Queen rolls out red carpet for emir of Qatar
• Royal visitors ‘delighted’ to be lodged at Windsor
• Gulf considered crucial to UK commercial interests
The emir of Qatar will be escorted on the visit by the second of his three wives, Sheikha Mozah.
It is a sign of special favour when the Queen hosts VIP guests in her beloved Windsor Castle rather than over the shop at Buckingham Palace, or so it is whispered. So there is delight in the entourage of the emir of Qatar, starting a state visit to Britain tomorrow, that he is staying in the royal borough rather than central London.
Such nuances of protocol are intended to flatter a Gulf ruler who not only wields near absolute power at home and is a key player in the Middle East, but also owns sizeable chunks of the British economy, including Harrods and prime London real estate such as the US embassy building in Grosvenor Square. Qatar also has stakes in Barclays and the retail giant J Sainsbury. Now it is reportedly also looking at bidding for Christie’s, the auction house.
The emir – Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani – is one of the world’s richest royals and a businessman as much as a political leader. He oversees his country’s sovereign wealth fund, the Qatar Investment Authority, with assets of $80bn-$100bn paid for by the income from offshore natural gas reserves – a third of the world’s total. Qatargas is able to supply a fifth of all the UK’s natural gas needs.
Shell is the largest foreign investor in Qatar, which is Britain’s third largest Arab trading partner after the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
“It is a priority relationship that matters to my country,” said John Hawkins, the UK ambassador to Doha. Meetings with David Cameron and Nick Clegg, as well as state banquets given by the Queen at Windsor and by the Lord Mayor of London at the Guildhall, underline the point. Interfaith issues will be discussed in a meeting at Westminster Abbey.
“The Qataris will be delighted with this visit,” said Chris Doyle of the Council for Arab-British Understanding. “It’s an acknowledgment that their relations with Britain are now at a strategic level. They will be tickled pink.”
Politically, the Sandhurst-educated emir punches far above his weight. He manages good relations with the US – hosting its HQ for the invasion of Iraq – and with Iran. To complete this balancing act he is close to Syria and maintains a rare Arab dialogue with Israel while being sympathetic to the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas. Qatar has mediated in recent crises in Lebanon, Yemen and Gaza.
Ownership of al-Jazeera TV, the freest and feistiest of Arabic broadcasters, means that he annoys almost every other Arab leader. The channel has little to say about domestic affairs in Qatar, a constitutional monarchy without either political parties or national elections but still far more liberal than neighbouring Saudi Arabia.
The emir has another asset in the second of his three wives, the stylish Sheikha Mozah, who will travel with him and who is keen on promoting education and development. Their visit to London’s Olympic Park will be a reminder of the emirate’s interest in sport and of its bid to host the 2022 World Cup. It has already hosted tennis, cycling and golf tournaments.
Expanding UK business and political ties with the Gulf states has been set as a priority by the coalition government, with the foreign secretary, William Hague, taking the ministerial lead. “We want the UK to be the Gulf’s commercial ‘partner of choice’,” is Whitehall’s new mantra.
“Given the scale of the spending review and Britain’s reliance on outside investment we will see the emir of tiny Qatar being treated like the president of the United States – or better,” said Christopher Davidson of Durham University.
“The red carpet treatment will be a bridge-building exercise with a country that has been identified as one of the cash-richest of the Gulf states. Gulf rulers like pomp and ceremony and a royal handshake is not something that China, Korea or the US, which also want to attract Qatari investment, can offer.”
Next month the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh can expect some lavish reciprocal royal Gulf hospitality when they make state visits to Oman and the UAE.
The emir of Qatar, ruler of a country one-twentieth the size of Great Britain with one-thirtieth of its population, may be worth five times as much as our own queen. According to Forbes magazine, the emir, ranking eighth in the list of the world’s richest royals, is worth around $2.4bn. The Queen limps in at 12th with $450m. The Qataris own Harrods and are bidding for the 2022 World Cup; the Queen has the Duchy of Lancaster and her government is backing the bid for the World Cup in 2018.