Qatar has spent more money on gifts and trips for British MPs in the past year than any other country, according to Observer analysis that reveals the Gulf state’s lobbying efforts ahead of next month’s football World Cup.
The Qatari government made gifts to members of parliament worth £251,208 in the 12 months to October 2022, including luxury hotel stays, business-class flights and tickets to horse-racing events.
The value of Qatar’s gifts was greater than the amount spent by the 15 other countries whose governments made donations to British MPs combined. And it was more than six times the £37,661 in gifts and hospitality given to MPs by the United Arab Emirates, the second-highest foreign government donor.
The gifts for the past 12 months also far outstripped those from Qatar in any other year for which records are available, revealing how authorities ramped up efforts to charm British MPs ahead of the World Cup. Records show MPs declared about £100,000 worth of gifts and hospitality from Qatar in the five years to October 2021, but more than double that in the last 12 months alone.
Transparency International said it was “extremely concerning” that MPs were accepting “thousands of pounds worth of hospitality from foreign governments with questionable human rights records” and that this could “leave the door open to undue influence.” There is no suggestion that any MP broke rules, however.
The Qatari government failed to respond to repeated requests for comment.
In some cases, MPs who received freebies later appeared to speak favourably about Qatar in parliamentary debates, or to deflect attention away from issues that the authorities have been keen to downplay.
During a debate about preparations for the World Cup earlier this month, Alun Cairns, who chairs an informal parliamentary group set up to “foster good relations between the UK and Qatar”, made a speech praising Qatar, including “paying tribute” to its response to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan.
Cairns, Tory MP for the Vale of Glamorgan, initiated the debate on 20 October and later shared videos of it on Twitter alongside a Nelson Mandela quote: “Sport has the power to change the world.”
Records show he received £9,323 worth of donations from the Qatari government in 2022, for a five-day trip in February to meet officials alongside other members of the Qatar all-party parliamentary group (APPG), and for a trip a month later to attend the Doha Forum policy event.
The APPG’s 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 raised by another MP about LGBTQ rights in Qatar by saying critics should “focus their energies on the handling of LGBT issues in professional football in the UK” – “Rather than simply point out issues that might arise in other countries, we still need to focus on issues at home,” he said.
Mundell, who was the first openly gay Conservative cabinet minister, also gave an interview to Qatar’s state-run agency this year in which he criticised “baseless” media coverage about a report into Qatar’s record on worker rights. He did not mention the International Labour Organization’s finding that “despite milestones being reached” on worker rights in Qatar, there were “gaps in implementation”, nor its past research which found that 50 workers in Qatar lost their lives in 2020 alone, with over 500 severely injured and 37,600 suffering mild to moderate injuries.
Both MPs referred to their declared interests during the parliamentary debate. Mundell did not respond to requests for comment. A statement from the Qatar APPG, provided via Cairns, said the group played an “active role in scrutinising all aspects of UK-Qatar relations, including human rights, ethics, education, energy and infrastructure”.
Details of Qatar’s donations were revealed through analysis of declarations in the MPs register of interests. The records show 34 MPs declared 40 donations from Qatar in the year to October 2022. Of those, 22 MPs were Tory, seven were Labour, three were SNP and two were independent.
Most of the money was spent on trips to Qatar for members of the Qatar APPG to meet ministers and government officials.
During two trips, in October 2021 and February 2022, British MPs travelled to Qatar to discuss issues including “preparations for the World Cup, workers’ rights reform and bilateral relations”, as well as Qatar’s “humanitarian and political response to the Afghanistan crisis”, transparency logs show.
The Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs paid for the all-inclusive visits, typically spending £7,000 to £8,000 per person for flights, hotels and meals during a seven-day trip.
A source told the Observer that MPs on one trip were put up in luxury hotels with “vast swimming pools” and travelled business class on Qatar Airways. Some MPs were taken to a camel-racing event and had a private dinner with officials involved in the delivery of the Fifa World Cup.
They said that MPs gave officials “two barrels worth” over issues, including LGBTQ rights, but that they were “slick and charming” and their goal was clear: “To improve Qatar’s reputation in the world.”
“In particular, they wanted to minimise the criticism of their role in the World Cup,” the source said. “I came back equally critical. Maybe a couple would have been more sympathetic.”
The APPG did not comment on the claims that officials were given luxury treatment or say which government officials MPs met with during the trips, but said visits “include meetings with a range of ministers and NGOs, including the UN Sponsored International Labour Organization”.
Qatar’s Ministry of Culture and Sports, meanwhile, paid for two MPs to attend the Qatar-sponsored Goodwood festival in Sussex in July, according to the transparency records. The MPs were Sir John Whittingdale OBE, the Conservative MP and former culture secretary, who took a plus one and declared the gift as being worth £1,200, and Nigel Evans, 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 fuel concerns about attempted backdoor lobbying by foreign governments in the UK. Other countries that have made donations to MPs in the past 12 months include Bahrain, Somaliland, Azerbaijan, San Marino and Kuwait. Lobbying by China and Russia has previously been exposed.
Rose Whiffen, from Transparency International, said “too many MPs” were showing “poor judgment” in accepting gifts from overseas administrations. She added that they must “seriously consider if it is appropriate to accept these sorts of trips – not just whether they are allowed to.” Chris Bryant, Labour MP and chair of the Commons Committee on Standards, has warned that parliament is “particularly vulnerable” to foreign influence, saying during a debate in December that “we ought to be cognisant of the danger that a foreign power might be seeking to lobby … through the back door.”
Bryant is one of the MPs who accepted a donation in kind from Qatar in the form of an expenses-paid trip but told parliament in May that he regretted doing so. He has advocated for US-style rules which bar members of Congress from accepting donations and gifts from foreign governments. All visits abroad are paid for by Congress.
Relations between the UK and Qatar have strengthened in recent years. In May, the then prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced a “strategic investment partnership”, which will see Qatar 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 UK jobs and was worth up to £10bn.
Days later, the Ministry of Defence announced it would be funding counter-terrorism training for Qatar’s military ahead of the World Cup. Throughout the tournament, the RAF and Royal Navy will provide air and sea support.
Last week, foreign secretary James Cleverly was criticised after telling gay football fans they should be respectful in Qatar, which criminalises their sexuality, when attending the World Cup.
Speaking on LBC’s Nick Ferrari at Breakfast show, he suggested they show “a little bit of flex and compromise” and be “respectful of the host nation”. Labour called the comments “shockingly tone-deaf”.