He may be the honored guest of the British prime minister but the protesters who gathered outside Parliament in London on Monday felt differently.
A crowd of around 100 took up positions opposite Big Ben in Westminster to voice angry opposition to the presence in Britain of Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, emir of Qatar and a man derided by the protesters as “leader of a country without a conscience.”
“One, two, three four, we don’t want Tamim no more,” they chanted, followed by “five, six, seven, eight, Qatar is a terror state. The chants were led by two women — Egyptian-born Magda Sakr, a freelance PR consultant, and 20-year-old university student Belle Yassin, who organized two coach-loads of demonstrators from Birmingham, about 125 miles north west of London.“He is not welcome here,” said Sakr. “He should go now.”
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The emir is in London to discuss trade relations. He was due to meet the Lord Mayor, Charles Bowman, and Baroness Fairhead, minister of state for trade and export promotion, in the morning before going on to the Houses of Parliament, although no one seemed sure of his movements.
The first protesters on the scene were a dozen young men in white T-shirts, bearing placards with the slogan “we don’t want your bloody money” — a protest against the treatment of migrant workers in Qatar. Surprisingly — and somewhat inexplicably — they were all Russian and spoke little English, but shared a common cause with the British Arab protesters who eventually joined them.
“We want Qatar to respect people from all countries who work there and not to treat them like slaves,” said one of the men, who gave his name only as Pavel.
After an hour, there was a cheer from the gathering with the arrival of Khalid Al-Hail, leader of the Qatar National Democratic Party, and the man everyone said was behind the anti-Tamim protest. Blue-suited and urbane, Al-Hail said it was time for Qatar to admit its links with terrorists and stop giving in to them.
“I hope the Qatar leadership will confess to sponsoring terrorism and admit the human rights abuses that they have allowed to happen,” he said.
Al-Hail referred to a ransom of more than $1 billion paid by Qatar for the release of a hunting party kidnapped in southern Iraq, money that was allegedly used to fund terror.
“Why didn't they talk to the Iraqi government instead of handing over money? What will they say to the families of those who will be killed because of what that money enables terrorists to do? The Qatari government is damaging Qatar’s reputation internationally,” Al-Hail said.
“But the trouble is, if I have an issue I cannot go to the emir. Opposition is a healthy way to fix corrupt things but the leadership believes opposition is unhealthy.”
The boycott imposed on Qatar by the Anti-Terror Quartet was justified, Al-Hail added.
“They are protecting their interests as is the right of every country. It is Qatar that is unwilling to compromise.”
Mariam Omar, 20, had traveled by coach from Birmingham with her friends Samsam Jama, 20, Naima Ali, 19, and Rama Ahemd, 20. They proudly brandished placards calling for equality for women in Qatar.
“We don’t want the emir here because he associates himself with terrorists and (Daesh) and tarnishes Muslims. He is a war criminal,” said Omar. She was especially happy that the two main cheerleaders of the protest were women.
Most of the protesters were young, in their twenties. But Hekmat Ahmed, 68, an Egyptian who came to Britain in 1991, said infirmity — she uses a zimmer frame — would not keep her away.
“Qatar has done bad things to my country,” she said. Making a thumbs-down gesture, she added, “Qatar is very bad. They are friends with all terrorist groups. I don’t want Tamim here. He is not welcome.”
Meanwhile, 200 meters away from Parliament Square, a smaller group of pro-Doha protesters had gathered with placards and Qatari flags.
At one point, the two opposing groups tired of shouting at the Houses of Parliament and turned to face each other. Yet they stuck to high-decibel sloganeering rather than turning to violence. Two police officers arrived on the scene and stood between the groups but found they had no need to call for reinforcements.
When Tamim’s father, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa, visited the UK in 2010, he was accorded all the accoutrements of a top-level state visit.
That visit passed without incident or much comment. But this visit by Hamad’s son and successor, Tamim, is a different matter.
It comes more than a year after the Anti-Terror Quartet imposed a boycott on Doha, sealing Qatar’s only land border and severing all diplomatic and trade relations.
As for whether the emir was aware of the protests, no one was sure.