As the Qatari-owned thoroughbred Lady Princess romped to victory at the Qatar Goodwood Festival, four leading MPs were enjoying the Gulf emirate’s hospitality.
The recipients at the West Sussex festival in July 2021 included the speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, and Conservative MP Nigel Evans, honorary president of the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on UK-Qatar relations.
In the 12 years since the tiny, gas-rich state was named as the host of World Cup 2022, reigniting scrutiny of its oppression of LGBTQ+ people and its questionable record on human rights, Qatar has doubled down on enhancing its decades-old friendship with British politicians.
At least 58 British MPs have been flown to Doha at the emirate’s expense since it was awarded in 2010, a Guardian analysis of public records shows.
Those trips have come at a cost of more than £400,000 – more than £250,000 in the last year alone. That is on top of the £4,000 worth of food, drink and accommodation donated to the quartet of MPs on that July day at Goodwood, rebranded in 2015 under a 10-year sponsorship deal, courtesy of Qatar’s ministry of sport and its UK embassy.
Over the same period, ministers have received ornaments, a rug and luxury hampers from Fortnum & Mason and Qatar-owned Harrods, while the emir sent Boris Johnson a clock in 2019 on his appointment as prime minister.
In some cases, analysis by the Observer found last month that MPs appeared to speak favourably of Qatar in parliament after benefiting from the emirate’s largesse.
Professor David Roberts, a Gulf region and defence expert at King’s College London, said: “The Qataris clearly feel that they are buying something, a certain understanding or sympathy.
“They would say it’s educating people as to their side of the story and it’s not unreasonable for them to point to the improvements they’ve made.”
But in practice, Qatar’s influence in the UK is founded on far more than hospitality and gifts.
The relationship has flourished thanks to multibillion-pound arms contracts, royal friendships, vital gas imports and £40bn of Qatari investment in the UK, all contributing to an influence network that reaches to the heart of government.
Members of Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family, including the current emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, were educated in the UK. Many more have made London their second home, building unrivalled connections to the very pinnacle of British social hierarchy.
Earlier this year, the Sunday Times claimed that Qatar’s former prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, had given the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III, €3m in charitable donations in cash between 2011 and 2015, some of it in Fortnum & Mason bags.
The Emir, Tamim Al Thani, was one of the few Gulf leaders to attend the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. His cousin, horse racing enthusiast Hamad bin Abdullah, was among the even more select group at her committal, at Windsor Castle.
Fittingly, the military forces commanded by the sovereigns of both nations operate in lockstep under an arms supply arrangement that dates back to 1996, the year after a bloodless coup put in place the current Qatari line of succession.
In September, the emir watched at Dukhan Airbase as his air force took delivery of the first batch of 24 Eurofighter Typhoons, built in Lancashire and supplied as part of a £5bn deal with BAE Systems.
Qatar has also bought F-35s from the US and Dassault Rafale jets from France, spreading its purchases in a move that may be more about international alliances than coherent air power strategy, according to defence analyst Francis Tusa.
“It makes no sense for them to run three separate fighter planes,” he said.
“You can’t share simulators and they don’t have the same engines, so maintenance is completely different.
“It’s very much a political move. They’ve used the defence dollar to buy influence with Britain, France and the US.”
So close is UK-Qatari cooperation in the skies that it has spawned two joint squadrons between the nations’ air forces, the first, according to the RAF Museum, since British pilots flew alongside counterparts from countries including France, Poland and Czechoslovakia in 1944.
One of them, 12 Squadron, will patrol the skies above the stadiums during the World Cup, its pilots among 200 RAF personnel who will deploy to the Gulf state during the World Cup as part of the security mission dubbed Project Thariyat.
The roots of this military relationship go back 100 years. A British protectorate from 1916 to 1971, Qatar declared independence around the same time that it discovered one of the world’s largest gas fields, shared with Iran.
The former emir, Hamad bin Khalifa, and his prime minister, Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, shrewdly funnelled that natural resource windfall into a sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), founded in 2005. In just 17 years, the QIA has rapidly become a $450bn global investment powerhouse.
Qatar’s fearsome financial muscle, flexed via the QIA as well its ruling elite’s personal wealth, has been used not just to buy up prestige assets in London – such as Harrods and Claridge’s Hotel – but also to purchase military hardware, leading to controversy on one occasion.
In 1996, BAE Systems and Qatar signed a £500m arms contract, brokered by then-Tory defence minister Michael Portillo, that included the supply of Piranha armoured vehicles. It later emerged that the deal involved the transfer of £7m into two Jersey trusts of which Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani, then foreign minister, was a beneficiary.
The funds were frozen by the Jersey Financial Services Commission, which then began a court case and investigation. In 2002, the Guardian reported that HBJ had paid the Jersey authorities £6m as a “voluntary reparation” as “the structures put in place by his advisers may have contributed to the cost and complexity of the inquiry”.
The case was dropped and BAE, and HBJ denied any wrongdoing.
In the years that followed, Qatar’s relations with Tony Blair’s Britain improved, particularly after the emirate allowed its airbases to be used as a staging post for military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
More recently, the relationship has focused on a different kind of security – energy.
Qatar is a key source of liquefied natural gas (LNG), the alternative to pipeline supplies from Europe, which are under threat as Russia turns off the tap in a standoff over Ukraine.
At times over the past decade, Qatar has supplied nearly all of Britain’s LNG, a form of ship-transported, hyper-cooled gas that accounts for about a fifth of UK supply.
The emirate’s share of UK LNG imports has declined since hitting 98% in 2012 but, amid soaring gas prices even before the war, Boris Johnson asked the emir for help in late 2021. Talks about “sustainable gas supplies” continued into this year.
In May, the two nations issued a joint communique stating that Qatar planned to invest £10bn in the UK. Johnson and the Emir went on to discuss the upcoming World Cup, for which former England captain David Beckham has served, controversially, as an ambassador.
Military and energy alliances define the Qatari-UK relationship but it has also blossomed thanks to political connections.
The all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on Qatar counts 14 MPs and Lords as members, and the group has made several trips to Doha on fact-finding missions.
Earlier this year, Alun Cairns became chairman of the APPG as a result of a ballot that attracted votes from 91 MPs. The APPG has previously refused to comment on reports that Qatar had been keen to see him installed as its chairman.
Cairns said the group played “an active role in scrutinising all aspects of UK-Qatar relations, including human rights, ethics, education, energy and infrastructure.”
Questions have been raised about the presence of two businessmen during one of the group’s trips to Qatar.
An Isle of Man-based hedge fund, Argo Capital Management, has been named as the APPG’s secretariat, with Argo employee Jeremy Bradshaw listed as the group’s point of contact.
One MP, who spoke to Business Insider, said Bradshaw was present during the group’s visit to Qatar in 2021. Bradshaw did not respond to the Guardian’s questions about his reported presence on the trip.
Bradshaw once stood unsuccessfully as a Conservative candidate and is reportedly a friend of Nigel Evans, deputy speaker of the House of Commons and honorary president of the Qatar APPG. He is also listed as a point of contact for the Conservative parliamentary China group.
Bradshaw told the Guardian he had since stood down from his role with the APPG.
Another figure who reportedly organised a lunch with a Qatari official during the same trip is Dominic Armstrong, a corporate intelligence expert and co-founder of private military company Aegis Defence Services.
Armstrong attended a 2021 meeting between trade minister Lord Grimstone, Rolls-Royce and two members of the Qatari ruling elite.
It was one of six meetings that Grimstone held with Qatari companies and representatives that year, culminating in the emirate making an £85m investment in Rolls-Royce’s plans to build a fleet of small nuclear reactors. Armstrong has previously confirmed that he acted as an adviser on the deal.
Armstrong did not return requests for comment.