The case of the missing ministerial diary has been the most read post on the No Thanks! blog during the few days since it was published.
To save you checking, this is what happened. The minister for external affairs and international development Humza Yousaf visited Qatar in May 2013. On 4 June 2015 it was noticed that his published list of ministerial engagements for May 2013 omitted any reference to the visit. The government promised that the information would be published ‘within twenty four hours.’ It wasn’t. On 17 June the minister himself said it would be published ‘soon.’ Eleven days later it still hasn’t. So I thought I’d try and reconstruct the detail of the visit from other information publically available.
Here is a guess at some or all of his engagements in Qatar in May 2013 insofar as I’ve been able to establish them. The format is the same as the lists of ministerial engagements published routinely by government. His engagements immediately before and after the Kuwait visit are shown in italics.
- The Scotsman 19 May 2013 ‘EXTERNAL Affairs Minister Humza Yousaf travelled to Qatar today to begin a three-day visit to promote Scottish exports and expertise in the Middle East’ [my emphasis]
- Date and list of attendees at GlobalScots meeting on Scottish government web site. (Will only download as a Word document. Search for ‘qatar’ and item is third on list under title ‘Open’)
- The Scotsman 19 May 2013 ‘The Minister was invited by the Qatari Government to speak at this year’s Doha Forum, which hosts discussions on democracy, development and free trade in the Middle East’
- The Scotsman 19 May 2013 ‘Mr Yousaf will also undertake a series of meetings during his visit, exploring how further links can be developed between the Scottish and Qatari Governments.’
The notes explain what is obvious about the list but the details merit further comment.
First, the Doha Forum itself. This is a large annual conference sponsored by the Qatar government. The web site for the 2013 conference describes it as:
the leading global conference on international current affairs, now in its 13th year … The 13th Doha Forum draws together political leaders, academics, analysts, representatives of intergovernmental organisations and other members of the foreign policy community to examine pressing issues in the world today as well as key issues in the Middle East of global relevance …
The specific aims for 2013, held from 20-22 May, included:
- the impact of the emerging new world order on the Arab world
- issues facing the global economy and the impacts on development
- challenges facing the new democracies in the Middle East
- prospects for international co-operation and the requirements for success
- the importance of institutional reform in post-Arab Spring
- the repercussions of the global economic crisis on human rights
- the challenges and opportunities offered by digital media – from cyber warfare to digital diplomacy.
Mr Yousaf’s contribution (during the Fourth Session listed in the event programme) was as one of six speakers in a 90 minute time slot on 21 May from 9 a.m. to 10.30 a.m. on Democracy: Challenges Facing New Democracies in the [Arab] Region. The Qatar News Agency issued a media release on the session that mentions the contributions of two of the speakers but not Mr Yousaf. I have not found the text of his speech online. So we cannot be sure how well his contribution fitted with the declared aim of the visit, ‘to promote Scottish exports and expertise in the Middle East’ (see Note 1. to the table above). Assuming the chair of the session (the UK’s Nicholas Soames) took 5 minutes each to top and tail it, and assuming (not always a valid assumption at events like this) that everyone stuck to the timetable, Mr Yousaf would have had at most just over 13 minutes to deliver whatever he said.
The value of a major conference is not necessarily in the speeches and workshops (I would have been tempted to skip quite a few of those listed) but the informal exchanges and contacts made around the fringes. The whole event lasted scarcely more than 48 hours and we cannot know what contacts were made at the event by the minister or his private secretary. The list of participants might, at best, be described as a mixed bag, ranging from important people from small or poor countries to larger countries who are scarcely represented at all. Tiny Brunei sent 35 people including two princes and three princesses.
The only other event we can be sure of is the GlobalScots meeting on 20 May. This is ‘a worldwide network of business contacts who are experts in their field, and driven to help Scottish companies develop, expand and thrive in a competitive international market.’ Apart from the Scottish Government (minister and private secretary presumably) and representatives of Scottish Development International (part of Scottish Enterprise) and Globalscots (also part of Scottish Enterprise), attendees came from – Doha Bank, Qatar Insurance Group, Qatar National Broadband Networks, Davidson&Adamson (Chartered Surveyors), Scottish Water/Ashgal, and Pinsent Masons (document mentioned in Note. 2 to the table above).
Of the ‘series of meetings during his visit, exploring how further links can be developed between the Scottish and Qatari Governments’ (see Note 4. to the table above) we know nothing, neither how many there were nor who with.
Despite searching the Scottish government and parliament web sites and googling ‘Humza Yousaf Qatar’ I have found only two other references to the visit:
- in the Scotsman on 21 May 2013 – ‘opposition parties have criticised Scotland’s external affairs minister Humza Yousaf, claiming he has drawn “crass” and “irresponsible” comparisons between the Arab Spring and Scotland’s own constitutional journey [at] the Doha Forum’
- a question by Conservative MSP Annabel Goldie in parliament on 19 June 2013 (official record col. 21302) that included the words ‘The cabinet secretary’s colleague, Humza Yousaf, who is sitting beside her, recently got into hot water in Qatar by patently misrepresenting the United Kingdom Government’s position on European Union membership…’
I draw four conclusions from all this.
- There is as yet no ‘smoking gun’ associated with the visit but even the possibility of such a thing could have been avoided by prompt publication of the minister’s engagements in Qatar, if not in 2013 then within the ’24 hours’ promised on 4 June.
- Given the constraints of available time, the nature of the attendees and what seems to be a mismatch between the stated aims of the minister’s visit and the purpose of the session, I would guess his speech at the Doha Forum added little value to the forum itself or, directly at least, to Scotland’s interests.
- Assuming it met the purposes of the network, the GlobalScots event was probably a sensible thing to hold while he was there although people from only six other organisations seem to have attended it.
- Until we know what other meetings were held we cannot know if they were worthwhile.
Meantime we still await the promised details of the minister’s engagements on this and other visits. Depending on whether they emerge and what they show I may return to the subject. For example, some sort of report back, action list, or statement of outcomes from the visit should exist somewhere.
Whatever the list of engagements might show, my bigger interest in all this is the question of the SNP’s problematic attempts to dabble in external affairs, a function for which they have no devolved responsibility. As evidence in relation to Qatar I would cite not only the political criticisms mentioned above (para. beginning ‘Despite searching …’) but also a claim by then first minister Alex Salmond in 2011 that Scotland and Qatar have ‘remarkable similarities.’ As did Scotland and Ireland, Iceland and Norway a short time ago …
Finally, it is interesting that in the government reshuffle of November 2014 Mr Yousaf’s job title was changed from ‘minister for external affairs and international development’ to ‘minister for Europe and international development.’ I can think of various reasons why and may explore them in a future post.