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?

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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