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3. Topical Questions

June 07, 2017

16 speeches by…

  • Elin Jones
  • Steffan Lewis
  • Jane Hutt
  • Jenny Rathbone
  • Neil Hamilton
  • Simon Thomas
  • Mohammad Asghar
  • Adam Price

Steffan Lewis

Will the First Minister make a statement on relations between the Welsh and Qatari Governments following the severing of diplomatic ties with that country by its neighbours? TAQ(5)0649(FM)

Jane Hutt

The Welsh Government has commercial investment relationships with Qatar. We support Cardiff international airport’s developing relationship with Qatar Airways, with a view to seeing flights between Cardiff and Doha. This is opening up a huge range of long-haul travel options for businesses and tourists.

Steffan Lewis

I thank the leader of the house for that answer. On Monday, several states in the middle east, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates cut diplomatic ties with, and imposed economic sanctions on, Qatar, alleging that that country had paid up to $1 billion to blacklisted groups in the region, including an al-Qaeda affiliate. This, of course, is a matter of great concern for us here in Wales. Firstly, Qatar is the world’s largest producer of liquefied natural gas, and its economic and diplomatic isolation in the region raises significant questions about the LNG pipeline and, in particular, the terminal at Milford Haven. I’d be grateful if the leader of the house could give us an indication of any assessment the Welsh Government has made of the impact on LNG in Wales. Secondly, as the leader of the house has alluded to, Cardiff Airport has secured a direct flight between Cardiff and Qatar, to commence in 2018. Several countries in the region have closed their airspace to flights going to or from Qatar. Has the First Minister been in discussion with Qatar Airways on the possible implications for the planned flight route? And, finally, perhaps above all, the allegations that Qatar has paid up to $1 billion to a terrorist group raises questions about our general relations with them in the future. We are rightly having a debate in this country about our relations with other states in that region with dubious human rights and terrorist records. Is the Welsh Government undertaking a reassessment and a re-evaluation of the commitment that it made earlier this year to have a new, special relationship with Qatar, to quote the First Minister?

Jane Hutt

Of course, as Steffan Lewis knows, and has said, Qatar has substantial investments in the UK, including in Wales, notably the LNG terminal at Milford Haven. I think that, in terms of your second point—the development of the service and the direct link between the airports and airlines—it’s a huge boost to Wales and it does provide that direct route into one of the world’s fastest growing hub airports, and opens up Wales’s links with the rest of the world, as you say. In fact, in April, Cardiff Airport secured a commercial deal with Qatar Airways to launch this new direct route to Doha, and flights are expected to begin operating in the spring of 2018. Clearly, in terms of the wider issues that you mention in terms of human rights, I think it is important, again, that I state that the Welsh Government is a strong supporter, for example, of LGBT rights. We expect all people in Wales and across the world, regardless of their sexuality, to be treated equally. And, of course, our strong support for Stonewall Cymru to help build a Wales where people are free to be themselves, prejudice is challenged and our laws protect LGBT people is widely known and respected across the world.

Jenny Rathbone

I thank Steffan Lewis for raising this question. I think that the blockade of Qatar also enables us to look at the way in which the Saudis in particular are using the blockade of Yemen to try and achieve political ends and the implications for the whole population of the Yemen, including 17 million people needing humanitarian aid and 10 million people in desperate need of food aid immediately, according to the International Red Cross. I wondered what Wales can do to try and get this raised through the UK Government, through the United Nations, to put a stop to the wholesale elimination of this population, if we do nothing about it. Because the blockade is preventing all the health supplies getting through, which have been destroyed by the Saudi Government.

Jane Hutt

Well, foreign affairs, of course, as Jenny Rathbone is well aware, isn’t devolved, but we clearly have an interest in what’s happening in the region. We’re in touch with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to monitor developments. It is clearly important and, indeed, today’s question is about our relationships—they are commercial investment relationships with Qatar—but also these points are obviously key points that can be made as a result of this question.

Neil Hamilton

Would the leader of the house agree with me that we should exercise the greatest caution before getting involved in any war of words in relation to internecine disputes in the middle east? Of course, we would deprecate in the strongest possible terms any country financing terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. It’s important to note that Qatar denies any such involvement. But the importance of Qatar to the western economy can’t be underestimated, because they are the world’s largest supplier of liquefied natural gas, from nowhere 20 years ago. Much of the current dispute actually has its origins in the fact that the northern gas field in Qatar is shared between that country and Iran, and of course Iran and Saudi Arabia are at daggers drawn more generally. Therefore, we should follow Wales’s principal interests here in maintaining good relations so far as we can with all the participants in this dispute, encouraging further investment by these countries in Wales, and boosting our own economy and the jobs that are available in Wales.

Jane Hutt

As I’ve already said, foreign affairs are not devolved. We do take our advice, as Neil Hamilton would recognise, from the FCO. We work within UK guidelines for international trade and investment, and the introduction of the new air link between Doha and Cardiff is a commercial deal between Cardiff Airport and Qatar Airways. This is progressing as planned.

Simon Thomas

We really are in quite a bit of a conflict here, aren’t we? We have two sets of so-called allies disagreeing with themselves about who’s funding what sort of terrorism and extremism whereas—let’s call it out for what it is—both sides are funding their own brand of extremism in the middle east. Can the Welsh Government do two things that I think are within its remit and perfectly appropriate for the Welsh Government to do in these circumstances? First of all, can you publish a list of your own relationships with Qatar, including ministerial meetings and any trade relationships that the Welsh Government has undertaken in Qatar over the last five years, and what you have been promoting there, so we can understand from the point of view of transparency exactly what has been done? Secondly, can you put pressure on the UK Government to publish the long-awaited report on the funding of extremism in this country, and where the funds of extremism come from, whether that be Saudi Arabia, Qatar or elsewhere in the middle east? And they come in very dubious ways, as we know. Thirdly, what can you say to the Chamber today and going forward about the relationship of Pembrokeshire with the importation of LNG gas? The land border with Qatar is closed. The air border, if you like, is also closed, in effect. At the moment, the ports are open, and of course it is the shipping that brings the gas to Wales, but any escalation of the problem there could have a real impact on our own economy here in Wales, and in west Wales in particular. So, those three things, I think, are perfectly appropriate for the Welsh Government to do, even though these issues are not devolved.

Jane Hutt

Thank you very much, Simon Thomas, for very constructive questions. I would like to first draw attention to—and Members will recall—the statement made by the First Minister on 3 May of this year, following his visit to Qatar during that bank holiday weekend to promote stronger commercial ties. I would refer Members back to that statement and also note that, in fact, there had been a visit to Wales by the ambassador of Qatar to the UK on 26 March 2015. I will certainly obviously look at this with the First Minister in terms of any other detail or information that would be relevant following your first question. I think your second point is important as well in terms of urging the UK Government to report—indeed, I think David Cameron initiated that report in terms of extremism—and we will obviously follow that through as well. I have answered, I think, the question about the investments and Members are clearly aware of Qatar’s substantial investments in the UK, including Wales—of course, that’s jobs in Wales not just at the LNG terminal at Milford Haven, but also to come to Cardiff Airport. And, of course, there is a Qatar investment authority, which is also planning to make further substantial investments in the UK. Of course there is the question of looking at the relations that are developing with countries outside the EU in terms of possible trade links and investment. So, again, I hope that has at least in part answered your questions.

Mohammad Asghar

Leader of the house, I think Qatar Airways is going to start the airline next year, as we’ve been told by the First Minister. I know that Qataris at the moment are having a very difficult time improving the country’s world image on terrorism support and others. Also, don’t forget they’re having the football world cup there. So, what are the consequences if Qatar doesn’t come to Wales or some sort of arrangement doesn’t come to a fruitful conclusion within the middle-eastern countries? Where does our Government stand on those issues where there are international co-operation for terrorism in the various countries we were talking about just earlier in this Chamber? Thank you.

Jane Hutt

Thank you, Mohammad Asghar. I can perhaps give the FCO position, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office position, which is, and I quote: We hope that a resolution can be found soon and that the Gulf Cooperation Council unity will be restored, and encourage those travelling to Doha from affected countries to check FCO travel advice. As I said earlier in response to questions, flights are expected to begin operating in spring 2018 next year in terms of the new direct route to Doha. I know that the airport is—. In terms of the deal to introduce that new air link between Cardiff and Doha, it is of course with the airline, not the country or the Government or its capital city. There is regular contact between our Cardiff Airport and Qatar Airways as they’re progressing the establishment of the new route as planned.

Adam Price

Surely the leader of the house will understand that it’s absolutely the wrong thing to do to talk about a special relationship with this state. She referenced LGBT rights; she knows what would happen to me in that country. We should never be in a position of saying that we want to build—and not my words, but the First Minister’s—a special relationship with a country with this kind of appalling human rights record, let alone now continue, it seems—the question really was ‘were we suspending’—that special relationship, in the light of the fact that we can’t ignore—. I mean, I take the point that some of these countries themselves have some questions to answer about their support of Islamist extremism, ideological and violent, but we cannot ignore the fact that most people who assess the situation recognise that Qatar certainly has questions to answer itself. Under those circumstances, Wales should not be entering into a special relationship with a country like that. Instead of taking the FCO’s advice, why doesn’t she take her own UK Labour Party leader’s advice, who has talked about the difficult conversations that need to happen with Gulf states, and of course Qatar is right at the heart of that? Surely this policy of a special relationship with Qatar has to be suspended while this accusation by its neighbouring states that it is involved in the sponsorship of terrorism continues.

Jane Hutt

I think, as I’ve said in answer to the questions this afternoon, this is about commercial relationships—commercial investment relationships—with Qatar. And the Member, of course, is fully aware—and we’ve spoken of it this afternoon—of those substantial investments, including, here in Wales, the LNG terminal at Milford Haven, as well as in other parts of the UK. So, it is those commercial investment relationships that we are talking about, and that is clearly what the First Minister said in his statement on 3 May. He very clearly said this is about commercial ties and it is about opportunities, which were, actually, at the time when it was announced, warmly welcomed in terms of that opportunity with Cardiff Airport and, of course, with Qatar Airways. We’ve said already, and we said at the time, and, indeed, it was said certainly in this Chamber, that this was a huge boost for Wales, providing that direct route into the world’s fastest-growing hub airport and opening up Wales’s links with the rest of the world. It is a commercial relationship, and, of course, as I’ve said, we now need to take stock and be very clearly aware of the developments. But I think my answer to Mohammad Asghar also said that we need to look very carefully now at what can be achieved in terms of restoring that unity, particularly in terms of gulf co-operation, and be very clear about our human rights message here in Wales, which I’ve already stated.