The Scottish Government kept quiet about human rights abuses while seeking up to £1.3 billion to pay for new hospitals and motorways from the oil-rich state of Qatar, according to a ministerial briefing seen by The Ferret.
On an official visit to Qatari leaders in May 2013 the Scottish international development minister, Humza Yousaf, failed to mention the lethal conditions faced by hundreds of thousands of migrant workers. He was also advised only to discuss the plight of an imprisoned Qatari poet with UK officials.
Instead, Yousaf was briefed to highlight a shopping list of multi-million pound “investment opportunities” in Scotland’s health, transport and education services. His “top line”, he was told, was that Qatar had “great potential” to help Scotland boost its economy.
The revelations – published in tandem with the Sunday Mail – sparked condemnation from the Scottish trade union movement, which warned that a thousand migrant workers a year were dying while Qatar prepared to host the football World Cup in 2022. “The Scottish Government’s commitment to fair work and human rights cannot stop at the border,” said the STUC’s assistant secretary, Helen Martin.
“Qatar is a state that is built on slavery and abuse and it is completely illegitimate to do business with them and profit from this slavery.”
She argued that assurances from the Qatari government often do little more than “codify slavery” and increase the repression of workers. “The Scottish Government’s engagement with Qatar was inappropriate due to the extreme and systematic nature of the human rights violations,” she stated.
Yousaf has been also criticised by opposition politicians and campaign groups for not raising human rights during his visit. In his defence, he pointed out that he has since “engaged constructively” with Qatari officials on the issue.
Qatar’s economy depends on its 1.8 million migrant workers. They often have their passports seized, are not allowed to change employers and are trapped in dangerous low-paid jobs, according to the STUC.
The STUC has reports of overcrowded and unsafe living conditions, as well as high numbers of accidents at work. Workers are said to suffer from heat exhaustion and ill health from being forced to work for long hours in the hot sun.
The human rights group, Amnesty International, describes Qatar’s record as “abysmal”. As well as “harsh and dangerous” conditions, workers have to endure sub-standard accommodation and “shocking instances of forced labour and physical and sexual violence against domestic workers”, it says.
Campaign groups have also highlighted the case of the Qatari poet, Mohammed al-Ajami. He is currently serving a 15-year jail sentence for reciting a poem that was critical of Qatar’s leaders.
Yousaf represented the Scottish Government at the Doha Forum in Qatar from 20-22 May 2013. A 127-page briefing pack prepared by officials for the minister’s visit was released under freedom of information law in February 2016 and passed to The Ferret.
The pack details at length seven major “investment opportunities for Scottish infrastructure projects” totalling more than £1.3 billion. They include £415 million for M8, M73 and M74 motorway improvements and £450m for the Aberdeen Western Peripheral Road.
Qatar’s oil money was also sought for a new £200m hospital in Dumfries, a new £150m sick kids hospital in Edinburgh, a £45m mental hospital in North Ayrshire, a £37m blood transfusion centre in Edinburgh and a £50m college campus in Kilmarnock.
At a meeting planned with Qatar’s ruler at the time, Sheik Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, Yousaf was told to “highlight investment opportunities within Scotland”. His “top line” was that Qatar had “great potential to help Scotland meet its aims and purpose as outlined in the government’s economic strategy”.
Another briefing for Yousaf on Scotland’s “international narrative” said: “We are promoting our suitability as a place for inward investment.” Other briefings flag up the benefits of investing in renewable energy such as wind, wave and tidal power.
The briefing pack includes a Foreign Office memo that briefly alludes to the rights of migrant workers and the imprisonment of al-Ajami. But neither topic makes the multiple agendas for Yousaf’s meetings with Qatari leaders, which are all focused on improving economic, cultural and sporting links.
A briefing for a meeting with Qatari and UK officials on 19 May 2013 includes a short account of what happened to al-Ajami. But it says that his case should only be raised “separately” with the British ambassador, Martin O’Neill, and the British Council director, Martin Hope.
The briefing pack was obtained by the Labour MSP, Neil Findlay, a critic of the Scottish Government’s links with Qatar. “This document clearly shows the Scottish Government sending out its smooth young salesman to do a Dragon’s Den style pitch for Qatari cash,” he said.
“What is so galling is that we have moved from government ministers making an pitch for investment in renewables projects to asking for their money to pay for our essential public services.”
The record showed that the Scottish Government said nothing about Qatar’s poor human rights record in 2013, Findlay argued. “What they have said subsequently is weak and tokenistic. It is clear they do no not want to offend the Qataris.”
The former LibDem leader in Scotland, Tavish Scott MSP, criticised Yousaf for failing to raise the imprisonment of al-Ajami. “The SNP is very quick to criticise others for not standing up for human rights,” he said.
“When overseas on taxpayer-funded trips, people expect ministers to stand up for free speech and the rights of people like Mohammed al-Ajami, not just talk to money men.”
Amnesty International’s Scotland director, Naomi McAuliffe, pointed out that al-Ajami had been in jail for nearly four years after an “unfair trial” for simply reciting a poem. “This arbitrary imprisonment and ludicrous sentence underscores the Qatari government’s shameful disregard for human rights,” she said.
Amnesty had briefed Yousaf on human rights in Qatar, and welcomed him taking the opportunity to raise the issue with Qatari officials since his visit in 2013. “However, the Scottish Government must be mindful of the horrific human rights abuses which continue unchecked in some of the countries it engages with and, whenever possible, make positive interventions,” McAuliffe added.
Nicholas McGeehan, an expert on Qatar with Human Rights Watch, said: “It would be extremely disappointing if the Scottish Government had deliberately skirted over the very serious and systematic abuse of migrant workers in Qatar in order to pave the way for Qatari investment in Scotland.
“The SNP has championed its workers’ rights credentials at home, so one would have hoped it would extend that solidarity to vulnerable and abused workers in Qatar.”
The Scottish Government stressed that it was right to promote opportunities for the investment required to support Scotland’s prosperity. “However, the Scottish Government is firmly committed to acting as a good global citizen and stands against human rights abuses wherever they exist,” said a government spokeswoman.
“Mr Yousaf has taken several opportunities to share good practice and engage constructively with Qatar on human rights – including directly with the Qatari Ambassador to the UK and at several points during a visit to Qatar and the UAE last year.
“During that visit Mr Yousaf spoke with the Qatar Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy to raise Scotland’s concerns around human rights in relation to their World Cup preparations, and made a public speech in the UAE calling on Arab States to comply with international and human rights law and condemn human rights abuses – specifically mentioning migrant workers’ rights.”
The Scottish Government pointed out that exports to the Middle East from Scotland have risen 66 per cent in the past five years. But it declined to say whether Qatar had invested in any public sector projects in Scotland, and did not deny that Yousaf had failed to raise human rights concerns during his visit in 2013.
Update: it was reported on 16 March 2016 that the poet, Mohammed al-Ajami, had been released from prison.
The ministerial briefing in full
A version of this story was also published in the Sunday Mail on 13 March 2016.
Cover photo: Amina Tagemouati | CC | https://flic.kr/p/B1Uh3U