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With reporting by Riham Sheble

Following a flurry of reports about FIFA 2022 World Cup bribery allegations in UK newspapers, Britain’s Ambassador to Qatar, Nicholas Hopton, has issued a statement to all Arabic language newspapers in Doha, stressing the independence of the UK media, and making clear that the British government has no influence over what it publishes.

In the statement – which was sent out solely in Arabic, and only to Arabic language media in Qatar – Hopton said that he had been “saddened” to read recent articles in Qatari papers that suggested that “the British government does not support Qatar,” and that “it has been encouraging the latest media coverage around the 2022 FIFA World Cup.” He continues:

“The UK media is independent, and opinions expressed in it do not reflect the UK government’s opinions. The British government’s stance is very clear and as our Prime Minister has said in the past days, this is a matter for FIFA and we cannot prejudge the results of the investigation FIFA is conducting.”

Finally, the Ambassador references the close relationship between the UK and Qatar, describing them as “strategic partners,” adding that relations between the two countries are “stronger than they have ever been.”

“The British government has worked closely with the Qatari government, supporting its preparations to host a successful World Cup tournament and to realize its 2030 vision. We will continue doing that,” he said.

Twitter backlash

series of articles recently published by the UK’s Sunday Times allege that Qatar bribed FIFA Executive Committee members with payments totaling some $5 million to help secure support for its bid.

These stories, and others in the UK press, have generated ill feeling from some Qataris towards Britain, with some Twitter users alleging racism, jealousy and bias.

Last week, prominent Qatari media personality Ilham Badr went as far as calling upon her fellow nationals to boycott the UK this summer, in protest at the negative media coverage.

And yesterday, local writer Fahad Buhendi sent a tweet to the British Ambassador, telling him that he was attending a meeting at a Doha hotel that night “to discuss the racist #British media against #Qatar.”

Nicholas Hopton replied today, asserting that the UK was “not racist.”

In a further response, he also stated that “UK media is independent of British Government.”

Meanwhile, a comment apparently posted by a British expat, ‘James,’ on a recent Doha News article focusing on the Sunday Times allegations has been shared widely on Twitter.

Jassim Al Rumaihi, who shared the comment, said that it had been written by a “British citizen with brain and heart.”

The author of the comment states that “just because these newspapers are based in Britain, it doesn’t mean they speak for Britain,” adding:

“The British press are simply printing as much ignorant, misguided information as they can, purely because they think if they keep throwing it about, it will stick, Qatar will lose the World Cup, and England will get it instead.

But I’ve got to stress they don’t speak for all of us. Please don’t suggest boycotting the UK, or start to treat British people in your country differently.”

Thoughts?

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UPDATE: 6th March 2:30pm:

British Member of Parliament Keith Vaz has promised to bring complaints about the UK’s visa service for Qataris to the attention of the UK’s Home Secretary, Peninsula reports. Vaz – who is a member of the country’s Home Affairs Committee – made the comments yesterday during a visit to Doha to discuss counter-terrorism measures. 

“There is a case to look at the issue of exempting Qataris from visas, but this has to be done very carefully, for good and valid reasons,” he told the paper. “…It is clear Qataris go (to the UK) for tourism, health and studies. We’ll make a strong case because there are very few examples of abuse.”

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Responding to complaints from Qatari visa applicants that the process to obtain a visa to visit or study in the UK is too slow, too expensive and unfair, British Ambassador Michael O’Neill said in a statement that the rules are applied equally to all nationalities.

He added that the British Embassy has processed an unprecedented number of applications so far this year.

The statement was released after the Peninsula ran a story criticizing the UK’s visa rules, quoting complaints from Qatari citizens made on social networks and radio phone-ins.

Delays and “unfairness”

One caller to Qatar Radio’s breakfast programme on Sunday complained about the length of time it took him to obtain a visa:

I submitted my passport (at the British embassy) on February 20, along with the passports of my wife and daughter. When I went to apply for the visa an employee asked “do you want a normal visa or urgent visa”. He said if I pay QR1,700 the visa will be ready in five days. I paid the amount but still didn’t get the visas, upsetting my travel plans.”

A common area of contention is a perceived unfairness over un-reciprocated rules. British citizens are granted a visa on arrival in Qatar, but Qatari citizens wishing to visit the UK are required to apply for a visa in advance. 

This point was raised by Al Sharq columnist Dr Mohammed bin Ali Al Kubaisi yesterday:

 “While British authorities are humiliating the Qataris with personal interviews and too many requirements and high fees their citizens are getting the Qatari visa on arrival at the airport. Qataris are going to the UK and other western countries only as tourists or for studies or treatment.

On the other hand, the Westerners are coming to our country looking for jobs or to promote their products. I strongly demand the Qatari government to deal with these governments on an equal footing.”

Embassy defends “excellent service”

Defending the process, O’Neill says that the embassy offers an “excellent service” which is issuing more visas than ever before:

”We are delighted so many Qataris are travelling to the UK for tourism, business and other purposes” he says. “We issued almost 33,000 visas last year – almost double the number in 2010, with a further increase of almost 30% in the first quarter of this year – and are proud to offer an excellent service.

We promise to give 90% of applicants a decision within three weeks, and in the past two years have never broken that promise: the average applicant gets their visa in under 5 working days.”

Qataris applying for visas to the UK are required to visit the British Embassy for an interview. The embassy’s website says that these are necessary as “interviews are an opportunity to make sure we have all the relevant facts from an applicant before we make a decision.”

Normal visa applications take around three weeks. The embassy runs an express service for visas, and for an additional 564QR, most applicants are able to receive their visas within two days. 

Meanwhile, UAE authorities are calling for the European Union to allow UAE nationals to enter the EU for short periods without a visa, under the Schengen agreement

Thoughts?

Credit: Photo by Sunface 13