“The events of the past month have led to a need to rebuild trust with the European citizens we represent. We must acknowledge this. And citizens rightly demand accountability and integrity. We will respond,” European Parliament President Roberta Metsola said in her opening address on Monday as she updated MEPs on the measures to increase the EP’s integrity, independence, and accountability.
But as the European Parliament President forges ahead with her plans to restore the damage caused by the Qatar-linked scandal, Malta’s government has put significant effort into building relations with Qatar as The Shift has detailed.
This might explain the jarring reaction to the scandal given by Prime Minister Robert Abela when he leapt to Qatar’s defence and criticised Metsola for having moved “too quickly” on the scandal, insisting that the allegations should not taint links between Qatar and Europe, particularly on energy supply.
Or why Foreign Affairs Minister Ian Borg visited the country in December, endorsing Qatar just as the so-called ‘Qatargate’ scandal was sweeping through the corridors of Brussels.
Just as attention is shifted to understanding Qatar’s influence methods, how the Maltese government reacts to those same methods is also worth scrutinising. Why? Because over the last ten years, different Labour administrations have shown a penchant for entering complex and opaque deals that are of minimal benefit to Malta and nearly impossible to renege.
Influence everywhere, by any means
Qatar’s attempts to gain influence in the West have been decades in the making, and it is not the only state trying to do so. For example, the activities and efforts of countries like China and Saudi Arabia are greater. And – to be clear – not all influence campaigns are illegal.
According to Politico, over the years, federal prosecutors in the United States have launched multiple Qatar-linked investigations to establish whether lobbyists and former American officials broke lobbying laws when they failed to register as “agents of a foreign principal.”
In June last year, retired General John Allen, a former commander of NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan, resigned as president of the Brookings Institution after news emerged that the FBI was investigating him for secretly lobbying on behalf of Qatar. The case also involved Richard G. Olson, the former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, who pleaded guilty to federal charges that included improperly helping Qatar influence U.S. policy in 2017.
In the UK, an analysis by Tortoise found that in the run-up to the World Cup, Qatar spent nearly £250,000 on trips and other hospitality, making it the fourth most significant source of cash for British MPs – despite a ban on politicians receiving donations or loans from foreigners. Although there is no suggestion of wrongdoing, those British MPs who benefitted from lavish trips paid for by Qatar’s Foreign Ministry went on to publicly praise and lobby on behalf of the Gulf state, including asking then Prime Minister Boris Johnson to fast-track plans for Qataris to get visa-free access to the UK.
The small gulf Emirate’s influence campaign also extends into education. According to U.S. watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, Qatar donated $1 billion to U.S. universities between 2011 to 2017, making it “the largest foreign funder by far” of American higher education.
It currently hosts the campuses of eight prestigious Western universities — American, British, and French — on a sprawling 12-square-kilometre site known as Education City on the outskirts of the Qatari capital, Doha.
Qatar has also made several significant investments in big Western firms. To name a few: in Germany, it owns shares in Volkswagen, Porsche, and Deutsche Bank. The Qataris also hold an estimated £10 billion in British real estate and have made several real estate investments in Italy, starting with the Porta Nuova district of Milan. The country also announced it plans to invest $5 billion in projects in Spain.
Most of these undertakings are legal, but if we add them to the more suspicious activities, we may be forgiven for assuming that the country is using all means – both proper and improper – to increase its influence in the world:
“In fact, there is no Western capital, let alone South American or Asian capitals, which has not in some way been involved” by Qatar’s enormous quest for influence, Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president for research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a Washington-based think tank, told Politico.
Why does Qatar need to exert influence anyway?
Until 2017, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had been essentially tolerant of one another, dubbed by one analysis as ‘frenemies’. As members of the Gulf Coordination Council (GCC), they had been working towards building a common market and currency in the region — not unlike the European Union. However, different responses to the Arab Spring pushed relations to a breaking point.
The Qatar-based Al Jazeera news network gave a platform to the Muslim Brotherhood, the party that rode a wave of unrest into power in Egypt and challenged governments throughout the Arab world. Qatar didn’t just offer a platform — it gave the Muslim Brotherhood direct financial backing. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, considered the Muslim Brotherhood to be a terrorist group.
Along with Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the UAE then severed diplomatic ties with Qatar in June 2017, and Qatar’s access to airspace and sea routes was blocked. Saudi Arabia also closed its border, blocking Qatar’s only land crossing. As a result, fighting what it called an illegal “blockade” became paramount for Qatar.
Directly or indirectly, Qatar scored several significant victories during this period. These included multiple resolutions in the European Parliament on human rights in Saudi Arabia and a call to end arms exports to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Qatar also signed a cooperation arrangement with the EU in March 2018, setting the stage for closer ties.
Two years ago, Saudi Arabia and Qatar signed a deal to end the crisis, and Riyadh-Doha relations have generally thawed. However, the relations between Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — led by Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, 61 — remain frosty.
It’s a two-way street
It’s not just Qatar that benefits from good relations with the West.
According to an analysis by the NGO OpenSecrets, U.S. arms exports to Qatar have increased dramatically since the International Federation of Association Football selected the Gulf State to host the 2022 World Cup in 2010. The same analysis also found that after the United States, France is the second-largest arms exporter to Qatar, sending $2.3 billion worth of weapons to Qatar since 2010.
And On 31 January 2022, President Joe Biden designated Qatar a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA) to the US, making it the third country of the Gulf region after Kuwait and Bahrain to receive the designation and one of only 18 countries globally. This status grants significant benefits and privileges to the holders, including preferential access to advanced US military technology and defence equipment.
For years, Qatar could also be counted among the biggest customers for Germany’s defence industry. Furthermore, with the war in Ukraine forcing countries, to shift away from Russian petroleum, the emirate — positioning itself as the world’s largest exporter of liquid natural gas— has become a key player in energy provision.