10 December 2020
James Cleverly responds to debate on UK relations with Qatar

James Cleverly responds on behalf of the Government to a Westminster Hall debate on UK relations with Qatar.


The Minister for the Middle East and North Africa (James Cleverly)

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) for securing the debate and giving me, on behalf of the Government, as well as other right hon. and hon. Members, the opportunity to speak positively, openly and frankly about the UK’s relationship with Qatar.

I pay tribute to the all-party parliamentary group for the work it does and the commitment of its members to building on what is already a strong UK-Qatari relationship. Qatar is one of our closest allies in the region, and the group plays a crucial role in fostering those links through open and constructive dialogue. I had the pleasure of visiting Qatar in October as part of my first official visit to the Gulf. My time in Doha emphasised to me the deep-rooted nature and the dynamism of our bilateral relationship, from trade and investment to energy and defence, from sport and culture to education and healthcare.

We have heard a number of speeches from right hon. and hon. Members on those important areas and I will touch on a number of them shortly. My dear and hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess) speaks almost as passionately about Doha as he does about his great soon-to-be city, Southend. I do hope that I get an official invitation to the twinning ceremony between Doha and Southend, were that to happen. He made the important and very true point about UK-Qatari relations that the person-to-person relationships matter hugely. On my visit, I was warmly welcomed by Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Sultan bin Saad al-Muraikhi and Lolwah al-Khater.

I was reminded that over 16,000 British nationals live and work in Qatar, and the UK is a second home to many Qataris. There were a record 175,000 visits from Qatar to the UK in 2019, worth over half a billion pounds to the UK economy. I am particularly pleased to note that, since last month, travellers from Qatar can come to the UK without the need for quarantine on arrival. I hope that, in the near future, UK travellers will be able to visit Qatar under the same circumstances.

I echo publicly the thanks that I made privately to Akbar Al Baker, chief executive officer of Qatar Airways, to acknowledge its invaluable support during the repatriation of British nationals. In the intervening period, Qatar Airways has become the biggest international airline for passengers and cargo. It played an essential role in the repatriation efforts of British nationals earlier this year.

Mr Carmichael 

The Minister is right to highlight the role of Qatar Airways. He will also be aware that, as things stand in relation to covid, the contribution of Qatar in respect of the Gavi summit has been significant. Will he recognise that contribution and see how we might build on it as the vaccination programme goes live in this country? We need to share that expertise around the globe.

James Cleverly 

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for highlighting that. As I have said both publicly and privately, I was struck by the fact that, during these times of intense difficulties, the strength of these bilateral friendships has really come to the fore. That is particularly true, as he says, in relation to the vaccine summit, and I have no doubt that it will continue to be true for the distribution of the vaccine, or vaccines, as we collectively—globally—take the fight to covid.

During my visit, I was fortunate to build on recent engagement by my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary, the Defence Secretary and the Home Secretary, all of whom have met Qatari Ministers in recent months. Those close ties allow us to engage on difficult topics and influence change. In line with many of the comments of colleagues today, the UK Government do not shy away from raising human rights concerns whenever and wherever required, in public as well as in private. We welcome the announcement of elections to the Shura Council and look forward to watching those go ahead.

We also welcome the concrete steps that Qatar has taken to date on workers’ rights, with significant reforms, including the abolition of exit permits for almost all workers, as has been mentioned, and a non-discriminatory minimum wage. We hope for full implementation of those measures. Everyone deserves the right to work safely and securely, whether in Qatar, the UK or anywhere else. We continue to engage regularly with international labour organisations and explore areas of their work where the UK can add particular value. We stand ready further to assist and support Qatar’s continued efforts to implement change.

Jim Shannon 

On reform and labour relations, I referred to the reforms not going far enough. Will the Minister give some indication of what the Government are doing to ensure that the reforms go that stage further and give workers’ rights the protections that we all want?

James Cleverly 

This is an area that we discuss regularly. Indeed, I have discussed it with my interlocutors from Qatar, and I think they understand—I will come to this shortly—that hosting the World cup means that the eyes and attention of the world will be directed towards them, which gives them an opportunity to demonstrate progress. I very much get the feeling that they embrace the opportunity to make progress and to demonstrate that progress, which the World cup provides.

Many Members spoke of the strong trade and investment links between our two countries. I am pleased that we have representatives from all the home nations of the United Kingdom, because our bilateral relationship provides jobs in all corners of the UK and could help to support the Government’s levelling-up agenda as we build back better post-covid. Trade between the UK and Qatar stands at just over £7 billion, of which £4.3 billion is from UK exports. Qatar is the third largest export market in the region for British firms.

Qatar is also a major investor in the UK, playing a huge role in a variety of developments, from Chelsea Barracks, just a short walk from here, to Middlewood Locks in Manchester and Get Living’s build-to-rent scheme in Glasgow. Direct investment is estimated at £40 billion and growing. In October, Qatar Petroleum announced a long-term contract with National Grid for capacity on the Isle of Grain natural gas import terminal east of London. As with the South Hook terminal in Wales, this agreement will help to secure jobs in that area and strengthen the UK’s energy security. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) talked about the importance of renewable energy.

This week, the Lord Mayor of London has been in Doha, furthering the financial services link between the two countries and the City of London. That builds on the recent groundbreaking decision by Qatar National Bank to issue its first green bonds—a first for Qatar. That green bond issue was done on the London Stock Exchange. As we do with all countries around the world and in the region, we encourage Qatar to be bold in its nationally defined contributions ahead of COP 26 later this year.

Qatar and the UK also share an enduring defence partnership, most notably through the joint Typhoon squadron, as has been mentioned—the first joint air squadron since the second world war. Only yesterday, we saw the completion of Exercise Epic Skies—a good name for an air exercise—which is a joint exercise between the RAF and the Qatari Emiri air force. Similarly, we maintain close working relationships with the Qatari law enforcement agencies. Fighting the scourge of terrorism is a global and shared challenge, and we welcome the steps that Qatar has taken in recent years, including a new law on combating money laundering and terrorist financing.

Unsurprisingly, much of our co-operation in recent years has been on the World cup. The World cup has driven collaboration across commercial, defence and security areas. During my recent visit, I had the opportunity to tour the Education City stadium, one of the World cup venues, and saw for myself Qatar’s ambition for the tournament, and the obvious pride that it takes in hosting it. British creativity will be front and centre, from the Al Janoub stadium, designed by the late British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid, to the role that UK company Techniche plays through its cooling vests for construction workers.

Speaking about engagement, I specifically raised the issue of LGBTQ football fans with the head of the World cup Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy, Hassan Al Thawadi. I was very pleased that he engaged fully and properly with that issue. It is something that the Qataris take seriously; they want to demonstrate to the world the progress they are making. In all, the 2022 World cup has led to over £1 billion of UK export wins, and I hope that the home nation football teams that qualify—I am a Minister for the whole UK, so I will be agnostic as to which of the home nations do better—do well.

Beyond sport, many Members have noted the important role that Qatar plays in regional and global issues. We commend Qatar’s support for peace in Afghanistan, acting as the host for ongoing Afghan peace negotiations. Qatar is an important development and humanitarian partner for the UK. We are keen to deepen and further this as we look forward to 2021 and beyond. We are encouraging our Qatari counterparts to play a leading role in tackling climate change ahead of COP 26.

Following encouraging signs of progress over the weekend, I reiterate the UK Government’s position on the Gulf dispute. As the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) mentioned, the Gulf Co-operation Council is very important to us. GCC unity matters for the security and stability of the region; it is an issue that I bring up with all our regional partners. We continue to engage with our Gulf friends on this issue, and we firmly get behind and praise Kuwait’s mediation role in this issue. Qatar is a close friend and important ally to the United Kingdom. As we approach Qatar’s national day next week, and the 50th anniversary of our official diplomatic relations, the UK stands committed to work with Qatar in pursuit of all our shared objectives and solutions to global challenges.