Qatar spent more money on gifts and travel for British MPs than any other country last year observer Analysis revealing Gulf state lobbying ahead of next month’s soccer World Cup.
The Qatar government gave gifts worth £251,208 to MPs in the 12 months to October 2022, including luxury hotel stays, business class flights and horse racing tickets.
The value of Qatar’s gifts was more than the amount spent by the 15 other countries whose governments had donated to British MPs. And it was more than six times the £37,661 in gifts and hospitality bestowed on MPs by the United Arab Emirates, the second-highest foreign government donor.
Gifts over the past 12 months also far exceeded those from Qatar in any other year for which records are available, showing how the authorities stepped up their efforts to charm British MPs ahead of the World Cup. Records show MPs have declared gifts and hospitality worth around £100,000 from Qatar in the five years to October 2021, but more than doubled that amount in the last 12 months alone.
Transparency International said it was “extremely worrying” that MPs were accepting “thousands of pounds worth of hospitality from foreign governments with questionable human rights records” and that doing so could “open the floodgates to undue influence”. However, there is no indication that an MP broke any rules.
The Qatari government did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In some cases, MPs who received freebies later appeared to speak positively about Qatar in parliamentary debates or to divert attention from issues the authorities were keen to downplay.
During a debate on preparations for the World Cup earlier this month, Alun Cairns, leader of an informal parliamentary group set up to “promote good relations between the UK and Qatar,” gave a speech praising Qatar, including a “homage” to his response to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
Cairns, Tory MP for the Vale of Glamorgan, initiated the debate on October 20 and later shared videos of it on Twitter with a quote from Nelson Mandela: “Sport has the power to change the world.”
Records show he received donations worth £9,323 from the Qatar government in 2022, for a five-day trip in February to meet officials alongside other members of Qatar’s All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) and for a trip Month later after attend the Doha Forum political event.
APPG Deputy Chair David Mundell, who accepted hospitality worth £7,473 from Qatar for a trip last October, also contributed to the debate, responding to a concern from another MP about LGBTQ rights in Qatar by saying: said critics should “focus their energies on how to deal with LGBT issues in professional football in the UK” – “Rather than just pointing out problems that could arise in other countries, we still need to focus on issues at home,” he said.
Mundell, the first openly gay Conservative cabinet minister, also gave an interview to Qatar’s state agency earlier this year in which he criticized “unfounded” media coverage of a report on workers’ rights in Qatar’s file. He failed to mention the International Labor Organization’s finding that “despite achievement of milestones” on workers’ rights in Qatar, there were “gaps in implementation” or its previous research, which found that 50 workers lost their lives in Qatar in 2020 alone , more than 500 seriously injured and 37,600 with minor to moderate injuries.
Both MEPs referred to their declared interests in the parliamentary debate. Mundell did not respond to requests for comment. A Qatar APPG statement, transmitted via Cairns, said the group had “played an active role in reviewing all aspects of the UK-Qatar relationship, including human rights, ethics, education, energy and infrastructure”.
Details of Qatar’s donations were revealed through analysis of statements in MPs’ register of interests. Records show that 34 MPs declared 40 donations from Qatar in the year to October 2022. Of these, 22 MPs were Tory, seven Labor, three SNP and two Independent.
Most of the money was spent on trips to Qatar for Qatar APPG members to meet ministers and government officials.
During two trips, in October 2021 and February 2022, British MPs traveled to Qatar to discuss issues such as “World Cup preparations, labor rights reform and bilateral relations” and Qatar’s “humanitarian and political response to the Afghan crisis”. , show transparency logs.
Qatar’s Foreign Ministry paid for the all-inclusive visits, typically spending £7,000 to £8,000 per person on flights, hotels and meals over a seven-day trip.
A source said observer that MEPs on a trip were staying in luxury hotels with “huge swimming pools” and traveling in business class on Qatar Airways. Some MPs were taken to a camel race and had a private dinner with officials involved in running the Fifa World Cup.
They said MPs gave officials “two barrels worth” on matters including LGBTQ rights, but that they were “smooth and charming” and their aim was clear: “to improve Qatar’s reputation in the world”.
“In particular, they wanted to minimize criticism of their role at the World Cup,” the source said. “I came back just as critical. Maybe a couple would have been more likeable.”
The APPG did not comment on claims that officials received luxury treatment or which government officials the MPs met with during the trips, but said that visits “meet with a number of ministers and NGOs, including those from the UN sponsored International Labor Organisation”.
Qatar’s Ministry of Culture and Sport, meanwhile, paid two MPs to attend the Qatar-sponsored Goodwood Festival in Sussex in July, transparency records say. The MPs were Sir John Whittingdale OBE, the Conservative MP and former Culture Secretary, who took a plus one and explained the gift was worth £1,200, and Nigel Evans, the Conservative MP for the Ribble Valley. It was the third donation for Evans from Qatar in nine months. Neither Whittingdale nor Evans responded to requests for comment.
The findings will raise concerns about attempted backdoor lobbying by foreign governments in the UK. Other countries that have donated to MPs in the last 12 months are Bahrain, Somaliland, Azerbaijan, San Marino and Kuwait. Lobbying by China and Russia was previously exposed.
Transparency International’s Rose Whiffen said “too many MPs” show “poor judgment” when accepting gifts from foreign governments. She added that they “need to seriously consider whether it’s appropriate to accept such trips – not just whether they’re allowed to.” Chris Bryant, Labor MP and Chair of the Commons Committee on Standards, has warned that Parliament is “particularly vulnerable” to foreign influence and said during a debate in December that “we should be aware of the danger that a seek foreign power could lobby… through the back door.”
Bryant is one of the MPs who accepted a donation in kind from Qatar in the form of a travel allowance, but told parliament in May he regretted doing so. He has advocated for US-style rules preventing members of Congress from accepting donations and gifts from foreign governments. All stays abroad are paid for by the Congress.
Relations between Britain and Qatar have strengthened in recent years. In May, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a “strategic investment partnership” under which Qatar will invest in key sectors of the UK economy over the next five years, including fintech, life sciences and cybersecurity. Downing Street said the deal would create new jobs in the UK and would be worth up to £10billion.
Days later, the Defense Ministry announced that it would fund counter-terrorism training for Qatar’s military ahead of the World Cup. Air and sea support will be provided by the RAF and Royal Navy throughout the tournament.
Last week, Secretary of State James Cleverly was criticized after telling gay football fans to be respectful when attending the World Cup in Qatar, which criminalizes their sexuality.
Speaking on LBC’s Nick Ferrari at Breakfast show, he suggested they show “a bit of flexibility and compromise” and are “respectful to the host nation”. Labor called the comments “shockingly unmusical”.