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Vaughan Leiberum/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

British nationals who live in Qatar are being encouraged to register to vote so that they can have a say in the upcoming EU Referendum.

A date for the nationwide vote on whether the UK should stay or leave the European Union has not yet been set, but it will be held before the end of next year, and could take place as early as this summer.

The referendum follows a vote from Scotland in 2014 to stay in the UK, prompting mixed reaction among Brits in Qatar. At that time, only people living in Scotland were eligible to vote.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Race Bannon/Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Today has been designated an overseas voter registration day by the UK Electoral Commission, but expats can register to vote at www.gov.uk/register-to-vote at any time.

According to the BBC, the following are eligible to vote in the referendum:

“British, Irish and Commonwealth citizens over 18 who are resident in the UK, along with UK nationals who have lived overseas for less than 15 years.

Members of the House of Lords and Commonwealth citizens in Gibraltar will also be eligible, unlike in a general election. Citizens from EU countries – apart from Ireland, Malta and Cyprus – will not get a vote.”

A change in law means that postal ballot papers will be sent out with more time to ensure they are received, completed and returned ahead of the yet-to-be-announced referendum day, a British Embassy spokesperson said.

Voting can also be done by proxy or in person, if the voter is in the UK on the day.

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British ambassador Nicholas Hopton

UK Embassy

Current British ambassador Nicholas Hopton

After just over two years in the country, the British Ambassador to Qatar Nicholas Hopton has confirmed he will be leaving this week to take on a new, undisclosed diplomatic posting.

Speaking at a media roundtable today, Hopton admitted his 26-month tenure, which included boosting Qatari tourism to the UK, was shorter than expected. “Usually ambassadors are posted for three to four years,” he said.

He didn’t elaborate on his new role, saying only that it will be “an exciting, new opportunity.”

New British Ambassador to Qatar, Ajay Sharma

Foreign & Commonwealth Office

New British Ambassador to Qatar, Ajay Sharma

Hopton will be replaced by Ajay Sharma, who is currently charge d’affaires to Iran.

Sharma, who moves to Qatar next month, played a role in the recent Iran nuclear negotiations and was involved in the reopening of the British Embassy in Tehran in August, Hopton said.

That embassy had been closed for four years after protestors stormed it during a demonstration about sanctions. Iran also reopened its embassy in London.

Sharma had also served as non-resident Charge d’affaires to Iran and head of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s (FCO) Iran Department.

He has had previous diplomatic postings in Paris, Ankara and Moscow, according to a statement on the FCO’s website.

Challenges ahead

According to Hopton, one of the main challenges he will be handing over to Sharma will be helping Qatar stage the World Cup in 2022.

UK and Qatar flags

British Embassy/Facebook

UK and Qatar flags

In addition to the logistics of creating the infrastructure to host the tournament, which British companies are involved with, the ambassador will also be tasked with managing reaction to the event, both here and abroad.

Last year for example, Hopton issued a statement to all Arabic-language newspapers in Qatar stressing the independence of the UK media, and making clear that the British government has no influence over what it publishes.

The move followed complaints from locals about “racist” coverage of Qatar’s hosting of the World Cup.

Today, Hopton reiterated his country’s backing of the tournament.

“I am very confident that Qatar will deliver a successful World Cup and the British government fully supports Qatar in its work preparing for it. One of the challenges is trying to explain to other people in the world, who don’t know this region, that this is absolutely possible,” Hopton said.

Sharma will also be focused on helping implement what Hopton described as Britain’s “new Gulf strategy, to lift the partnership between the UK and GCC countries to a new level,” although no concrete details on what this would include were given.

During a visit to Qatar last week, British Minister of State for Defense Procurement Philip Dunne told the Peninsula that the “threat environment is changing with new problems emerging in the region,” and added that the rise of the Islamic State (ISIL) was of particular concern.

2013 show by British aerobatics group the Red Arrows

Ray Toh

2013 show by British aerobatics group the Red Arrows

And last year, the UK Foreign Secretary said that the first British permanent military base in four decades would be set up in Bahrain. The new facility is to be a Royal Navy base, which can facilitate larger vessels such as destroyers and aircraft carriers.

On another defense issue, Hopton said that he was “hopeful” his successor could continue and bring to fruition long-ongoing talks between the UK and Qatar to buy the Typhoon Eurofighter.

Deals for the combat jet, which is jointly made by UK, Germany, Italy and Spain, have already been made with other Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, which signed a £4.4 billion (US $6.8 billion) deal in 2007 to supply 72 Typhoons, according to Defense News.

Shortly after taking office, Hopton had said that he hoped that Qatar would place an order for Typhoons.

And today, he remained optimistic that a deal would be struck, saying:

“I am very hopeful that at some point in the future the government of Qatar will decide to purchase Typhoon, which is the right aircraft for this country to defend its borders and to ensure it will operate efficiently in responding to crises in the region such as Syria and Yemen.

He added, “the Qatari government are interested in the aircraft. These discussions are still ongoing and in a constructive and positive atmosphere.”

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Summerbl4ck / Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Another challenge that Sharma will have to grapple with is the continued crunch on school places for families moving to Qatar.

“I am very conscious there aren’t enough places for people who want to send their children to school,” Hopton said, adding that the embassy was in ongoing talks with the Supreme Education Council and education minister about the situation.

“There are 12 British curriculum schools in Qatar, and I understand there are plans to open more new schools, particularly in Lusail. I hope some will be British schools,” he said.

Russia air strikes

When asked about Russia’s decision to start airstrikes in Syria last week, Hopton said that the UK has “concerns” about the move.

“(This) will make finding a solution (in Syria) more complicated, not easier and more people will die. The Russians need to make their position very clear. They need to explain what they are doing with their assets in Syria and why,” he said.

Aftermath of Russian airstrike in Syria

Syria Civil Defense

Aftermath of Russian airstrike in Syria

Echoing the statement the UK, Qatar and other countries issued over the weekend, he added that the recent air strikes appear to be targeting supporters of President Bashar Al Assad’s regime, contrary to the Russian government’s claims that they were supporting the US’s efforts to tackle groups like ISIS.

“With the Americans and French, we are engaging with Russians and talking to get clarity on their intentions,” Hopton added.

Meanwhile, when asked about Iran, he said the nation would have to take up a greater role in managing politics in the region in the coming years following the nuclear deal, which Hopton called a “big, diplomatic success.”

“It is important that Iran plays a responsible, constructive role helping to restore crises including in Iraq and Syria. The British government is prioritizing this,” he said.

Speaking of his time in Qatar, Hopton said:

“I am sad to leave but also very grateful for the warm relations that my family and I experienced from people in Qatar. This is not just from Qataris, who were exceptionally friendly and looked after us all, but also from the 25,000-strong British people living and working here, and also from the other communities in Qatar.”

Thoughts?

Festive card 2014

British Embassy Doha

Festive card 2014

A tongue-in-cheek social media campaign has been launched by the British Embassy in Doha, with a serious underlying message warning expat Brits not to get too carried away with their holiday celebrations.

Using the theme of the traditional song The Twelve Days of Christmas, the embassy has been posting daily tweets and Facebook messages advising the 20,000 British expats in Qatar to make sure that their fun remains within the law. Otherwise, they caution, individuals run the risk of arrest or a hefty fine.

The messages, which started a few days behind schedule on Dec. 4, echo a similar campaign launched last year by the British missions in Dubai and Abu Dhabi warning residents in the UAE to remain on good behavior.

The Doha-based embassy’s messages have been received with bemusement and confusion by some. Others have mocked the simplistic nature of the campaign.

However, the aim of the campaign is to help revelers from falling foul of Qatar’s laws and facing the potentially serious consequences.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Andreas Levers / Flickr

Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Over the Christmas period last year, the Embassy’s consular section was called in to help out 15 nationals who had got into trouble, a spokeswoman told Doha News.

This makes up a significant portion of the total number of 25 arrests and 11 hospitalizations of Britons in Qatar between December 1 2013 and December 1 2014.

Perhaps following stereotypes of Brits abroad, many of whom traditionally like to indulge in festive cheer, the theme of the first four messages has been alcohol-related and connects with to the Drinkaware campaign which advises safe alcohol consumption and is prominent in the UK at this time of year.

The wise words of advice include reminders of Qatar’s zero-tolerance for drinking and driving, that the legal age of drinking alcohol is 21 years old and that residents need a liquor permit from Qatar Distribution Co. in order to legally buy alcohol outside of licensed restaurants and bars.

The Embassy has also distributed Christmas postcards at some social events around town, which are more serious in tone and carry a number of safety messages, including to never travel alone after dark, not leave drinks unattended and maintaining good behavior when in public.

Reverse of festive card

“Respecting the customs of our host country” is reflected in the tone of the fifth day of Christmas tweet, posted yesterday, which effectively tells expats to leave the skimpy, black party dress in the back of the closet:

The public modesty push echoes the dress campaign Reflect your Respect that regained momentum ahead of Ramadan this year.

A British Embassy spokeswoman told Doha News:

“We are glad our 12 days of Christmas tweets have sparked a debate amongst Doha’s Twitter community. Whether you love them or hate them, we hope that they make people stop and think about the best way to enjoy a safe and happy festive season.

Christmas is a special time for many of us in Doha but it can be a time when people become carried away with the festivities and forget that the culture and laws in Qatar are different to that of the UK.”

According to the UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office report British Behavior Abroad 2014, Qatar’s Gulf neighbor the UAE is among the top 20 countries in the world where Brits are most likely to require consular assistance.

Between April 2013 and March 2014, the British missions in Abu Dhabi and Dubai had to step in to assist in 499 cases, up from 436 the previous year.

There were 261 arrests of British nationals, 75 deaths and 54 cases where Brits were hospitalized over the year.

However, with a British population of around 100,000 residents and 625,000 visitors, the Emirate’s expat community is significantly larger than in Qatar. Qatar does not feature in the report.

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