The Earl of Courtown (Con)
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.