With the FIFA World Cup in just over a week to go, Qatar is in the spotlight like never before.
The tournament, which kicks off next weekend, will be one of the most controversial, with concerns over the human rights situation in the Gulf state and the stance on LGBT+ rights.
The hosts were also charged with allegations that thousands of migrant workers died building stadiums to host the event, which is estimated to cost £190 billion, roughly the same as Portugal’s annual GDP and nearly four times Qatar’s annual state budget of £ 49 billion.
Towering above the rest: The Qatar Investment Authority has interests in several notable buildings in London, including the skyscraper The Shard (pictured)
But the World Cup is just the latest in the gas-rich country’s long-running program to use its wealth to attract tourism and expand its treasury.
Another part of this strategy is to build a huge business empire around the world, including in the UK, where its interests span airports, utilities, real estate, retail and equities.
The country was also mired in scandal earlier this year when it was reported that the King, when he was Prince of Wales, during meetings with Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani, the former Prime Minister, stole bags containing around £2.6 million in cash accepted. minister of Qatar.
The money was handed over to the then heir apparent in a suitcase, a sheath and in carrier bags from the luxury department store Fortnum & Mason. There is no suggestion that the payments – for his charitable foundation – were illegal.
Most of its investments in the UK go through the Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), the country’s sovereign wealth fund estimated to hold nearly £400 billion in assets.
The opaque organization owns or has interests in several notable buildings in London, including The Shard skyscraper, Harrods department store and Canary Wharf financial center.
The QIA is also a major shareholder in Heathrow Airport, with a 20 percent stake purchased in 2012.
British real estate has become a particularly attractive investment for Qataris, with the family of the country’s ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, owning over 4,000 land titles in the UK, ranging from hotels and luxury mansions to industrial estates.
Real estate empire: The family of Qatari ruler Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani owns over 4,000 land titles in the UK
Hotels in the real estate empire include five-star locations such as The Ritz and The Savoy, as well as Claridge’s in the heart of Mayfair, part of the Qatari-owned Maybourne Hotel Group and a favorite of royals.
The QIA is also the largest shareholder in banking giant Barclays with a 6.4 percent stake, while it also controls 14.3 percent of supermarket chain Sainsbury’s worth around £733 million.
Other significant investments include a 7 per cent stake in the London Stock Exchange Group, 4.6 per cent in water company Severn Trent, a 0.5 per cent stake in Shell, 3.6 per cent in FTSE 100 telecom group Airtel Africa and a 7.5 percent stake in troubled e-commerce company THG.
The Gulf state also signed a deal in May to channel a further £10 billion to Britain over the next five years.
Qatar’s foreign minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, recently described negative media coverage of the upcoming World Cup as “misinformation,” while accusing countries that criticized Qatar of “arrogance.”
He also told a German newspaper that the tone taken in some European countries was “very arrogant, frankly and very racist”.
But the controversy shows no signs of fading and is likely to increase control over the influence of Gulf state money around the UK economy.
Labor MP Chris Bryant, a member of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, said the UK is an “open and welcoming country”.
But he said there was a risk that accepting money from countries like Qatar posed a “real danger” that Britain could be used for “money laundering and harboring the ill-gotten gains of the super-rich around the world.” world’.
There is also increasing regulatory scrutiny of the influence of Qatari financing of British companies.
Last month, the Financial Conduct Authority announced plans to fine Barclays £50m after the banking giant failed to disclose a deal to pay £322m in consultancy fees to Qatar, reportedly in return for a £4bn cash injection. during the 2008 financial crisis to prevent the bank from going through a government bailout.
The regulator called the bank’s behavior ‘reckless and not with integrity’. Barclays is appealing the sentence.
But resisting the influx of Qatari money, as well as the ongoing controversy surrounding the World Cup, will be difficult for the government as it grapples with a growing energy crisis.
The Gulf State is one of Britain’s largest suppliers of natural gas, an important fuel for the energy grid.
But Qatari money threatens to become the next chapter in a long-running list of controversies over the UK’s willingness to accept cash and investments from authoritarian regimes.
After the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the ties between major British companies and the Russian economy came into the spotlight, as did the interests here of oligarchs with ties to Vladimir Putin.
There are also growing concerns about the influence of Chinese companies and investment following the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong in 2019.
Qatar hopes the World Cup will polish its credentials on the global stage.
But it could instead bring a renewed focus on its influence in the UK and around the world.
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