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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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories