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‘Beware Absolute Monarchs Bearing Gifts’

Afsana Lachaux warns of the impact of Britain’s dependence on the £140bn invested by Gulf states, from the impact on London’s housing to a rising political influence

The Shard in London, jointly owned by Sellar Property and the State of Qatar. Photo: Nathaniel Noir/Alamy

Beware Absolute Monarchs Bearing Gifts

Afsana Lachaux warns of the impact of Britain’s dependence on the £140 billion invested by Gulf states, from the impact on London’s housing to a rising political influence

London is being taken over by the blingocracy.

As the World Cup begins in Qatar, and with the UN climate summit heading to Dubai next year, we need to take a long look at what the Gulf dictators are doing here at home.

They’ve already bought up some of our most famous football clubs. And, as an Observer investigation reveals, they are buying up property wherever they can find it. The same can be said for stakes in our most famous companies and landmarks. Barclays, British Airways, and BP; Harrods, Canary Wharf and the Shard. The list goes on and on.

The Gulf states are using their economic and political influence to whitewash their human rights abuses and asset strip this country. Taken together, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait have investments in the UK worth more than £140bn – far more than Russia or China. Their influence has infected our politics, and we should be concerned.

Nowhere is that influence more damaging than in London. In my own borough of Tower Hamlets, the Qatari state alone holds two hundred land titles. In the most densely-populated place in the country, more than 19,000 households are in need of an affordable home. But vast tracts of land have been bought up by foreign regimes who do nothing to help.

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In Kensington, where I’m standing to be the next Labour MP candidate, the situation is similar. According to Action on Empty Homes, more than one in ten properties in the borough are empty. Many of them are prestigious properties registered to shell companies, bought up by the blingocracy from the Gulf.  

Let’s be clear: these investments are doing very little to benefit local communities. In places like Kensington, which suffers from high levels of inequality, child poverty, and obscene property prices, it is actually making them poorer. We need to have a fundamental rethink about how the council tax system operates, and how we make sure empty homes generate income for the local community.

That means housing policies which put the community before profit. If we introduced a vacancy tax to deal with homes that are left empty by overseas investors, we could also give local authorities new powers to bring empty homes back into use. It’s part of a policy package that should see access to housing as a human right, not as a speculative racket that fills the pockets of profiteers and billionaires.

But housing is just part of a broader problem, and we should not be surprised that the Gulf dictators have been buying up so much of our country. Successive governments have positively encouraged them to do it. That in turn makes it more difficult for UK politicians to criticise their autocratic ways and promotes an unhealthy dependence on regimes that torture and kill their opponents.

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Make no mistake, they are very interested in buying political influence and prepared to spend staggering sums of money to achieve their objectives. The Washington Post recently reported on a classified intelligence report which examines the legal and illegal ways in which the United Arab Emirates, which is supposed to be a close ally, has manipulated the American political system.  

They spend hundreds of millions on expensive lobbying, and on buying favourable or even fawning coverage. But some of the activities described resemble straightforward espionage.

Remember, this is not an adversary like Russia, China or Iran. This is supposed to be a partner. And if it’s happening to that extent in Washington, how much do you think it is being done in London, the home of laundered dirty money?

If you criticise the super-wealthy Gulf elite and the absolute monarchies, they will use client journalists and law firms to shut you down. But we should not be silenced, because this is too important an issue. It’s not just about human rights, it’s also about national security.

When I had to fight my own battle against the authorities in Dubai, where my young son was taken away from me by an Islamic court which didn’t recognise the equality of women, the British legal system did nothing to help me, and neither did the government.

It has to do more now. We must rethink our relationships with these repressive regimes. It can’t all be about the money. 

Afsana Lachaux Human rights campaigner and Labour Candidate for Kensington

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