On 20 January 2022, the House of Lords is due to debate the following question for short debate:

Lord Moynihan (Conservative) to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of current relations with the government of Qatar.

Recent developments: the 2017–2021 Qatar crisis

Qatar is a small nation in terms of geographical size and population, with 2.4 million residents, only around 300,000 of whom are citizens. However, it has significant natural and financial resources, and has sought to exert influence on the regional and international stage, at times at odds with its neighbouring Gulf states. In particular, Qatar has engaged with or maintained ties with a range of diverse actors in the region such as Sunni Islamist groups and Iran, earning the ire of fellow Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members.

This was particularly evident in 2017, when Qatar’s support for regional Muslim Brotherhood organisations, Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran, and the activities of its Al Jazeera media network contributed to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, and selected other governments all severing relations with Qatar. These states imposed limits on the entry and transit of Qatari nationals and vessels in their territories, waters, and airspace. During this time, Qatar left the oil-producers organisation (OPEC) and sought to deepen its ties with Turkey and Iran.

Tensions persisted until January 2021, when Saudi Arabia and its allies agreed to lift the blockade, and Qatar agreed to drop its pursuit of legal cases against those countries in international organisations. Writing in October 2021, specialist in International Affairs in the Congressional Research Service, Kenneth Katzman, noted that the intra-GCC reconciliation process had since progressed “albeit unevenly, and particularly slowly with the UAE”.

The Qatari economy, trade, and human rights

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office provides the following high-level indicator data on the Qatari economy:

Indicator Value Global ranking (1–185)
2020 2021 forecast 2026 forecast 2020 2021 forecast 2026 forecast
Population 2.7 2.7 3.0 135 133 128
Nominal GDP ($US bn) 145.5 169.2 203.7 58 56 56
GDP/capita ($US) 54,185 61,791 70,734 9 10 13
Real annual GDP growth (%) -3.6% 1.9 4.2 87 150 53

Source: Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Qatar Economic Factsheet, December 2021.

Data published by the Department of International Trade in December 2021 reveals that Qatar was the UK’s 43rd largest trading partner in the four quarters to the end of Q2 2021, accounting for 0.4% of total UK trade:

Total trade in goods and services (exports plus imports) between the UK and Qatar was £4.3bn in the four quarters to the end of Q2 2021, a decrease of 35.5% or £2.4bn from the four quarters to the end of Q2 2020. Of this £4.3bn:

  • Total UK exports to Qatar amounted to £2.8bn in the four quarters to the end of Q2 2021 (a decrease of 32.7% or £1.4bn compared to the four quarters to the end of Q2 2020);
  • Total UK imports from Qatar amounted to £1.4bn in the four quarters to the end of Q2 2021 (a decrease of 40.5% or £968mn compared to the four quarters to the end of Q2 2020).

Source: Department of International Trade, Trade and Investment Factsheet: Qatar, December 2021.

A March 2021 report from the US State Department also summarised significant human rights concerns in the country, which included:

[R]estrictions on free expression, including criminalisation of libel; restrictions on peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including prohibitions on political parties and [labour] unions; restrictions on migrant workers’ freedom of movement; limits on the ability of citizens to choose their government in free and fair elections; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; criminalisation of consensual same-sex sexual conduct; and reports of forced [labour].

The 2022 World Cup and migrant labour

The awarding of the Football World Cup to Qatar for 2022 has drawn criticism, not least because of the country’s poor record on worker rights, especially for migrants, and the country’s history of discrimination against LGBT+ people. According to recent estimates, as much as 95 percent of the Qatari workforce are migrant workers. Indeed, Qatar has the fifth highest proportion of its population consisting of international migrants in the world (77 percent). Migrants also represent significant proportions of the population in the UAE (88 percent) and Kuwait (73 percent).

Qatar has announced reforms to its labour policies in recent years (since the award of the world cup). They include the abolition of exit permits and a non-discriminatory minimum wage. As part of these reforms, Qatar abolished the kafala (“sponsorship”) system—still in use in other Gulf states—which required migrant workers to obtain their employer’s permission before changing jobs, which had reduced their mobility and increased their risk of exploitation.

However, whilst these moves have been welcomed, including by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the country has continued to face criticism over the treatment of its migrant workforce. For example, a recent report from Amnesty International contended that progress had stagnated, allowing old abusive practices to resurface and “reviving the worst elements of kafala and undermining some of the recent reforms”.

The International Labour Organisation has also published a recent report on work-related deaths and injuries in Qatar, which called for better quality and more accurate data collection with regards to these type of incidents. The report also called for more efforts to investigate injuries and fatalities that may be work-related but are not currently categorised as such.

The UK Government’s relationship with Qatar and GCC states

In answer to a recent written question, Minister of State for Middle East and North Africa James Cleverly described the relationship between the UK and Qatar as “more important than ever” and said that the UK looked forward to continued collaboration to strengthen shared security interests for both regional and global stability. In the same response, Mr Cleverly replied to questions regarding controversial Qatari support for groups such as Hamas by stating that the UK called upon all those able to influence Hamas to “encourage them” to renounce violence, recognise Israel and accept previously signed agreements.

In June 2021, the UK and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) completed a joint trade and investment review to explore new opportunities to boost their trading relationship. The review assessed the current state of the trade and investment relationship and outlined opportunities to enhance collaboration going forward.

Subsequently, the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, sought to use a two-day trip to the region in October 2021 to explore cleaner and more reliable infrastructure, and “much needed financing into developing and developed nations”. This was followed in December 2021 by a summit at Chevening and a joint communique on strengthening cooperation from the Foreign Secretary and the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Kuwait; the UAE Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations; and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Secretary-General. The release stated:

The Foreign Ministers agreed the UK-GCC relationship will be strengthened across all fields. The UK and the GCC already cooperate closely in a wide range of areas including political dialogue, security, foreign policy, trade and investment, and development, and the Foreign Ministers committed to expand our shared ambition and develop the partnership in emerging areas such as clean technology, digital infrastructure and cyber. This reenergised UK/GCC partnership will help keep UK and GCC citizens safe, and generate business opportunities and jobs.

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Cover image by Radoslaw Prekurat on Unsplash.