Qatar: what the media isn’t reporting
by Ian Sinclair
21 November 2022
‘Qatar Struggles To Shift Focus Away From Workers’ Rights’.
The headline in the Financial Times earlier this month confirms PR-savvy Qatar, hyper aware of the soft power boost hosting the 2022 football World Cup could be expected to create, is having trouble controlling the narrative.
The UK media, and members of the British political elite including Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, have repeatedly drawn attention to the plight of migrant labourers who have built the stadiums in the wealthy Gulf emirate – and also the terrible situation for LGBTQI+ people living there. “Homosexuality is illegal in Qatar, attracting punishments of up to seven years in prison,” The Guardian recently reported.
Embarrassing – and important – though these two issues are for Qatar, it is worth taking the time to consider what the UK media, with a few honourable exceptions, isn’t talking about when it comes to the tiny energy-rich state.
For example, one rarely sees a serious exploration of Qatar’s political system which, like many of its neighbours, is an absolute monarchy, according to the CIA World Handbook. The Emir is the Head of State, and he chooses the prime minister, deputy prime minister and council of ministers. 30 of the 45 members of the Advisory Council, or Majlis al-Shura, are elected by popular vote, though legislative drafting authority rests with the Council of Ministers and is only reviewed by the Advisory Council. And it is a deeply repressive monarchy, with Reporters Without Borders noting “Qatari journalists are left little leeway by the oppressive legislative arsenal and draconian system of censorship.” To give one example: in 2012 Qatari poet Rashid al-Ajami was jailed for 15 years – and let out after three years – for reciting a poem, in Cairo, that was “indirectly critical” of the Emir, according to The Guardian.
Second, Qatar’s key role in worsening the climate crisis. As the Guardian explained in May, “the world’s biggest fossil fuel firms are quietly planning scores of ‘carbon bomb’ oil and gas projects that would drive the climate past internationally agreed temperature limits with catastrophic global impacts”. The report cited research by German NGO Urgewald which found state-owned QatarEnergy tops the list of companies with the largest planned expansion of oil and gas in the next seven years, putting it ahead of Gazprom, Saudi Aramco and ExxonMobil.
Third, Qatar’s underhand roles in escalating the wars in Libya and Syria. In 2011 – with what the New York Times called “the blessing” of the US – Doha supplied arms to the rebels fighting to overthrow Gaddafi. However, as the New York Times went on to report “American officials later grew alarmed as evidence grew that Qatar was turning some of the weapons over to Islamic militants.” Similarly, Qatar has also been a key player in the Syrian war, with the Financial Times estimating Doha had provided £3 billion in funding to anti-Assad forces. Like in Libya, questions have been raised about the extent of Qatar’s relationship with jihadist elements in the Syrian opposition. “You have to ask who is arming, who is financing ISIS troops. The keyword there is Qatar,” German Development Minister Gerd Mueller said in 2014. The same year US Treasury Department Under Secretary David Cohen singled out Qatar as an especially “permissive jurisdiction” for terrorist financing, including of extremist groups operating in Syria.
Which leads me to the final fact largely ignored by the British media – the UK’s close relationship with Qatar and the other autocracies in the Gulf.
In May then Prime Minister Boris Johnson described Qatar as “a valued partner for the UK”. This enduring friendship meant £384 million worth of UK military export licences to Qatar were granted between 2015 and 2018, with UK fighter jets stationed at Al Udeid Air Base in the Gulf emirate. In 2017 Britain sold Qatar 24 Eurofighter Typhoon jets in a £6bn deal, which included the creation of a new (temporary) UK-based Typhoon joint UK-Qatari squadron, initially based at RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire.
As Dr David Wearing notes in his book AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters to Britain, the UK, under both Labour and Tory governments, has played an important role “in the promotion and preservation of monarchical rule in the region”.
One reason these inconvenient facts are rarely mentioned, let alone seriously discussed, is the massive effort and resources Qatar has put into burnishing its image on the international stage, especially in the US and UK.
After the start of the blockade of Qatar by Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates in 2017, Doha “hired an army of lobbyists and public relations professionals” to target Washington, D.C., Ben Freeman explained in a 2020 Center for International Policy report. This “extraordinary influence operation” included 33 different firms serving as Qatar’s registered foreign agents in the US, with Qatari foreign agents contacting the offices of more than two-thirds of all members of Congress. In the UK “Qatar has spent more money on gifts and trips for British MPs in the past year than any other country,” the Observer reported last month.
Beyond direct lobbying, Qatar projects soft power through various media outlets, including the popular Aljazeera television news channel – and Aljazeera English for Western audiences.
Like its Gulf neighbours, Qatar has also spent considerable money funding prominent Western research institutes and universities. In 2013 it gave $14.8 million to US-based The Brookings Institution thinktank in 2013, while the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development donated £2.4 million to establish a Professorship in Contemporary Islamic Studies at the University of Oxford. In 2007 the UK’s influential Royal United Services Institute ‘defence’ thinktank opened up a branch in Qatar to “conduct research and organise conferences, on specific security questions affecting Qatar, the Gulf and the broader Middle East… as well as strengthening the traditional close links between the United Kingdom and the State of Qatar.”
In addition, a number of Western universities, such as University College London, have campuses in Qatar, and some Western specialists on the Gulf states, including Professor Gerd Nonneman and Dr Marc Owen Jones, work at Qatar-based universities.
What all this means is that many of the researchers and academics who should be the first port of call for independent, critical analysis and expertise on Qatar and the wider Gulf region are often fatally compromised.
“Donors have usually been able to rely on a culture of self-censorship taking root in the recipient institutions,” academic Dr Christopher Davidson explained about Gulf funding in his 2012 book After
The Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies. “It is almost inconceivable… to imagine an academic with no alternative source of income researching and writing a serious critique of a regime that has either paid for his or her salary, scholarship, or the building that houses his or her office”.
To confirm, it’s not a conspiracy, and generally not the result of overt direction. Rather it’s the logical outcome of funding sources, career preservation and conventional human behaviour (“it’s a lot easier to accept and conform than to attack power,” Noam Chomsky pithily noted in a recent interview). And access too – if your academic research relies on visiting one or more of the Gulf states, would you risk this by making public criticisms of the ruling elites in those nations?
It should be noted that Davidson, by publicly drawing attention to this hugely important issue, is a rare voice of honesty amongst Gulf scholars. That many academics working on Qatar and the wider Gulf are steered away from certain topics and conclusions is the great unmentionable in the relatively small Gulf-focussed research community. And journalists, our supposed heroic seekers of truth, are themselves unlikely to draw attention to these squalid compromises, keen to maintain good relations with researchers for quotes and background information, and to visit the Gulf for their own work.
Of course, the British government is more than happy for its close, supportive relationship with Qatar to remain out of sight. As a UK “senior official” was quoted as saying in a 1997 book published by the establishment thinktank Chatham House: “Much of our foreign policy is conducted on the sly for fear that it would raise hackles at home if people knew what we were pushing for.”
In contrast, the job of activists and concerned citizens is to bring the UK’s reprehensible dealings with Gulf elites to the public’s attention.
And the World Cup provides a golden opportunity to push the debate beyond migrant and LGBTQI+ rights, and raise awareness about the UK’s decades-long support for the authoritarian monarchy in Doha at the expense of the democratic aspirations of the general population in Qatar and the rest of the Gulf.