“The great thing about the Qataris,” a wealthy racehorse trainer told me recently, as the sound of several million dollars’ worth of prime Qatari-owned horseflesh thundering around the gallops in the distance filtered up to us, “is that they just love spending money. They can’t stop spending money. They just want to spend, spend, spend.”
Given that the Qataris love spending their cash in the U.K. more than anywhere else, don’t expect the British establishment to join President Donald Trump’s enthusiastic endorsement of the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar anytime soon.
The action is being taken, putatively, to chastise Qatar for funding terror groups in the region. Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (including Dubai and Abu Dhabi) were the first to join the blockade, which threatens to cripple the country’s domestic economy.
Saudi Arabia severed Qatar’s access to its only land border, across which roughly 40 percent of Qatar’s food needs are imported.
Given that Saudi Arabia has a long and well documented history of funding extremist madrassas run along deeply conservative lines, many analysts are arguing that the dispute is actually more of a classic regional power struggle, and the latest installment of the interminable struggle between the Sunni and the Shia, with the “war on terror” nothing but a convenient fig leaf.
Sunni Saudi Arabia hates the fact that Qatar supports the Muslim Brotherhood and is friendly to Shia Iran. They also hate the fact that Qatar won’t do what it is told and has consistently objected to any attempts to “pool” sovereignty, currency or defense with other Arab nations (which would give Saudi Arabia dominance in the region).
Trump may be keen—despite selling the Qataris $12 billion in arms this week, and despite the fact more than 10,000 U.S. troops are based near Doha—but the British most certainly won’t be joining the Qatar boycott.
The position is not informed by any great moral imperative, other than a sprinkling of non-interventionist laissez-faire.
The more crucial reality is, we just couldn’t afford it.
The British establishment has always sought infusions of foreign cash. Back in the old days, this often took the form of marrying a rich American heiress (see Cora and Robert in Downton Abbey) but in recent years, the British elite have increasingly turned to the oil fortunes of the Middle East to prop up the costly habits and customs of tradition.
As in the pre-war days, the transaction is perfectly understood: the nouveau riche foreigner gets sprinkled with the antique stardust of centuries-old tradition and aristocratic life, while the British aristocrat gets to continue living the lifestyle into which he has become accustomed, unhindered by sordid concerns about his bank balance.
The difference, these days, is that the love affair (and associated cash transfer) has moved from the purely personal realm to the public and political. There is perhaps no better example of a foreign power that has bought its way more comprehensively into the affections of the British establishment than the oil-rich Qataris.
Through the Qatar Investment Authority, the nation’s sovereign wealth fund, various anonymous holding companies or through the private fortunes of assorted members of the mind-bogglingly wealthy ruling al-Thani family, the Qataris are the biggest property owners in London by a mile.
They own huge swathes of the British capital, including the elite department store Harrods, the financial district of Canary Wharf, and big chunks of the City of London. The QIA owns the site of the Chelsea Barracks, the Olympic Village and, most famously, the iconic London skyscraper, the Shard.
Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber al-Thani, the former head of the Qatar Investment Authority, said last year that Qatari investment into the U.K. to date amounted to £30 billion, and that London was the preferred destination.
The al-Thani’s privileged position at the heart of British society will truly be in the public eye next week, when they sit alongside the Queen in the Royal box at Royal Ascot, the legendary three-day horse race meeting whose patron is none other than Her Majesty, who arrives at the event each day in a horse-drawn carriage, to great fanfare and attention.
The al-Thanis have bought their way into the heart of society by sponsoring Royal Ascot to the tune of many millions in prize money and corporate branding through the QIPCO holding company which is now one of Royal Ascot’s most important financial backers.
While locals and the immigrant laborers building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup are suffering back home, with food prices soaring, the massive financial taps of international Qatari finance are not remotely likely to be turned off as a result of the blockade.
Thomas W. Lippman, an expert on the region at the Middle East Institute in Washington, told The Daily Beast: “Qatar exports almost all its natural gas to Europe or Japan and those shipments will continue, as will payments for them, so the Qataris will still have plenty of money. Some shipping routes are affected—freight destined for Qatar will now go be transshipped through Oman rather than the U.A.E.—but that will stabilize in a few days as carriers adjust.”
Lippman argues that the most important regional impact of the embargo is the implicit collapse of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) a political and economic alliance of six Middle Eastern countries: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Oman. The GCC was established in 1981.
“There seems to be no doubt that the strategic balance of the Gulf has been altered,” Lippman says. “Iran and Turkey have lined up behind Qatar, against the U.A.E. and the Saudis. What this means for Iranian-Turkish cooperation in Syria and Kurdistan remains to be seen. But it's no longer possible to pretend that the GCC is a cohesive Sunni alliance against a truculent Iran. On that score, the Saudis seem to have overplayed their hand because only Iran benefits.”
Kuwait, Oman and Qatar have all tried to retain some relationship with Iran, a Shia country diametrically opposed to Sunni Saudi Arabia. But Qatar has done so perhaps with the least subtlety.
David Ottaway, a Saudi expert and Woodrow Wilson Middle East Fellow, told The Daily Beast: “Can the West afford to isolate Qatar? No. The Saudis and the Emiratis are trying to drag the United States into their feud with the Muslim Brotherhood. They are trying to get Trump to declare the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group. But his advisers are saying no, don’t do it.”
The location of the al-Thanis at the Queen’s side next week at Royal Ascot, Ottaway says, merely brings home that point.
“It certainly points out the contradictions between the U.K. interest and the Saudi interest,” he says. “In the Qataris, they don’t have common enemies.”