Human rights campaigners have criticised Scottish Liberal Democrat MP, Alistair Carmichael, and his team after two of his researchers were treated to gifts and a day at the races by the Qatari government.
Qatar has been accused of multiple human rights abuses, including discrimination against women and LGBT people, restrictions on freedom of speech and the oppression of migrant workers.
LibDem researchers Mark Johnson and Michael Wallace enjoyed the Glorious Goodwood horse racing festival in Sussex in August 2018 at the expense of the embassy of the government of Qatar, which sponsors the festival.
As well as free tickets to the festival, the two researchers were given a free lunch, a tie, two pens, a watch and a pair of cufflinks each. One of them, Johnson, posted photos on Instagram of the event – but then deleted them after The Ferret published this story.
Carmichael, the MP for Orkney and Shetland, is the chair of a parliamentary group which promotes good relations with Qatar. He has led MPs on regime-sponsored tours of the country.
Critics accused him of “shameful” behaviour, bowing to “chequebook diplomacy” and insulting the victims of human rights abuses in Qatar.
But he defended his role as a friendly critic of Qatar. Johnson and Wallace had been invited to Goodwood because they had become friends of Qatar Embassy staff while working for him, he said.
Critics of the Goodwood trip included Grahame Smith, general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, who described Qatar as a state “built on modern day slavery and abuse of a largely migrant workforce.”
He said: “It is shameful that Alistair Carmichael, an MP who should pride himself on a commitment to upholding human rights, would choose to accept gifts from the Qatari government.”
Scottish Labour MSP, Neil Findlay, argued that the Qatari regime had a “very poor record” on human rights and democracy. “To see so called liberals quaffing champagne at the races as guests of this regime is an insult to all those who have been brutalised in Qatar,” he said.
“The huge number of workers killed during the construction of the World Cup stadiums show their disregard for the rights of workers and their treatment of migrant labour.”
Nicholas McGeehan, an independent human rights researcher focussing on the Gulf and migrant workers, said: “Given that Carmichael and members of his staff have apparently been only too happy to accept the Qataris’ lavish hospitality, he should perhaps use his influence to be more forceful on the ongoing issue of migrant workers’ rights.”
He added: “Qatar’s chequebook diplomacy has won it many friends and allies but few of these have actually called on Qatar to take specific action on the issue despite it being very clear what needs to happen to protect migrant workers.”
Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, urged MPs to pressure Qatar on human rights violations. Qatar should be pressured on “the need to meet their obligations to protect privacy, free expression, and digital rights for all their citizens,” he said.
Carmichael declared Qatar’s gifts and hospitality for his staff in the parliamentary register of interests. He declined to estimate their worth but said they were above the threshold for registration and declaration, meaning they were worth more than £385.
Carmichael is the chair of Westminster’s All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Qatar which aims to “foster good relations between the UK and Qatar”.
His relationship with the Qatari government stretches back at least to 2012 when he attended the Doha Forum in Qatar’s capital. His £1,500 costs were paid for by Qatar’s government.
In February 2016 and February 2017 he led groups of MPs on trips to Qatar. The APPG said the 2016 trip was to “meet ministers and officials, to visit proposed world cup sites and to discuss labour conditions and regional issues”.
The 2017 trip was to “meet ministers and officials, visit proposed world cup sites and discuss bilateral relations and regional issues.”
The travel, accommodation and food cost £6,550 for each MP in 2016 and £5,100 in 2017. The costs of the four-day trips were met by Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
In May 2018 Carmichael defended Qatar during a debate in parliament. He argued that the country had improved the way migrants workers were treated and that it had not restricted the people he met during his Qatar-sponsored visits.
He accepted, however, there was further work to do on trade union and LGBT rights. “In the time that I have been engaged with Qatar and it has engaged my interest as a politician, I have seen significant progress, but I am always at pains to say that I want it to do a lot more,” he said.
In July 2018, Carmichael’s APPG invited Qatar’s leader Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to speak to the Westminster parliament. In December 2018, Carmichael attended a celebration of Qatar’s national day at the country’s embassy in London.
Human rights groups have criticised the Qatari government for retaining the death penalty, discriminating against women and LGBT people, restricting freedom of speech, banning independent political parties and allowing the oppression of migrant workers.
Human Rights Watch says Qatari women can only marry with a male guardian’s permission and only divorce with a court’s permission whereas men can marry and divorce without permission. Under inheritance laws, daughters receive half the amount that sons receive.
Qatari law also criminalises same-sex relationships, punishing couples with up to three years in prison. Any sex outside of marriage can also be punished with the death penalty, flogging or imprisonment.
Qatar has been ruled for decades by the Al Thani family. According to Amnesty International independent political parties are not allowed and workers’ associations are only permitted for Qatari citizens if they meet strict criteria.
Qatari citizens make up a tiny percentage of Qatar’s workforce. Around 95 per cent of jobs are done by two million migrant workers, mainly from poorer Asian countries. Many of them work in construction.
Trade unions are banned and migrants’ working conditions have been criticised because of the ‘kafala’ sponsorship system which is used across the Gulf. Critics say this system gives employers excessive power over employees and can result in forced labour.
One controversial measure – which Qatar has just revoked – was that workers were not allowed to leave the country or change jobs without their employers’ permission.
Global attention and criticism of this system increased after Qatar was awarded the 2022 football world cup in 2010 in controversial circumstances.
In response to criticism, Qatar has started to dismantle the kafala system. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have recognised that progress has been made but say the reforms do not go far enough.
Lama Faikh, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said in January: “While Qatar has taken some important steps to protect human rights, there is still a long way to go before migrant workers are protected from abuse and exploitation.”
The Scottish Government has also been accused of being too friendly with Qatar in the past. The Ferret revealed that on a 2013 visit to Qatar, then Scottish international development minister, Humza Yousaf, was briefed not to mention human rights issues and instead to pitch for investment into Scotland from the oil-rich state.
Carmichael stressed that Qatar’s invitations to his staff were personal. “Mark and Michael have got to know a number of staff at the Qatar embassy over the years and they were invited to be the guests of embassy staff at Goodwood,” he told The Ferret.
“Although these were essentially personal invitations I felt that they arose as a result of friendships created while working in my employment and accordingly they should be declared, which was done in July 2018.”
He pointed out that as chair of the Qatar APPG he facilitated meetings with visiting Qatari politicians and others with an interest in the region. “The visit by the Emir, where he was questioned by a wide range of MPs from all parties on a wide range of subjects, is one example of the sort of meeting that the APPG organises,” he said.
“On the particular question of labour rights – I have spoken about this in parliament. I spoke about some of my engagement with the Qatar government in relation to human rights.”
Carmichael added: “Over the years I have met a number of human rights organisations working in Qatar and elsewhere in the Gulf. Just last month, for example, I chaired a meeting in Parliament for Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD).
This story was updated at 12.10 on 28 April 2019 to say that Mark Johnson deleted online photos from Goodwood horse races, and again at 17.30 on the same day to include a copy of the deleted photos.