dealings with the Qatari Government.
The right hon. Gentleman mentions trade unions. Are there trade unions in Qatar?
No, there are not. I acknowledge the progress that has been made, but as I said, as a Member of this House, I feel able to engage with the Qatari Government and point to the areas where I think we can do better, of which there are a number. The hon. Member for Southend West said that it is amazing what can be done without lecturing. Right hon. and hon. Members who know me will know that I am not averse to a bit of lecturing from time to time, and our friends in the Qatari embassy and the Qatari Government have had the benefit—if that is the word—of that experience. I am open about the way I deal with them, but when we in this country lecture others about union rights, labour rights and human rights in the most general terms, it is always worth us doing so with a bit of humility.
I am always mindful when I speak to the Qataris about the need to improve rights for people in the LGBT+ community that I am a 52-year-old man who lives in a country that, in my lifetime, has seen the legalisation of homosexuality and the abolition of capital punishment. There are shocking and shameful examples of the standards of labour rights we have enforced in our country—I think of incidents such as the one involving the cockle pickers at Morecambe bay a few years ago. I am quite prepared to lecture, but I always do so in a spirit of humility, remembering that we in this country do not always meet the high standards that we set ourselves. That is relevant because the discussion will move on now that the kafala system has been abolished, and we must ensure that high-level agreements and Government commitments are actually enforced by the companies and contractors that employ people on the projects concerned.
In the time that I have been engaged with Qatar and it has engaged my interest as a politician, I have seen significant progress, but I am always at pains to say that I want it to do a lot more. I am quite happy to engage and work with it, to make the case for change and to explain the benefits that will come from that. The law of unintended consequences may well come to operate—the blockade, about which we will no doubt continue to speak, may actually hasten the process of modernisation, the increase in democratisation and the improvement of human rights in Qatar. As we look towards 2022, that will only accelerate.
There has been a lot of international scrutiny—a lot of it quite negative—of labour conditions in Qatar. The Qataris have made big changes in that respect, but there will be other issues. The one I always raise with them is the position of the LGBT+ community, and we should look to them to make progress in that and other areas. There is, though—I speak as someone who is completely uninterested in football—a really exciting story to be told about Qatar 2022, which will be the first Arab World cup. Phenomenal resources have been committed to it. Before the debate, the hon. and gallant Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) asked about the construction of the stadiums. Constructing entirely air-conditioned stadiums is a remarkable feat of engineering. At the conclusion of the World cup, a number of those stadiums will be dismantled, removed from Qatar and given to countries that would not, if left to their own devices, have the resources to build a stadium of that sort.
Having visited, my concern was about how anyone could play football in such great heat. Presumably there is a fix for that.
That is where the air conditioning comes in—that is why I say it is quite a remarkable feat of engineering. Having been brought up on the west coast of Scotland, where my antipathy to the game was originally instilled in me, I find the idea of requiring air conditioning to play football difficult to get my mind around. The Qataris understood that even holding the tournament in their coolest time of the year, February, as I believe they will do, would still be beyond what most teams would expect, so they are going to quite remarkable lengths. It will also be probably the most compact World cup we will have seen. The infrastructure to be put in place to get teams and officials from one venue to another is an exercise from which we could take some lessons.
I am encouraged by progress in changes in the law and by the existence within Qatar of organisations such as the National Human Rights Committee. The hon. Member for Southend West spoke at some length about the blockade against Qatar currently in place by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt. We must acknowledge that the allegations made by those countries in June are very serious. It is not my job, nor, I would suggest, that of any hon. Member, to be some sort of apologist for a Government. If there is evidence that the allegations made by the blockading countries have substance, we should take that seriously and Qatar must be accountable.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that Saudi Arabia has been named in documents from the United States Government —and, I believe, from the UK Government —as being potentially involved in fostering radicalisation in the UK. Does he agree that while any allegations against Qatar must be independently investigated, perhaps the Saudis are not in the best position to claim the moral high ground?
The moral high ground is not an easy place for anyone to occupy in the region, and I do not think it helps us to stand there. However, there have been significant allegations in the past against the countries I listed, right the way back to 9/11 and earlier. I hesitate in picking up the bone that the hon. Gentleman has generously thrown me, because I do not think that the United Kingdom’s best interests will be served by picking a winner in the conflict. If we are to have a role, it should be to use our good relations and influence with all the various actors to somehow find a way to allow everyone some meaningful engagement with Kuwait, which seems to be the mediator of choice, and as a consequence perhaps find a way to step back from the brink.
In relation to the allegations that have been made and the 13 demands that came from the Saudi-led coalition in June last year, little hard evidence has come forward. The allegations about support for Islamist groups seem to be conflated with support or funding for Islamic State. That would be serious if it were proven, but in fact we see no evidence of that. It would be somewhat strange, shall we say, for Qatar to be funding IS while hosting the al-Udeid airbase and given the other ways in which it co-operates with us. I do not feel qualified to judge, but I observe in passing that Rex Tillerson said that the list of demands would be
“difficult for Qatar to meet”
because of that lack of evidence.
I am conscious of the passage of time, so I will finish by drawing the House’s attention to an opinion piece from the Financial Times on 19 April headed “The continuing blockade of Qatar makes no sense”. It points out first the most recent ratcheting up of the conflict, with reports about Qatar being turned into an island instead of a peninsula by Saudi Arabia’s excavating a Suez-style canal on the land border, and various unpleasant things being put into that canal. It is a good, measured piece that I commend to all those who have an interest in the region. It concludes:
“Short of volunteering for vassal status it is difficult to see what more it”—
“could do, beyond some gestures. Rather, the onus should be on the states that created the crisis to bring it to an end.”
It goes on:
“Toning down the rhetoric would be a start. Lifting the blockade incrementally should be the next.”
When the Minister responds, I would like to hear what he thinks the United Kingdom can do, inevitably working with the United States, which has a well-documented significant interest in the region. I think President Trump has spoken about some sort of discussion at Camp David later this year, and I hope that would be helpful. Frankly, Qatar being at odds with its neighbours has an impact beyond its border and those of its neighbours. It leaves us in a situation where the Gulf Co-operation Council, the most important body in the region and the means by which we western nations should seek to engage with Gulf countries, is unable to operate in the way it is intended to. For a region as important to us as the Gulf, for all manner of reasons—economic, trade, security—that is surely where our interest as a country must lie. In looking at our relations with Qatar, we must identify what our interest is and how we might further it and go beyond it in the wider interests of the region.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) on securing this timely and important debate, and on the brilliant job he did in describing where we are at in UK relations with Qatar and our diverse range of mutual interests in continuing to foster a close and growing relationship. It is also a pleasure to follow my good friend, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who spoke with characteristic intelligence and wisdom about a difficult, challenging neighbourhood that we have relationships with; he offered thoughts about the way forward.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend West alluded to my constituency interest in Qatar, which was the starting point for my interest in that country and in our relationship with the state more broadly. As a Welshman, I feel a natural affinity with small, ambitious countries that want to punch above their weight on the world stage. I could extend the comparison and talk about complicated relationships with larger next-door neighbours, but that might risk upsetting some of my English colleagues.
In May 2009—almost exactly nine years ago—we had the official opening of the South Hook liquefied natural gas terminal in my constituency. At the time, it was by far and away the largest single investment in Pembrokeshire for more than a generation, and it remains one of the largest single investments in Wales in the last 10 to 15 years. For the opening, we had not just one member of a royal family visiting, but six members of two royal families. Her Majesty the Queen, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Andrew from our royal family were there, along with the Sheikh and his wife, Sheikha Mozah, and another member of the Qatari royal family. It was rightly an enormous occasion, reflecting the scale and size of the investment, and the statement that we sought to make about the future, forward-looking relationship between Qatar and the United Kingdom.
South Hook represents a growing relationship based on energy security. As my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West mentioned, we are becoming increasingly dependent on imported natural gas as our domestic production from the North sea has declined over the past 10 years, and a large share of our imported liquefied natural gas comes from Qatar. In fact, the South Hook terminal in my constituency has capacity for about 25% of the UK’s natural gas supply at any one time. It is an enormous investment. If hon. and right hon. Members in this room are interested, I encourage them to come to my constituency and see the scale of the energy facility. Such imports will be more important in future. The Qatari investment has given the United Kingdom more diversity in our energy supplies, so that we can help build increasing resilience and energy security at a time when we have become more dependent on imports.
As well as providing excellent, high-quality jobs, the South Hook terminal has been an incredibly generous and intelligent supporter and funder of local charities in my constituency. If Members were to visit Preseli Pembrokeshire, I wager they would find that no constituency outside London has a greater proportion of constituents who can describe with some knowledge our relationship with Qatar than mine. For the past 10 years, we have been very aware of the importance of the relationship.
The relationship is not just about energy security, important though that is. At the start of this month, we had the first commercial flight between Doha and Cardiff Airport—an exciting development for the latter, given that it is relatively small for a capital city airport. It is a big statement of ambition that the leadership of the airport was able to secure a deal with Qatar Airways and have a commercial service fly between Cardiff and Doha. It helps put Wales on the map, and helps open up Wales’s economic opportunities in the Gulf—and, through Doha’s network of transport links, around the world.
I pay tribute to the chairman of Cardiff Airport, Roger Lewis, who has done a brilliant job in taking forward the vision of cementing a strategic relationship with Qatar Airways. The Welsh Government, who I do not always have a lot of positive things to say about, have played a positive and constructive role in driving forward the airport’s relationship with Qatar.
I am intrigued. Presumably, Welsh tourists go to Qatar on holiday. Do they make up a percentage of the people on board the aeroplanes?
I am cautious about the number of Welsh tourists visiting Doha. In the first instance, we are trying to develop the business travel market, but all these things have potential. Students from Doha visit the United Kingdom, and increasing aviation links from the UK regions to Doha can only support that.
When I was Secretary of State for Wales in 2015, I was pleased to give early support, and tried to inject a little momentum into the vision for a Qatar-Wales link. I am absolutely delighted that that has been brought to fruition, and I wish it every success. I do not expect the Minister to comment on this, because it falls far outside his Department, but for a long time the Welsh Government have been asking the UK Government to devolve air passenger duty to them, so they can use that as an extra tool to help them develop the long-haul overseas aviation market. I put on record that I was not able to convince David Cameron or George Osborne to change the policy, but it is probably time to look at that again, given that the leadership of Cardiff Airport has been so successful in striking up a relationship with the Qataris.
On the wider diplomatic front, I find Qatar’s ambitious foreign policy a thing of wonder. It is extraordinary how ambitious it has sought to be over the past 10 years. It has an interesting, wide and complicated set of relationships in the region and globally. It is able to have direct conversations with partners in the region that, perhaps for political reasons, we are not able to have. There is enormous opportunity for the United Kingdom and the international community to work with Qatar to develop deeper, more constructive diplomatic ties in what is, as I say, a very challenging and difficult neighbourhood. There is the immediate issue of the blockade and its conflict with its immediate neighbours. It has to be in our national interest to see that conflict brought to an end and resolved. Looking to the longer term beyond that, Qatar has demonstrated that it is a resourceful, agile, diplomatic player globally, and we need to work with Qatar to see positive things happen in the region.
The Minister knows that I have an interest in other countries in the region. In particular, I have an interest in the quest for security for Israelis, alongside the quest for statehood for Palestinians. I am absolutely sure that Qatar has a role to play in that, given its resources and its network of relationships across the region. It is often, as I say, able to have direct conversations with players in ways that we cannot. We want Qatar to play a constructive role in the region.
I take the point made by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland about having frank conversations with the Qatari Government and their ambassadors in London. I have had those frank discussions, and have always been impressed with how open and willing they have been to discuss quite difficult issues. That is what friendship is all about. Having a good friendship with a state such as Qatar means that we can have those difficult, challenging conversations. We can talk about the questions that get raised around terrorist financing and human rights, and what role Qatar can play in supporting peace between the Palestinians and Israel in the middle east. Friendship does not prevent us having those discussions; it provides a strong platform that enables us to do so.
In conclusion, this is a good moment to recognise, appreciate and celebrate the UK’s relationship with Qatar, and a good moment to think about some of the immediate challenges. I encourage the Minister to offer us his thoughts on where he sees the UK-Qatari bilateral relationship going and what benefit the UK can get from Qatar’s wider set of relationships internationally.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) on securing this debate. I spoke to him before to learn where he was coming from. Right hon. and hon. Members have made significant contributions. Mine will be similar, but a wee bit more careful. The issue with Qatar is not straightforward. Although we are supportive of our allies, it is not as simple as saying, “The enemy of my friend is my enemy.” That does not work in international circles. Although I respect some of the Saudi Arabian demands, and am fully supportive of its goal of halting involvement with terrorism and, in particular, support of ISIS, we cannot follow suit and cut all ties with Qatar. We are a trading nation. As other Members have indicated, we have strong defence ties that need to be maintained and strengthened; that,, I think, is the intention of the Government. We need to have what influence we can.
Things are not always black and white. They never can be when it comes to considering a different country, with a different culture, characteristics, goals and focus. There is a role for our Government to play in advancing peace in the region. That can be done only by making the best of the ties that make our relationship mutually beneficial to some extent. We have a relationship of sorts, and with that, we have the ability at least to attempt to influence things and effect change; we would not have that with a hard-line stance. I do not want to adopt a hard-line stance. I want to see how we can bring about some change. I certainly agree with the British ambassador, Mr Sharma, who recently said,
“The UK wants the dispute to be resolved as quickly as possible. The UK is fully supportive of the Kuwaiti mediation efforts and of course it is doing its own work through its contacts, its relationships to support the resolution. We want it to be solved as quickly as possible”.
The briefing provided by the Library, which I thank for the great work it does, clearly outlines our trade standing with Qatar. In 2016, the UK exported £3 billion-worth of goods and services to Qatar and imported £2.2 billion, resulting in a slight surplus of £0.8 billion. A small deficit in goods was offset by a surplus in services of £0.9 billion. Exports to Qatar represented 0.6% of all British exports in 2016. We are hopeful, of course, that when we have the freedom that Brexit will give us in March 2019, we shall be able to do more. Imports from Qatar represented 0.4% of all UK imports. Overall, Qatar was the UK’s 32nd largest export market and 42nd largest source of imports in 2016. The figures underline the importance of Qatar and the region to our economy, as well as the importance of building the relationship and doing more.
British exports to Qatar peaked at £3 billion in 2016, and UK imports from Qatar peaked at £5.1 billion in 2011, so we have turned things around, as we are now into surplus. We want that to continue. The UK has recorded trade surpluses with Qatar in six of the past 10 years for which goods and services trade data are available, although it recorded a series of trade deficits between 2010 and 2013, the largest of which was £3.3 billion in 2011.
I turn to the exploitation of workers. I was thinking about the use of the word “exploitation” before the debate, and I do not think we can ignore what is happening in the construction sector in Qatar. We cannot ignore the fact that workers have died on building sites and that others have been injured. Living conditions are atrocious, workers are underpaid, and many of them are living in small buildings. Those are facts, and they come from various sources. The Minister may want to respond on that matter, and suggest how we can use our influence—as I think we should—to make sure that workers are not exploited and are accorded the same rights as everyone else. In a related Westminster Hall debate on 14 March, in which the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) took part, I commented at column 400WH that people going to work in the construction sector in Qatar did not expect to get killed —they were not heading off to war. We need regulations —or at least discussions about regulations—regarding what happens to those workers.
The trading relationship, which benefits both our nations, certainly enables our ambassador to step in and speak to Qatar to try to foster a better relationship between neighbouring countries, which would benefit us all. When the World cup comes to Qatar in 2022, the eyes of the world will be on the country, and now is certainly the time for it to work to make changes to end terrorism links permanently. The issues have been stated clearly, and answers are needed.
Anyone who knows me will understand that I do not advocate for peace at any price; that has never been the way I do things. I believe we have a duty to stand against wrong at all costs. Right is right, and wrong is wrong. We have to stand for that idea, and the costs can sometimes be high. However, it is my firm and sincere belief that sometimes that means affirmative action, while at other times—this is one of them—it means using diplomatic measures. The Minister is very much a diplomat, and responds accordingly to issues that we put to him, so I believe that he would be keen on that approach. There has been movement by Qatar on addressing issues, and that progress must continue to foster peace.
We should not promise or intimate that we will stay out of things and keep Qatari money at any price. In my view, we are exercising wisdom and striving to influence. It seems that we have had success thus far. However, we always reserve the ability to react differently to whatever scenario arises. Only to that extent do I support the governmental approach thus far.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate, Sir Henry, and to begin the summing up. It has been an interesting debate, because I do not think anyone has said anything that anyone else has disagreed with. It is notable and perhaps disappointing that we have not exactly got the gender balance right this afternoon. I suspect that has prevented the debate from reaching the high quality it might have, but it has certainly been interesting.
We are discussing a country that is thousands of miles away, with a population slightly less than half that of Scotland. Yet the immense wealth that has come its way in the past few decades means that it has the potential to play a major part in decisions taken there and in the region. It has been hinted at—and I think it is true—that an issue that still needs to be worked through in the middle east is that the big, powerful neighbour needs to accept that it does not get to call all the shots, and that some of the smaller ones, including Qatar, want a say. They sometimes want to say something different from what the Saudis would like them to say.
The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) graphically outlined the huge financial impact that the Qatari sovereign wealth fund has in the United Kingdom—particularly, but not exclusively, in London. When he listed the buildings and property it owned, I felt almost that if something is tall enough to be seen above the rest of the London skyline—or, in the case of a hotel, if it is too expensive to go into—it probably belongs to Qatar. That in itself creates an issue. We must make sure in our dealings with Qatar that the massive financial investment it has made in a lot of infrastructure in London and other parts of the UK does not prevent us from criticising it when that is needed. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) eloquently pointed out, sometimes criticism needs to be made. We can welcome the progress made in Qatar in recent years, but we must also remind it that there is much more to be done.
A few months ago my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) spoke in a debate in this Chamber and referred to the
“human rights abuses that we have seen—workers being tied to a single employer, low pay, poor accommodation, labouring in dangerous heat and, sadly, hundreds of unexplained deaths”.—[Official Report, 14 March 2018; Vol. 637, c. 402WH.]
That is in one of the wealthiest countries in the world; it has not happened because the country is intrinsically poor. Despite that enormous wealth human lives are treated with contempt, and cheaply. The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) rightly pointed out that some things for which we now criticise such places as Saudi Arabia and Qatar happened in the United Kingdom not that long ago, and that we must encourage people to move forward rather than trying to order them to stop doing what UK legislation allowed until 40 or 50 years ago.
It was only 10 years ago that the Christian population in Qatar was first allowed openly to practice its religion. That was when the first church in Qatar was opened. We still see what the BBC diplomatically refers to as the filtering of what Qataris are allowed to see on the internet and other media. Interestingly, one objection from Saudi Arabia and other neighbouring countries to what Qatar does is that Al Jazeera, which is owned in Qatar, will broadcast quite critical content about some of the country’s neighbours but will not criticise the Qatari Government. They do not like it to be allowed to do that. Some of al-Jazeera’s coverage of terrorist atrocities in the past has been crassly insensitive and deeply offensive to the families of victims. It may be that Qatar is trying to modernise, and hopefully one day soon the media in Qatar will be allowed to criticise their Government as freely as they are allowed to criticise Governments elsewhere, and perhaps the neighbours need to accept that Saudi Arabian citizens must one day be allowed to watch television programmes without restriction and read newspapers that do not agree with the Saudi royal family.
I have been interviewed on al-Jazeera, and it seemed a very reasonable English-speaking station that talked sense. I gather, however, that the Arabic version may not be quite the same, and I hope that the Minister will say something about the difference when he responds to the debate.
Not being an Arabic speaker I do not watch al-Jazeera in Arabic—I seldom watch it in English—but as reported by the BBC, some of its coverage of the terrorist murders of innocent hostages, for example, was highly insensitive. It appeared to be designed to give a propaganda victory to the terrorists, which we cannot condone.
Mention was made of the close military links between the United Kingdom and Qatar, and the current Emir and his father who preceded him are both graduates from Sandhurst. One reason—not the main one—why we must hope that the current diplomatic crisis between Saudi Arabia and Qatar does not escalate into anything else is that both countries use British planes and pilots who were trained in Britain by the RAF. It would be terribly ironic if a conflict that cost lives in the Gulf involved two parties using British-made technology against each other. That is a salutary lesson, and we must be a bit more careful about who we are prepared to sell weapons and military hardware to. We cannot always be sure that those weapons will be used against the people we might wish them to be used against.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland referred to his difficulty in imagining the need for air conditioning at a football match. He is one of four or five of us in this debate who, if we were fanatical football fans, would find it difficult to imagine a situation in which it mattered a jot where the World cup was being played—I can just about remember the last time that Scotland went, and I do not think Wales have been there since 1958. I hope they will get there at some point.
Qatar is obviously using the World cup to try to persuade the rest of the world that it is moving forward, but we must ensure that progress continues after 2022. I welcome a lot of the promises made last year about improved protection and rights for workers, but we must ensure that those promises start being delivered this year, and continue to be delivered not just until 2022, but into the late 2020s, the 2030s and beyond. The improvements and changes must be permanent.
Mention has been made of some of the demands that the Saudis and their neighbours have made on Qatar, but as I said when I intervened on the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, a lot of those countries need to examine their consciences about some of the groups that they have supported in other countries. It is, for example, a bit much for Saudi Arabia to object to the fact that Qatar appears to be supporting unpleasant acts in other countries, while it is bombing civilians to death in Yemen and elsewhere.
Although some of the demands and requests appear to be reasonable, Qatar is being asked to break all contact not only with terrorist groups in certain countries, but with political opposition groups. Imagine if the United States Government asked us to stop sending parliamentary groups over to meet Democrats at the time of a Republican President, or to stop going to European countries and speaking to Opposition politicians as well as those in the Government. That is effectively what the Saudis are asking for, and although some of the demands are perfectly reasonable—any allegations of state funding of terrorism anywhere must be independently investigated by an international court or tribunal—we must also say to our friends in Saudi Arabia, “Just wait a minute, you’re going a wee bit too far with this.”
Some of the rhetoric we are seeing from the Saudis and some of their allies reminds me of some of the inflammatory language that we have become far too used to in the claims and counter-claims between Israel and its Palestinian neighbours. They are not just talking about digging a ditch to physically cut off Qatar from the rest of the continent; they are talking about deliberately dumping nuclear and toxic waste on the Qatari border, where the potentially lethal impact will affect Qataris as much as—or more than—anybody else. That sounds to me like a threat of chemical and biological warfare. It might simply be rhetoric, and perhaps the claims are being made more for the consumption of the Saudi Arabian population, to convince people that their Government are standing up to Qatar, but any such threat should be dealt with by a firm response from the international community. Saudi Arabia should be asked to explain itself at the United Nations. All too often in the conflict between Israel and Palestine, once people start talking the language of atrocity the action of atrocity follows quickly afterwards.
We should call on all sides in the dispute in the Gulf to tone down their language, resort to diplomacy, and look to get some kind of agreement. We must also make it clear to Qatar that if there are credible allegations of serious crimes against international norms, whether or not the Government are directly involved, it must be open to having them investigated.
The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting speech. Has he sat down with any of the diplomats at the embassy in London and had this discussion with them? If he has, what feeling did he get from them?
I have not personally had such discussions, although I would be perfectly happy to.
As I was saying, we should be prepared to seek independent investigations into alleged funding or support for terrorism by Qatar, but we should also seek independent international investigations into the 150-plus allegations of war crimes against Saudi Arabia. It is not good enough for the UK Government to say that we should just let the Saudis investigate themselves. Although I hear some of the optimistic noises about new trade with Qatar and other countries after we leave the European Union, I hope we can get an assurance from the Minister that if we seek to increase our trade with any country, that will be done in terms that recognise the need for improvements in human rights. Trade should not simply mean a trade in weapons that can be used for the wrong purposes, or a trade in infrastructure that benefits the wealthy royal family of Qatar at the expense of the working conditions and lives of native born Qataris and permanent or temporary migrants.
In some countries, people live in difficult situations because that country is intrinsically poor, and we have a responsibility to help lift those countries out of poverty. Qatar, however, does not have that excuse. Any poverty or poor conditions endured by anyone in Qatar is a deliberate choice by the Government of Qatar, and at times we must call them out for that and say that we expect things to improve.
I am pleased to have contributed to the debate, and I would be happy to take up any offer to meet representatives from the Governments of Qatar or Saudi Arabia, should they want to explain their countries’ policies to me and my colleagues. I hope the Minister will assure us that although a large part of Qatar’s relationship with London is about money, when it comes to the crunch it will not just be money that talks, and that the lives of people in Qatar and its neighbouring countries will be seen as being at least as important as the money that flows in from the coffers of the royal family.
I thank all those who have contributed this afternoon, and as ever it is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Henry. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) on securing the debate—it is timely for us to discuss Britain’s relations with Qatar. He said that he visited Qatar for the second time in February and met the Emir. He also passed on thanks to the excellent ambassador in London, Yousef Ali Al-Khater. I have met him on several occasions in my role, and I agree that he is one of the finest ambassadors at the Court of St. James’s. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned one of the people who works there—a British national called Ibrahim Pasha, who I believe is of Turkish-Cypriot origin. He does a very good job working for the embassy and linking and liaising with British parliamentarians, and I echo those thanks.
The hon. Gentleman gave us a brief history of the blockade of Qatar. I will not go into that further this afternoon, because we have already heard quite a lot about it. He mentioned the 13 demands and the fact that Kuwait is acting as an intermediary. He talked about labour reforms, human rights reforms, the defence relationship, and of course the cultural and sporting relationship. He said that our links with Qatar are wide-ranging and historic, and I certainly agree.
The right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), with his great experience and his position as chair of the all-party parliamentary British-Qatar group, made an important contribution to the debate. He mentioned that he had led delegate visits to Qatar and pointed out that there was never any restriction on members of that delegation talking to workers or to people outside Government supervision, and that nobody told them who they could and could not talk to. He was encouraged by changes in Qatari law, but he also quoted the Financial Times as saying that the continuing blockade of Qatar makes no sense at all. The Opposition certainly concur with that.
I entirely agree that the continuing blockade of Qatar makes no sense. One problem with it is that it may well push the Qataris toward the Iranians, which is exactly what Saudi Arabia and others would not want.
I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for that contribution. That danger is always there, but from what I have seen myself and from speaking to people from Qatar—people within the Foreign Ministry and visiting dignitaries here in London—I have the impression that the Qataris want to become a beacon of openness and liberalism in the region, rather than falling into the hands of one of the larger regional superpowers. I hope that that will continue and that they will press ahead with that. I will say a little more about that in the time I have remaining, but I want to leave time for the Minister.
The right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) talked of his affinity for small nations punching above their weight as a Welsh Member of Parliament and a former Secretary of State for Wales, and I agree that that is important in international relations. He mentioned the huge investment in the South Hook LNG terminal in Milford Haven, where the first tanker came in on 20 March 2009, and how important that has been as an investment in his constituency and his part of Wales. He also mentioned the direct flights from Doha to Cardiff; I urge Qatar Airways to open direct flights to Leeds Bradford airport as well, which I believe is even smaller than Cardiff airport.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned charitable donations, a very important issue for Qataris. I have met officials from the Qatar Charity and I was impressed at the way they collect charitable donations and ensure that, as part of their faith, they distribute those donations wisely, sensibly and for the best possible use of those less fortunate than they are. That is a duty that all Muslims, Christians and those of other main faiths share, but the charity carries it out with great aplomb.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talked about strong defence ties and said that things are not always black and white—we know that, but we always need to be reminded of it. The relationship with Qatar should, of course, be mutually beneficial. He mentioned another important player in Britain’s relations with Qatar, our excellent ambassador Ajay Sharma, whom I have met and with whom I was extremely impressed. The hon. Gentleman also said that we should use UK influence to help to improve workers’ rights, and I believe that is something we have indeed been doing.
Qatar, as we know, has a population of 2.6 million, of whom only 313,000, or approximately 12%, are official Qatari citizens. Qatar is a former British protectorate; the UK has had an embassy in the emirate since 1949, and Qatar has had an embassy in London since 1970. We have heard a lot this afternoon about the emirate getting ready to host the 2022 World cup. Qatar is allegedly spending up to $500 million a week on World cup-related infrastructure projects.
The UK Government have consistently highlighted the fact that their close links with Qatar allow them to speak candidly with the emirate, in a friendly manner, on issues relating to human rights, migrant labour issues and so on. The Government see their close ties as a means to promote regional stability in a well-known unstable region. Since the blockade of Qatar by its neighbours, the UK has been a firm supporter of the Kuwaiti mediation process that is attempting to end the crisis. We in the Opposition totally support that policy and the work the Kuwaitis are trying to do.
The Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has continued his father’s desire to make Qatar an internationally open state. Qatar likes to profess that it is a state that does not take sides and is open to dialogue with anyone. It has maintained relations with Washington, but has also managed to build bridges with Iran, develop ties with Hamas and Hezbollah—not something we would necessarily approve of—and backed rebel groups in Syria and Libya. It also provided troops to help quell unrest in Bahrain before the blockade. Qatar opened trade relations with Israel in 1996 and maintains close ties with that country, as was alluded to earlier. That makes Qatar a possible candidate to be a negotiator for peace between the Palestinian people and the Israelis.
In 2016 the United Kingdom exported £3 billion of goods and services to Qatar, which represented 0.6% of all British exports in that year, and imported £2.2 billion from it. According to the House of Commons Library, Qatar was the UK’s 32nd largest export market and 42nd largest source of imports in 2016. We have heard a bit about the Qatar Investment Authority, which is one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds and has invested hugely in the United Kingdom. It owns 879 commercial and residential properties in London, including the Canary Wharf Group, Chelsea Barracks, the Shard, the HSBC tower and Harrods. The QIA also has a stake in the Savoy hotel, while another unit of the QIA, Qatar Holdings, owns Claridge’s, the Berkeley and the Connaught, with an additional stake in the InterContinental London Park Lane. Qatari authorities also own over 20% of Sainsbury’s—I wonder what they think about the proposed merger with Asda—and 20% of London Heathrow airport, and have a 20% stake in International Airlines Group, the parent company of British Airways.
I know the Minister has a lot to say, so I will conclude by mentioning labour issues. As we have heard, Qatar was home to 1.7 million migrant workers in 2015, accounting for more than 90% of the country’s workforce. Some 40% of those workers are employed in the construction sector alone. The majority of migrant workers, mainly from south Asia, live in labour camps where thousands of them are forced to live in abject squalor in overcrowded and insanitary accommodation. The Daily Mail—not a paper I am normally apt to quote from—highlighted in 2015 the lack of a minimum wage, with workers such as carpenters paid as little as 56p per hour. I am not sure it took the same view when we were looking at the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, but none the less I am glad it highlighted this matter.
Examples of abuses include contractors withholding workers’ passports and personal documents so they cannot leave the country. Workers need permission from their employer to leave. They are housed in unsanitary camps, sleeping in small dormitory rooms, sometimes with more than 20 people to a room. Many workers are paid less than £1 an hour. The reforms implemented by Qatar are significant in the region, because Qatar would be almost unique in aligning its laws and practices with international labour standards. The International Labour Organisation has recognised that the reforms being carried out amount to quite a lot and would put right the past abuse of migrant labour.
Finally, we know that the effect of the blockade has been to liberalise the constitution—the opposite of what was intended. There is an improvement in the role of women, a reform of the education system is taking place and there is now discussion of citizens’ rights for non-Qataris, so that many of those who have lived in the country for more than 30 years will be able to become citizens even if they are not Qatari-born. The increasingly popular young Emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, has been Emir for nearly five years, since 25 June 2013. He was born after I got married; his birth date was 3 June 1980, so he will be 38 next month. He has become increasingly popular, not unpopular, as a result of the blockade.
We in the Opposition also call on all the states that have implemented the blockade to lift it, and we hope, as other hon. Members have said this afternoon, that progress toward liberalisation and openness will continue beyond 2022, as it must.
Before calling the Minister, I just remind him, although I am sure he does not need to be reminded, that the proposer of the debate would like to have two minutes at the end to wind up.
In company with all colleagues, may I say what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry? I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) for securing the debate.
It is always a particular pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), not only because we are such good friends but because his summarising of the debate means that I do not have to. He very effectively covers the speeches of colleagues and picks out the salient points, so I hope colleagues will not mind if I do not do exactly the same. However, I am grateful to all Members who have taken part by making speeches and for the several pertinent interventions from my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart).
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West. His visit to Qatar in February with members of the all-party parliamentary group helped to underline the importance of UK-Qatar relations, as he mentioned, and it covered important issues, including the regional Gulf dispute and workers’ rights, which we will come on to. I had not quite picked up the idea of “taking the hump” in the way he did, but I will look out for an opportunity to do so on one of my many visits to the region.
I also commend my hon. Friend for what he said about His Excellency the ambassador of Qatar to London, who is a good friend. I have many friends among the ambassadors of the countries that I have ministerial responsibility for, and they do an excellent job. My hon. Friend was right to mention His Excellency, just as the hon. Member for Leeds North East was right to mention Ajay Sharma, who does a great job on our behalf over there, as do my colleagues the ambassadors in other middle eastern and north African states. I am grateful for the contributions and points raised by other right hon. and hon. Members, which I will not try to summarise, but which I will try to respond to.
The UK’s partnership with Qatar dates back almost 200 years to our early trading links in the 1820s. Since its independence in 1971, Qatar has remained a trusted and valued friend to the United Kingdom. Today, the bilateral ties between the UK and Qatar are more than just the legacy of our shared history, and I thought it was particularly pertinent that Members from England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all spoke about the influence of Qatar right across the United Kingdom. Ours is a modern relationship based on shared values; a shared interest in our mutual prosperity and security; co-operation in the fight against terrorism; and, as we have heard many times, a shared passion for cultural and sporting excellence.
Most colleagues mentioned the ongoing Gulf dispute, and I will make very clear the United Kingdom’s position. Gulf Co-operation Council unity matters to the United Kingdom. It supports regional stability and security, which is why, since last June, the UK Government at all levels have continued to support Kuwait’s mediation efforts. We work closely with international partners, including the US, to support the GCC to find a resolution, and we remain a firm friend of all GCC states. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I have been actively engaging with our Gulf partners. Our role remains to support Kuwait.
We have always said that demands of Qatar should be measured and realistic, and we encourage those involved in the dispute to take that into account. There is a need for all sides to maintain dialogue and to find a resolution that everyone can support. Gulf states need to find a way of de-escalating the situation and lifting the current embargo and restrictions. We continue to call for de-escalation, for GCC unity, for Qatar to engage seriously on its neighbours’ concerns, for its neighbours to take steps to relax the restrictions imposed and for everyone to get behind Kuwait’s mediation efforts. We believe a solution is most likely to be found from within the GCC.
The UK’s determination on this was shown by a recent meeting at Wilton Park, at which we brought together a number of experts and senior officials from the various states to meet the UK to discuss our bilateral relationship with the GCC. We remain very much of the view that a strong GCC is good for the region and for the world.
Our bilateral relationship with Qatar is neatly summed up in the name chosen for our bilateral dialogue—sharaka, an Arabic term for partnership. In March, I visited Doha for the fourth sharaka with my counterpart, deputy Foreign Minister Soltan al-Muraikhi. Our discussions ranged over the full breadth of our relationship, which it is important to note stretches far beyond the obvious trade and security co-operation. My visit came almost exactly a year after my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister signed an historic agreement with her Qatari counterpart to increase co-operation across the board and to mark the UK as Qatar’s partner of choice in the implementation of its 2030 national vision.
That ambitious plan will improve opportunities for Qataris, focusing on development across four pillars: economic, environmental, human and social. Achieving that will require more than £140 billion of infrastructure development, reforms to improve health and education, and diversifying the economy. My discussion with my counterpart covered our co-operation across all four target areas and how the UK can work in partnership with Qatar in each area.
Following the contribution of my right hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb), it will not surprise Members that about half of our bilateral trade is in energy, with Qatar supplying around 20% of the UK’s natural gas imports over the last three years in the form of liquefied natural gas to the South Hook terminal in Milford Haven. It might surprise Members, and yourself, Sir Henry, to know that the UK actually has a trade surplus with Qatar, with more than 500 UK companies registered to work there and many already benefiting from the opportunity to support Qatar’s growing infrastructure needs and provide goods and services to its people.
Our countries also share a close defence and security relationship, an example of which was the joint exercise between the RAF and Qatar’s air force last year. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the formation of the RAF, the UK has announced a new air squadron to be based at RAF Coningsby, which will temporarily integrate Qatari personnel, including pilots and ground crew, as part of a multibillion pound deal to supply 24 Typhoon aircraft and training to Qatar.
I will address the World cup and migrant rights in the moments I have remaining before my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West speaks again. The hosting of the 2022 World cup has seen an increased focus on human rights in Qatar. On migrant worker issues, the steps taken to date by Qatar have been genuinely significant, in terms of not only the region but construction. Most recently, on 29 April, the International Labour Organisation opened an office in Qatar, following the technical co-operation agreement signed between the two in November 2017. The opening of that office for at least three years, along with the progress made on labour rights, contributed to the closure of the ILO complaint against Qatar.
We really welcome the positive steps taken to tackle the issue of migrant workers’ rights, including, but not limited to, amendments to labour law and the exit permit system, agreement with the ILO, and improvements in health and safety. I genuinely think that some of the complaints made about workers’ rights now are based more on history than on what is actually happening.
Finally, we welcome not only the holding of the World cup in Qatar but the involvement in it of UK companies. Having seen the plans for the tournament and the stadiums, I assure my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham that there are imaginative plans to ensure that refrigerated air covers the pitch. It looks as though it will be a quite spectacular operation.
Like the Scottish National party spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), I hope strongly that Scotland will be represented at that World cup, which would be its first since 1998. There is a decent chance of that. We hope for a successful and peaceful World cup and for the continuing of strong relations between the UK and Qatar and the whole of the GCC.
This has been a splendid debate. I thank colleagues for their contributions, which have been entirely positive. The House has spoken with one voice in not only celebrating the excellent relationship between our country and Qatar at the moment, but wanting to see that further developed and enhanced. In conclusion, it is my earnest hope that the 2022 World cup final is between Qatar and England, and that, in a close match, England might prevail.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered UK relations with Qatar.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.