DOHA – WHAT do you know about Qatar?
In Australia, Qatar probably begins and ends with those nice ads on the radio and telly. There’s a soothing soundtrack, attractive air hostesses serving sumptuous tucker to weary travellers doing the Kangaroo Run between Australia and London – spruiking the new ”five star” Qatar Airlines that, somewhat bizarrely to Australian ears, drops in an ad for its other destinations, because when you fly 22 hours to London via Qatar’s sweaty capital, Doha, you of course want a side-trip to Tanzania. But Qatar Airways seems to love Australia – this week it shifted its Asia-Pacific operational hub from Tokyo to Melbourne. Victorian politicians nodded approvingly.
But what do you really know?
Maybe you’ve heard that Qatar, a tiny emirate in the Middle East, has a lot of gas, the world’s third biggest reservoir of it beneath its dunes. That the two bigger deposits lie in belligerent Russia and tricky Iran make Qatar very popular with Western governments as a pliable alternative. Western resource companies extract about $200 million worth of gas every day from Qatar’s sands, an extraordinary bounty that makes the million or so Qataris the world’s richest people. And by most measures, it won’t be exhausted for another century or so. Qataris are tribal Bedouin who barely a generation ago were living in tents. Today, they could afford to buy South Yarra real estate every year for the rest of their lives.
Another thing you may not know about Qatar – but should if you’ve been offered a well-paid job there, lured by all that gas money – is its clear contempt for legal due process, a penchant for locking up without charge foreign business people it suddenly doesn’t like.
This week, a young Australian woman will be trawling the corridors of official London, seeking justice for her British husband, David.
A year ago, David Proctor was the chief executive of Al-Khaliji, a state-backed Qatari bank, with all the trappings of a well-remunerated expatriate life. Today, Proctor lives month-to-month in a rented apartment in Doha, communicating on prepaid mobile phones and Skyping with friends and family abroad, lest the walls have ears. He was removed as Al-Khaliji CEO last March but can’t leave Doha because the Qatari chairman of Al-Khaliji, a member of the emirate’s royal family, won’t issue him with an exit visa.
Proctor has spent the past year in a bizarre legal limbo. There are no charges against him and he is not under arrest; he can go wherever he wants within Qatar’s sandy confines. The one place he can’t go is away from Qatar. He doesn’t know why, and when he tries to ask Sheikh Hamad al-Thani, the royal toying with him, he doesn’t get a response. The British government has confirmed twice that Proctor faces no legal issue in Qatar. He just can’t leave, and has no idea when he can. The same thing happened to the bank’s chief technology officer, Sydney bank information technology expert Steve Shipley, who had to pay back his sign-on fee and salary to get the crucial signature on an exit visa.
It seems very odd, but the Qataris have form here. In 2008, a British employee of Qatar Airways was headhunted to a new job back home in London. But when he tried to leave, he got thrown into jail, held in solitary confinement for a month. The Qatari police didn’t bother telling his wife or his embassy for a week. The airline executive wasn’t able to leave for seven months, amid vague talk of ”industrial espionage”. When a case finally came to a Doha court, it was thrown out in minutes by the judge, the argument unchallenged by Qatar Airways. The Briton was able to leave, but the job he’d been asked to do was long filled.
Tracy Edwards is another who fell foul of the al-Thanis. She’s a world champion sailor who was bankrupted after a $15 million deal with the royal family to promote Qatar as an international yachting centre went sour.
She wasn’t able to leave the emirate for a month. Her take on Qatar? ”Get a flight to Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Oman, Bahrain, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi or in fact anywhere else except Qatar. If you still feel compelled to … experience the wonderful and as yet unexplored world of ulcers … then by all means head to Doha.”
Also in 2008, a Belgian media executive saw a deal with the
al-Thanis that lured him and his family to Doha collapse. He too wasn’t allowed to leave. As he sought refuge in the Belgian embassy, it took him 13 months to get out of Qatar. Last September, he was smuggled on to a yacht hired by friends which set sail for India – Qatar’s only land border is with Saudi Arabia. It was only after five days sailing that the Belgian finally surfaced above deck to believe that his nightmare had ended.
Now David Proctor finds himself in a similar predicament, one of dozens in such a state in Qatar and around the gulf, because sheikhs can’t be wrong. A year ago Proctor was supping with the Qatari Prime Minister, who controlled his bank, as well as Qatar Airways and Qatar’s sovereign fund. Now the PM doesn’t want to know about Proctor and British authorities seem to prefer the fiction that he doesn’t exist.
There’s vague talk of an investigation of some sorts – the bank itself doesn’t comment – but no legal authority in Qatar responds to questions, and Proctor himself has not been advised of any investigation into him. The bank’s investor relations officer says he can’t talk about anything because he is scared for his safety.
In the meantime, the bank has been exposed, post-Proctor, to have received massive handouts from the Qatari state. The new chairman’s brother is the Qatari central bank’s deputy governor.
Banks around the world got state support in the recent financial crisis but Sheikh Hamad at Al-Khaliji decided the best way of dealing with the largesse he received was to report it as profit, to hand to shareholders. Little wonder the bank’s first year in his care seemed, cosmetically, to be a very successful one.
This behaviour does Qatar no favours if it seeks to be taken seriously in international business. If there is genuine wrongdoing, it should bring the case. If there is not, let people get on with their lives. Expensive international advertising campaigns claiming Qatar promotes transparency and world’s best this and that don’t ring true. Proctor’s plight must simply repel the very people Qatar needs to modernise its economy for the post-resources future its remote and royal leaders claim to covet.