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Government of Qatar

Volume 817: debated on Thursday 20 January 2022

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of current relations with the government of Qatar.

My Lords, recent years have seen the torch of international attention shone into the recesses of the State of Qatar as it prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. It is a country that, since it won the right to host the world’s leading global sports event, has been more than aware that the spotlight would shine on all aspects of its country, policies, laws and people. The Government of Qatar have turned this opportunity into a national challenge for change—a dynamic for managing the modernisation of a small country into a fast-changing leader in the region with global influence and strategic importance for the UK.

Before I seek to set out the case for this view, I declare a key interest. The background to this debate came from Sir David Amess, a close friend for nearly 40 years, who encouraged me to join the APPG on Qatar as vice-chair of the group with responsibility for sport.

Qatar lies at the strategic epicentre of many of the key issues that dominate international politics today. As we sought to manage the exit strategy from Afghanistan, it was the Qataris who brought stability and support to the lives of thousands of refugees, many of whom were seeking support in the UK. It is a country that has been vital to the UK by ensuring the security and prosperity of the Afghan people, providing safe passage to unaccompanied children heading to new homes here, fighting for the rights of women and minorities through its open dialogue with the Taliban, and evacuating 74,000 people from Afghanistan—and over 210 British citizens—while housing the British embassy to Afghanistan in Doha.

Qatar is a friend and an ally. It supplies 20% of our gas requirements and has directed its resources to co-invest with Rolls-Royce on a net-zero journey to deliver a multibillion-dollar pathway to achieve that goal by 2030, working on small modular reactors to create net-zero carbon energy at scale; to back an educational foundation for innovation in technology outside the nuclear industry, where the promotion of energy transition projects maps the steps towards pioneering climate change technology; to look to support 10,000 climate tech jobs; and to aim to create five UK unicorns by 2030 with the support of the Qatar Foundation.

The UK is offering substantial support in its hosting of the FIFA World Cup. Foster, Zaha Hadid Architects, Turner & Townsend, the FA, football clubs such as Leeds United and Sheffield United, universities such as Leeds Beckett and the University of Liverpool and many others are working on projects to harness the power of football to drive positive change.

As we know, Qatar is a country that has invested heavily in the UK and seeks a further £5 billion of investment in our economy by the end of this year. It hosts the RAF Middle East headquarters at the al-Udeid airbase, where coalition forces are based in the fight against Daesh. It works with the UK on cybersecurity. It has a joint Typhoon squadron and seeks to ensure a combined strong stand against terrorism and the promotion of peace, stability and security in the Middle East. Now, when it will become the first country in the Middle East and the Arab world to host the FIFA World Cup, we should look forward to further collaboration to ensure that football leaves a positive human, economic, social and environmental legacy for the country, the region and the world.

There are rightly matters of significant concern to Members of this House which the torch of international attention has magnified, not least the treatment of migrant workers. In the face of widespread international concern, the Qatar Government were right, from the outset, to extend an invitation to the International Labour Organization to set up a well-staffed office in Doha. Its recent in-depth analysis showed that 50 workers had lost their lives in 2020, but these included work-related deaths across all aspects of society and the economy, including, for example, road traffic accidents.

The ILO must, of course, be free to criticise and publicise its concerns, and it is. It is expected to remain and to protect the interests of the migrant labour workers after the World Cup, and I very much hope that it does. Every human rights issue must be pursued. Everyone deserves the right to work safely and securely, whether that be in Qatar, the UK or elsewhere. Qatar’s national policy on occupational safety and health has had to be transformative, and it has been. The end of the kafala system was a critically important first step and established a direction of travel for many other countries in the Middle East that retain it, either entirely or in some form. The Qataris know that they still have further to go. They will need to ensure media freedom. A minimum wage has been introduced, and the banning of exit visas is an essential and critical step. It is also essential that no action is taken against members of the LGBTQ+ community who arrive to be present for the World Cup finals. Subsequent reform must provide a welcome sign to the world and, indeed, to the world of sport.

We are to host the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham later this year. We must continue to campaign to reverse the position that the majority of Commonwealth countries participating in the Games still criminalise sexual acts between consenting adults of the same sex and other forms of sexual orientation, gender identity and expression. Homosexual activity remains a criminal offence in more than 30 of the 54 sovereign states of the Commonwealth, and legal in only 19. I hope my noble friend will confirm that we will continue to engage with all countries where homosexuality is a criminal offence to seek an end to those laws, for we need to continue working with international partners and civil society to promote and defend universal freedoms throughout the world.

At Oral Questions in the Lords on 30 November, calls, led excellently by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, were made by some to boycott the FIFA World Cup or to adopt the now well-trodden policy of calling for a boycott by government officials and members of the royal family of attending the event. My view is well known, not least to the noble Lord, Lord Collins: that the boycott of any sporting event by Ministers and officials is the worst example of posture politics in the world of sport. It serves little purpose. It always generates a strong response from the host city or country and is forgotten the moment the sporting event starts.

I have long taken an active stance on human rights issues, currently as vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sport, Modern Slavery and Human Rights. All Governments need to act decisively on human rights abuses wherever they exist by making the strongest representations to the country concerned. I oppose calls for a boycott or the withdrawal of government support. It remains my view that for sports boycotts to be effective, they must have the broad support of the international community and be the product not of posturing or reprisal but of an astute and practical moral calculus including a wide-ranging package of trade, travel and diplomatic measures to lead to action that will best advance the cause of human rights and the well-being of those whose rights are violated, as in apartheid-ridden South Africa.

At the same time, it would be wrong to underestimate the growing international influence of sport and the power of the FIFA World Cup or Olympic movement. The goal of sport is to spread fundamental human values as widely as possible, not to confine them exclusively to the western world, as we tended to do in the 20th century. Sport is about humanity and can contribute to the changes we should all seek by unifying our whole approach in seeking the change that is necessary wherever an event is held.

I would go further and argue that one reason why the FIFA World Cup should be held in Qatar is because sport is in itself a force for good. It is a mass phenomenon that gives enjoyment to hundreds of millions of people every week. We have gone far beyond the principle of the value of sport simply as entertainment. Sport, as a universal language, can help to promote peace, tolerance, reconciliation, change and understanding. It cuts across lines of class, nationhood, ethnicity and culture that might otherwise divide, and it is an exceptional vehicle for bringing people together, bridging differences and promoting communication and understanding. As a result, I firmly believe that by working together we can help Qatar to continue on the remarkable journey that it has embarked upon. I look forward to this debate and the response from the Minister on behalf of the Government.

It is a great pleasure to follow my noble friend and to hear his views on the power of sport, which obviously he has vast experience of, and the impact that the World Cup will have on Qatar, where he also has a great deal of experience. I simply wanted to add, almost tangentially, some thoughts about culture and Qatar.

When I was the Minister for Culture many years ago, I supervised from our end the UK-Qatar year of culture, which I think was 2013, and I spent a great deal of time in that country. In fact, I randomly met Robert De Niro when I went to Qatar, which resulted in a diptel with the title “Ed Vaizey goes to Qatar. Robert De Niro’s waiting.” There is a cultural reference in there which I will leave noble Lords to work out.

I will get serious for a moment. There are two elements to the cultural links between the UK and Qatar that are worth emphasising. First, the Qatari Government have been very supportive of British culture. The emir and his wife supported a project in the British Library to digitise a great deal of records relating to Qatar and the Middle East, and they sponsored an exhibition at the V&A that highlighted Qatari cultural treasures. However, it is also interesting to note—this is where it is relevant to my noble friend’s remarks—that the Qatari Government and the emir have pushed forward the use of culture as a means of progress within the country of Qatar. They have built a state-of-the-art museum to show off cultural artefacts from Qatar and the region but, even more importantly, they have held ground-breaking exhibitions of western contemporary art that, frankly, can be quite challenging to a conservative mindset in the Middle East. That is a brave thing for them to do. I met Robert De Niro in Qatar because they were hosting a film festival, and I was out there when they hosted a fashion festival.

This is a textbook example of how countries and Governments in the Middle East can use culture frankly to push forward change and reform within society and their country. For me, as regards my engagement with Qatar, I was left with an abiding impression that this was a country committed to change and progress as well as being a valuable ally of ours.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, for bringing forward this timely short debate. I declare my interest as a member of the Qatar APPG as well as my policing interests, which are in the register.

I first visited Doha in 2008 when I was on a parliamentary delegation discussing security matters. It was obvious at that time that the state was developing at an enormous rate, with buildings going up daily and facilities for the residents, and visitors, of the highest standard anywhere in the world. Yet it was still a very small city. I visited again a couple of years later and was astounded at the physical rate of progress of its cultural and built environment. It had doubled and more within those two years. What had not changed was its warm and friendly hospitality, which was demonstrated throughout our visit.

Along with colleagues, we were delighted to see the beginning of the building of its amazing Museum of Islamic Art, which the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, referred to. This was in a complex of many other cultural buildings, including a newly built opera house, a mirror-image of our own in London. The Cultural Village, as it was known, had not yet been fully completed—I expect it has been now—but it gave us a very good idea of what to expect, with an abundance of areas for poetry, music and art that would satisfy all tastes, as we have heard.

Since then, of course, Qatar has become a much valued and essential provider of around 20% of our gas needs, as the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, referred to. A few years ago, I was invited to lead a delegation to visit the site at Milford Haven, where tankers transporting the liquefied natural gas from Qatar were being offloaded into state-of-the-art refineries and then distributed to our national grid. With the whole of Europe suffering the huge spike in energy prices, the UK has agreed a deal with Qatar to continue delivering LNG so that we have a safe and secure supply, one very good outcome of our trade deals.

In 2020, Qatar was the UK’s 34th largest trading partner and UK exports to Qatar were worth over £3.8 billion. As we have heard, its investments in the UK exceed £40 billion. Qatar has been a good friend to our country.

In the security industry, we sold Qatar 24 Typhoon aircraft, nine Hawks, Brimstone missiles and the services to go with them. Other investments in the UK include linking Rolls-Royce with their green energy operations. As we have heard, Qatar is one of Rolls-Royce’s biggest customers, especially for its Trent engines that power the aircraft for Qatar Airways, one of the most prestigious airlines in the world. It is also hoping to develop small modular nuclear reactors—SMRs—with Rolls-Royce, which, it is anticipated, will deliver thousands of new jobs. It is equally hoped that these jobs will be in areas of the country most in need of levelling up.

However contentious the venue, Qatar did win the right to put on the prestigious World Cup event, and we can only hope that it is as successful as other World Cups have been. There has been a lot of concern, quite rightly, about how migrant workers have been treated when building stadia for this event. Qatar’s human rights have been questioned and criticised, and I believe that its Government know that these things have to change. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, referred to this. They have begun that process and are making strenuous efforts to address these international concerns. Qatar has created the National Human Rights Committee, which investigates abuses and is advancing the country’s standards, to take part in research programmes and advise other government bodies on human rights issues.

The Government have also developed a significant labour reform programme, and Human Rights Watch has commended Qatar on its progress and hopes that other Gulf countries might follow its lead, especially as it was the first country in the region to introduce a minimum wage. It is also the first Arab country to allow women the right to vote, although there is still a long way to go for women to have anything like equality with men.

This is a very febrile region. Qatar has its own security concerns, so it is perhaps not for us to criticise our country’s friends when they also have to face security challenges. As a good friend to our nation, we should be thankful that our trading ties with Qatar are close and secure and hope that the future plans for working together come to a happy conclusion for both our nations, especially for that troubled region.

My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord for initiating this debate; it certainly gives me an opportunity to reiterate some of the points that he has heard me make before. I agree with the sentiments of all the contributions that a strong relationship between the United Kingdom and all the Arab states of the Persian Gulf is in everyone’s interest. However, that relationship, important as it is, must be built on the values that we hold as a country. Qatar is a growing economy with considerable regional interests and influence, and although there are clear areas where co-operation is mutually beneficial, we must use that relationship to encourage modernisation, as the noble Lord said.

I agree with the noble Lord that the spotlight on Qatar, as the Qataris themselves say, in terms of that national challenge for change, will bring strong benefits. I agree that sport can be a force for good—although, as a keen Arsenal supporter, I point out that my neighbours back Spurs, and we sometimes do not get on that well. Whenever there is a derby game one fears for one’s own safety. Nevertheless, sport is a force for good.

I also agree that simply calling for boycotts is not necessarily the appropriate solution. The decision to bid for the World Cup was a big political decision of the Qatari Government, and it was politics that made them support that bid. We have done such things ourselves, as a country, because we know that hosting such events can be a force for good in all our communities. I agree with the noble Lord that calls for boycotts should not be made lightly, and that the circumstances of the South African boycott were absolutely right, in terms of the world community, because sport was not permitted to be played in the way that we would expect. But when it comes to the Winter Olympics, there needs to be some clear political statement about the genocide against the Uighurs. A political and diplomatic boycott shows that Governments do not want to be associated with the Games. But it is not for us to interfere with sport through a general boycott. I agree with the noble Lord about that.

As for the force for good and the power of change, there is still a lot more to be done. It is only a short time now until the World Cup, and a lot of the human rights concerns remain and will overshadow the competition. As I said in November, it is eight years since the International Trade Union Confederation first warned that Qatar was not recording the deaths and injuries of migrant workers during preparations for the tournament. According to the Guardian, more than 6,500 have died since the World Cup was awarded. I accept the noble Lord’s point that there is not necessarily a direct link, but this is about the number of migrant labourers who have gone to Qatar, and the impact of that.

Trade unions are, of course, practically outlawed in Qatar, and it is a scandal that Qatar continues to hide the true picture on migrant workers. The ILO’s report published last October, which I have referred to before, identified clear gaps in the collection of data on work-related deaths and injuries, and called for improvement. Importantly, it stressed the need to move with urgency, because behind each statistic there is a worker and their family. Last November I asked the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, what representations the Government of the United Kingdom had made to Qatar on the ILO report. I also asked him to come back to the House on the progress made on its implementation, so that further injuries and deaths could be prevented, and the families of those killed or injured could receive proper compensation. I have had no response from the noble Lord, so I hope that the Minister here this afternoon will be able to answer those questions, which remain outstanding.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, that the ILO presence is important and represents progress. But I also think that the United Kingdom has a responsibility to support the ILO and to back it in every respect.

This is not just about migrant workers; the noble Lord referred in his introduction to general oppression of minorities, particularly LGBT people. As he said, homosexuality is still illegal. The head of Qatar’s World Cup bid team has said publicly—I read it in the papers—that gay men attending the World Cup must not publicly display affection. They will be welcome, but must not display affection. As a gay man, I know what real oppression can be—forcing you to be invisible and not the person you are, unable to acknowledge the people you love. You may spend a fortune on going to the World Cup to be constantly fearful—what does it mean not to display affection? We have had cases in the Middle East where a United Kingdom citizen was charged with putting a hand on someone’s knee, something we perhaps all have done. Even the noble Earl, Lord Courtown, has done it—he has certainly done it to me in the bar a couple of times.

The important thing is how we support and back people. If we are truly saying that gay people will be welcome at the World Cup—why should they not be?—they should be able to be visible. They should certainly be able to acknowledge their sexuality in a public way, through flags, badges and things. I am not suggesting we have a blatant attack on the laws in Qatar, but the Government have a duty to protect and defend those people who go to the World Cup so that they do not have to face oppressive circumstances. The Human Rights Watch reports that we have seen mentioned the increased surveillance that will be installed for the World Cup. This could be used to target LGBT activists. In any sort of guidance the Government give, I hope they make that clear.

As has been acknowledged in this debate, the United Kingdom continues to attract significant investment from Qatar, and ties between our two countries are deepening as universities and other institutions establish a base in the Gulf. I too pay tribute to the late David Amess and I certainly pay tribute to the work of the APPG. As attention turns to the World Cup, it is incumbent on Ministers to hold the Qatari Government to account and push them even further in how they keep to their word on modernisation. I hope the noble Earl will give us a clear indication about the progress that has been made so far and the progress to be made for the future.

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Moynihan for securing this debate and to all noble Lords who have contributed. I start by expressing my appreciation for the work of the all-party group and the commitment of its members to a strong UK-Qatar relationship. My noble friend mentioned his visit to Qatar with the parliamentary delegation led by Sir David Amess. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Sir David for his tireless work for his constituents and others. He was tragically killed just days after his visit to Qatar. I am also deeply grateful to the members of the Qatari royal family and Government who sent their most sincere condolences to Sir David’s family and the UK at the darkest of times.

This debate is timely. It comes at a time when the Government are working to deepen and broaden the already strong UK-Qatar relationship. The Foreign Secretary visited Qatar in October as part of her first official visit to the Gulf. Qatar is one of our closest allies in the region, and she used her time in Doha to advance the key pillars of our bilateral partnership. My right honourable friend the Minister for Middle East, James Cleverly, will visit Qatar later this month to do similar, and we are currently preparing to host the first ever UK-Qatar strategic dialogue between the Foreign Secretary and Qatar’s Foreign Minister.

Our partnership with Qatar is sustained by myriad connections and friendships between our people. They are the golden thread that drives our co-operation and dialogue in a number of areas. As noble Lords may be aware, 20,000 British nationals live and work in Qatar, and the UK is a second home to many Qataris. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, there were a record 175,000 visits from Qatar to the UK, worth more than £0.5 billion to the UK economy.

The noble Baroness, Lady Harris of Richmond, commented on trade and investment. Our strong trade and investment relationship with Qatar provides jobs throughout the UK, supporting the Government’s levelling-up agenda. Our bilateral trade currently stands at just over £4.3 billion, which includes £2.4 billion of UK exports, making Qatar the third-largest export market in the region for British firms. Qatar is also a major investor into the UK, playing a role in a huge variety of developments mentioned by noble Lords, including the Shard, Heathrow Airport and even Chelsea Barracks. Overall, Qatari investment in the UK is currently estimated at £40 billion, and the figure is growing.

The latest example of this, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, was last month’s announcement by Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund of an £85 million investment in the Rolls-Royce small modular reactor programme, giving a boost to the UK’s net-zero agenda and demonstrating Qatar’s commitment to tackling climate change. Qatar is also an important partner for the UK’s energy security, as one of the world’s largest producers of liquefied natural gas. For example, QatarEnergy recently agreed a long-term contract with the national grid for capacity at the Isle of Grain natural gas import terminal east of London.

We want to grow this trade and investment relationship further, not just in Qatar but across the Gulf. That is why we are about to commence negotiations on an ambitious new free trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. The UK public consultation on this has just completed, and my colleagues in the Department for International Trade are working to agree a timeline for those negotiations to commence with ministries here and with our Gulf partners, including Qatar.

A number of noble Lords raised the subject of human rights. The friendship between our nations extends right to the heart of our respective Governments, as demonstrated by the Foreign Secretary, the Defence Secretary and my noble friends Lord Grimstone and Lord Wolfson, all of whom have either met or spoken to their Qatari counterparts in recent months. These close ties provide meaningful opportunities to engage on difficult topics and influence change. The UK Government do not shy away from raising human rights concerns whenever required, in public or in private.

We also welcome progress when we see it. We welcome the concrete steps that Qatar has taken to improve workers’ rights. The priority now is full implementation and enforcement of these reforms, and there is further to go. We stand ready to further assist and support Qatar’s efforts to improve workers’ rights, including through engagement with the International Labour Organization, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Collins.

Our enduring defence partnership with Qatar is exemplified through our joint Typhoon squadron. During a recent visit to RAF Leeming by the Qatari Minister for Defence, the Defence Secretary also unveiled the UK-Qatar joint Hawk training squadron and the delivery of Qatar’s first Hawk jets by BAE Systems.

In recent years, the upcoming World Cup has been a prominent feature in our engagement. We are working with Qatari authorities to support their delivery of a safe and secure tournament. We will continue to engage on the “everybody is welcome” message so that anyone, of any background, can go and enjoy themselves. A range of British companies is playing a notable role in preparations, from the cutting-edge design of football stadia to the recently launched countdown clock. I hope we will have two of the home nations competing in November, with one of them bringing home the trophy.

Qatar plays an important role in regional and global affairs, and our Governments work closely together on a wide range of important issues. As my noble friend Lord Moynihan, said, we commend Qatar for the role that it played helping to evacuate people out of Afghanistan in the summer, including British nationals. Prior to that, Qatar also played an important role in negotiations with the Taliban. Qatar also remains an important development and humanitarian partner for the UK. For example, we value our joint UK-Qatar programme on girls’ education in Syria, and we are keen to deepen our co-operation further as we look to 2022 and beyond.

Noble Lords raised a number of questions, which I shall go through now. I start with the moving speech from the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, in relation to LGBT rights. Qatari authorities have committed, as I said, to everybody being welcome at the tournament, including LGBT visitors. We will continue to engage on this between now and the tournament, so that anyone of any background can go and enjoy themselves. Qatar has confirmed that individuals will be able to display the rainbow flag.

My noble friend Lord Vaizey brought up the subject of culture ties with Qatar. The UK works with state ministries and key cultural and educational institutions, such as Qatar Museums, Qatar Foundation and the Katara cultural village. The UK attracts 3,000 students from Qatar annually; the British Council has developed a network of 1,200 Qatari alumni who have studied in the UK and runs a UK alumni awards programme that identifies outstanding achievers and celebrates their positive impact. The British Council stages an annual British festival to maintain and strengthen the UK’s position as Qatar’s cultural partner of choice, and to celebrate UK creativity and innovation across the arts, education, science, engineering, design, culture, entertainment and tourism.

In relation to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins of Highbury, on human rights, our close ties allow us to engage in these difficult topics, and we continue to raise human rights issues wherever appropriate. This includes migrant workers’ rights. No aspect of our relationship with Qatar prevents us from speaking frankly about human rights in public or in private. The UK has a strong history of protecting human rights and promoting our values globally, and we continue to encourage all states, including Qatar, to uphold international human rights obligations.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on a sporting boycott. The UK Government do not favour a sporting boycott. Along with the participation of national teams in World Cups, it is a matter for the relevant football associations, which operate independently from government, as required by FIFA statutes. The noble Lord also asked what we had been doing to press the Qataris on labour rights concerns. We encourage continued close collaboration between the Government of Qatar and the ILO during the second phase of the technical co-operation programme, which runs until the end of 2023. We also encourage continued co-operation with entities such as the international trade unions.

Having engaged with Qatari authorities, the International Labour Organization has, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, said, this month released a comprehensive report containing recommendations to improve data collection and analysis on occupational injuries and fatalities. This is a really important step, and we welcome that this is one of the key elements of Qatar’s national policy on occupational health and safety.

In conclusion, Qatar is one of our closest allies in the Gulf. We enjoy a friendly, frank and productive partnership that benefits our mutual security and prosperity. It is a relationship we greatly value, and I am grateful to all Members of this House and the other place for their support in helping to ensure that the UK-Qatar relationship attains new heights.

Sitting suspended.