Qatar has launched a review of its investments in London after the city’s transport authority this week banned the Gulf state’s advertisements on the UK capital’s buses, taxis and underground train system.
The move by Transport for London was prompted by concerns about Qatar’s stance on LGBT+ rights and its treatment of migrant workers. It has infuriated Doha, which has become increasingly angered by criticism aimed at it as host of the football World Cup.
In 2019, London mayor Sadiq Khan asked TfL to “review how it treats advertising and sponsorship from countries with anti-LGBT+ laws”. This led to a suspension of new adverts from 11 countries including Qatar, Pakistan, Brunei and Saudi Arabia.
TfL on Friday admitted that “some” Qatar adverts had run on the network since then. But it has moved to a total ban following an outcry this week, when European teams at the World Cup in Qatar were prevented from wearing armbands in support of LGBT+ rights.
Qatar’s team on Friday became the first team to crash out of the tournament, having played just two matches.
The person involved in the Qatari review of London investments said TfL, which is chaired by Khan, contacted Q22, the body overseeing the World Cup, and Qatar’s tourism authority this week to inform them about the ban.
In response, Qatar was “reviewing their current and future investments” in London and was “considering investment opportunities in other UK cities and home nations,” said the person involved in the review.
The TfL ban “has been interpreted as a message from the mayor’s office that Qatari business is not welcome in London”, the person added.
It is unclear what impact the review might have on Qatar’s London investments. Over the past two decades it has become one of biggest investors in London through its $450bn sovereign wealth fund. The Qatar Investment Authority owns Harrods, the department store, the iconic Shard building and is a co-owner of Canary Wharf. The Gulf state also owns Chelsea Barracks, the Savoy and Grosvenor House hotels, and a 20 per cent stake in Heathrow airport.
In May, the gas-rich Gulf state pledged to invest £10bn over five years in the UK through the QIA, including in the technology, healthcare, infrastructure and clean energy sectors.
A spokesperson for Khan said the Labour mayor was not involved in day-to-day decisions regarding advertising on the city’s transport network. A TfL spokesperson said it had provided “advertising partners and brands with further guidance” on acceptable advertising during the World Cup.
Qatar’s media office and the QIA declined to comment. But the person involved in the Qatar review said Doha considered the TfL ban “another blatant example of double standards and virtue signalling to score cheap political points around the Qatar World Cup”.
“TfL accepts advertising from the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, and has several commercial interests in China, but there is no suggestion that those agreements will be pulled,” the person said.
They added that the dispute would not affect Qatar’s relationship with the Conservative-led UK government.
The UK has been seeking to secure longer-term gas supplies from Qatar in the wake of the energy crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Qatar, the world’s top exporter of liquefied natural gas, is already an important energy supplier to the UK.
Qatar had launched a tourism advertising drive in the UK in the lead up to the World Cup, with a focus on London, as it seeks to use the tournament to promote the nation.
Qatar leaders have become increasingly open in their push back against the criticism, particularly from European politicians and football associations, as it has intensified in the lead up to the tournament.
Last month, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, the emir, raged against what he said was an “unprecedented campaign” against Qatar.
He said it included “fabrications and double standards that were so ferocious that it has unfortunately prompted many people to question the real reasons and motives behind the campaign”.