Not only have the Qataris introduced modern medicine to the ancient custom of the camel beauty parade. They follow their camel races in huge Lexus SUVs, so new that the plastic is still on the seats; and they no longer have old-fashioned child jockeys on the back of the camels – they were banned five years ago after some human rights outcry. So now they have electronic jockeys – little whip-wielding robots on the humps, clad in racing silks – and they control them from the backs of their charging SUVs, strategically timing the use of the whip like kids with PlayStations.
This is a society in the throes of an astonishing and dynamic modernisation over the past 10 years. The skyline in Doha has been forested with vast skyscrapers, each of them striking and often beautiful. They are building new cities on reclaimed land and they are sucking in the sea water, removing the salt and cultivating avenues of trees. Their airport has just run out of room, and they aren’t faffing around with some study into the options – they are building a new one, right on the sea.
They are solving their traffic problems with a brand new metro, and already they have spanking new university campuses, with world-class medical faculties, and their eerily lovely museums are being filled with the treasures of the Earth.
The opportunities for Britain are enormous. But for one reason or another, the last Labour government made the mistake of not paying enough attention to this part of the world.
Tony Blair never visited Qatar once, even though it was a British protectorate until 1971. Well, we are making up for that now. I went to the British Embassy party for the Queen’s birthday on Saturday night, and I swear your heart would have burst with pride. There were 1,800 happy people there, most of them Brits, and most of them involved in a surge of UK exports to the Gulf.
The Qataris are wearing M&S underwear beneath their kanduras. They are eating in Gordon Ramsay’s restaurants. They are driving Land Rovers and phoning with Vodafone – and last year the UK exported goods worth a record £1.3 billion to Qatar alone; not bad for a place with only 1.8 million people. It was a joy to hear the natives speak spontaneously of their affection for Britain. I lost count of the number of times I was told: “London is my second home.”
They know the UK capital like the back of their hand; they want to invest even more. Not just in the top-end luxury brands, but in infrastructure and affordable homes, such as the Qatari investment in the Olympic Park. There is so much we can offer, so many ways to build on this partnership. Qatar will host the World Cup in 2022 and they may need our expertise in keeping such a big project to a timescale and on budget.
They want to collaborate on higher education, on culture, on medicine, on science. They want to diversify away from hydrocarbon, and we should be first in the queue to help. I was amazed at the boom in the Gulf, for it is so very different from our wretched European story. For five years the crisis has dragged on, and every time we’ve thought the UK might attain an escape velocity, the euro has had another convulsion and confidence has drained away.
Today, the Gulf is doing well because of resurgent demand from Asia, and above all from China. America is returning to life, too – and as to our continent, well, Europe is a microclimate of gloom. I came away from a week of talking to hundreds of businessmen and political leaders in the Middle East, and I am more convinced than ever that the world has changed profoundly since 2008, and that the pace of change is accelerating.
Since the crisis began, “emerging markets” have provided the growth in the world – at least two thirds of it. Of course Europe will always be vital and we will always have a colossal stake in America. But it is in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa that we must expand our businesses and restore our instinct as a great trading nation.
It is an extraordinary fact that it is now the Commonwealth countries, so long neglected by the UK, that are turning into the powerhouses of the future. We have more friends than we sometimes imagine.