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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Keir Starmer: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting Brexit wrong”

The former director of public prosecutions is now heading up Labour’s response to Brexit. But can he succeed in holding the Tories’ feet to the fire?

Early in his new role as shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer was accused of being a “second-rate lawyer”. The gibe, in a Commons debate, came from none other than Iain Duncan Smith. Starmer was director of public prosecutions for five years and later stood for parliament in 2015. No novice, then. Within a few days, Duncan Smith stood again in the House, this time to offer his apologies.

A fortnight later, I met Starmer at his quiet office in Westminster. He was sitting at a table piled with papers, in an office that, a discreet family photo aside, was unadorned. He had just got back from a whirlwind trip to Brussels, with many more such visits planned in the weeks ahead.

Starmer returned to the shadow cabinet after Jeremy Corbyn’s second leadership election victory last month. “The series of agreements we will have to reach in the next few years is probably the most important and complex we’ve had to reach since the Second World War,” he told me.

Starmer, who is 54, took his time entering politics. Born in 1962, he grew up in a Labour-supporting household in Surrey – his father was a toolmaker and his mother a nurse – and was named after Keir Hardie. After studying law at Leeds University, he practised as a human rights barrister and became a QC in 2002. In 2008, after varied legal work that included defending environmental campaigners in the McLibel case, he became the head of the Crown Prosecution Service for England and Wales as well as director of public prosecutions, positions he held until 2013.

When in 2015 Starmer ran for a seat in parliament to represent Holborn and St Pancras in London, it was assumed he would soon be putting his expertise to use in government. Instead, after Labour’s election defeat under Ed Miliband, he served as one of Corbyn’s junior shadow ministers, but resigned after the EU referendum in June.

Now, he is back on the opposition front bench and his forensic scrutiny of government policy is already unsettling the Conservatives. Philippe Sands, the law professor who worked with him on Croatia’s genocide lawsuit against Serbia, says he couldn’t think of anyone better to take on the Brexiteers in parliament. “It’s apparent that the government is rather scared of him,” Sands said. This is because Starmer is much more capable of teasing out the legal consequences of Brexit than the average Brexit-supporting Tory MP. Sands added: “It would be fun to watch if the stakes weren’t so very high.”

Starmer is a serious man and refused to be drawn on the character of his opponents. Instead, speaking slowly, as if weighing every word, he spelled out to me the damage they could cause. “The worst scenario is the government being unable to reach any meaningful agreement with the EU and [the UK] crashing out in March 2019 on no terms, with no transitional arrangement.” The result could be an economic downturn and job losses: “I don’t think anybody should underestimate the risks of getting this wrong.”

If Starmer seems pessimistic, it is because he believes time is short and progress has been slow. Since the referendum, disgruntled MPs have focused their attention on the final Brexit settlement. Yet if, as he argues, the starting position for our negotiations with the EU is wrong, the damage will have been done. MPs faced with a bad deal must either approve it or “risk the UK exiting the EU without a deal at all”.

It is this conviction that is driving his frantic schedule now. Starmer’s first month in the job is packed with meetings - with the representatives of the devolved nations, business leaders and his European counterparts.

He has also become a familiar face at the dispatch box. Having secured a commitment from David Davis, the minister for Brexit, that there will be transparent debate – “the words matter” – he is now demanding that plans to be published in January 2017 at the earliest, and that MPs will have a vote at this stage.

In his eyes, it will be hard for the Prime Minister, Theresa May, to resist, because devolved parliaments and the European parliament will almost certainly be having a say: “The idea there will be a vote in the devolved administrations but not in Westminster only needs to be stated to see it’s unacceptable.”

In Europe, Starmer said, the view is already that Britain is heading for the cliff edge. It was May’s pledge, that after Brexit the UK would not “return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”, which raised alarm. And among voters, there is “increasing anxiety” about the direction in which the UK is moving, he said. Even Tory voters are writing to him.

In the Labour Party, which is putting itself back together again after the summer’s failed coup, immigration remains the most vexed issue. Starmer told me that Labour had “earned a reputation for not listening” on the issue. Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show shortly after becoming shadow Brexit secretary, he said immigration was too high and ought to be reduced. But later that same day, Diane Abbott, a shadow cabinet colleague, contradicted him, publicly criticising immigration targets.

Starmer believes there is a bigger picture to consider when it comes to Britain’s Brexit negotiations. Take national security, where he warns that there are “significant risks” if communications break down between the UK and the EU. “Part of the negotiations must be ensuring we have the same level of co-operation on criminal justice, counterterrorism, data-sharing,” he said.

Crucially, in a Labour Party where many experienced politicians are backbench dissenters, he wants to reach out to MPs outside the shadow cabinet. “We have to work as Team Labour,” he stressed.

It’s a convincing rallying cry. But for some MPs, he represents more than that: a lone moderate in what can be seen as a far-left leadership cabal. Does he have any ambitions to lead Labour? “Having had two leadership elections in the space of 12 months, the last thing we need at the moment is discussion of the leadership of the Labour Party.” He has agreed to serve in the shadow cabinet, and is determined to stay there.

Starmer has found his purpose in opposition. “If we think things aren’t going right, we’ve got to call it out early and loudly. The worst situation is that we arrive at March 2019 with the wrong outcome. By then, it will be too late.”

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

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage