Qatar wades into the Sudanese revolt

The government of Qatar is well known for its forays into foreign policy, and is accused by the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia of buying the votes in last year's Somali election. Now it has turned its attention to Sudan.

Sudanese President, Omar al-Bashir, has his back to the wall. The regime he has run for nearly a quarter of a century is facing its toughest test.  Protests, which began after a doubling of energy prices, have been transformed into calls for the president to resign. Even the normally quiescent opposition parties have begun to support this demand. They have been joined by the mercurial Hassan al-Turabi, who once supported the President.

Dozens of protesters have been killed by security forces loyal to the regime and as many as a thousand have been arrested. "The army is not involved, nor are the police," an activist told the New Statesman. Ali - as he asked to be known - said the regular forces are drawn from and live with the community around Khartoum. They are not actively supporting al-Bashir.

Instead the president is relying on the notorious Central Reserve Police, which is loyal only to the regime. "They come from the poorest Northern Sudanese villages, just like the President and his key adviser, Nafie Ali Nafie. The Central Reserve are well paid and serve the ruling National Islamic Front," Ali said.

Qatar is reported to have now entered the fray, bringing badly needed financial support for President al-Bashir. The well-connected Sudanese website, Sudan Tribune, says that the Qatari government is shoring up government reserves with a promise to transfer £1 billion to the Sudanese Central Bank. The aim is to stabilise exchange rates and curb the fall of the Sudanese pound.

The government of Qatar is well known for its forays into foreign policy. Using its immense oil wealth, it has supported Sunni causes across the Middle East. The revolts in Syria, Egypt and Libya owe much to Qatari backing.  The Emir of Qatar has also played a key role in buttressing Eritrea, despite the country's abusive human rights record.

Qatar is accused by the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia of buying the votes in last year's Somali election. Hassan Sheikh Mohamud took over the presidency in September 2012. The Group's report to the UN Security Council this July stated that: "Sources indicate that the President received several million dollars from Qatar which was used to buy off political support. Important carriers of cash donations from Qatar include Fahad Yasin and Abdi Aynte, two former journalists from the Doha based news organisation Al-Jazeera."

Critics of Qatar suggest that the government has used its oil wealth to gain influence far beyond the Arabic world. Dr. Anne Bartlett of the University of San Francisco argues that few can ignore what she describes as "Qatar's spiderlike web of influence."

Certainly both Paris and London have welcomed and encouraged vast sums of Qatari investment in their countries. As the Daily Mail declared accurately, if a little crudely: "How Qatar bought Britain".

From the glittering Shard, which now towers over the London skyline, to the sewers beneath the capital, Qatar has an interest in vast swathes of the British economy.

There are suggestions that the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, who came to power in July, wishes to chart a new, less active foreign policy.

This would mark a considerable change for the government of the tiny state, but it is hard to observe in Qatari support for the al-Bashir regime.  The Emir's father backed a loser in Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps the current Emir is making the same mistake in Sudan. 

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir meets with Qatari state minister for foreign affairs Ahmed bin Abdullah Al-Mahmoud. Image: Getty

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.