A group of Arab countries demanded action from the British government to restrict an expansion of Qatar's intelligence activities in London, including surveillance operations as well as political and propaganda activity.
The delegation warned Alistair Burt, the Foreign Office minister for the Middle East, in a meeting this week that a failure to impose restraints on the activities of the Qatar - and a range of front organisations - would have an impact on ties with the region.
Mr Burt was reported to have given warnings last year that the dispute between the Arab quartet — Saudi Arabia, the UAE Bahrain and Egypt — and Qatar should not be "played out" in London. Echoing his calls at that time, the envoys told Mr Burt that the British government had stood by while Doha had massively expanded the resources devoted to front organisations in London, a source on the Arab side told The National.
A handful of locations that serve as bases for Qatari intelligence operatives in Mayfair, central London, have been used in recent months to target officials and prominent figures from other Arab countries. Operations plotted from these sites have included attempts to create “defections” from other states.
There is puzzlement among Britain’s allies over why this covert activity has not been checked by British counter-intelligence organisations. A source from one of the countries that took part in the meeting called into question the official assurances that Britain would not choose sides in the boycott of Qatar over its support for extremism and sheltering of terror suspects.
“If the UK wants to be neutral in this situation, the UK should be seen to look neutral because the government doesn’t seem to be acting neutral to us,” the source said.
A spokeswoman for the Foreign Office did not address the direct concerns raised in the meeting but stressed that the UK was eager for the divisions in the region to reach a point of resolution.
“The UK remains very concerned by the ongoing tensions in the Gulf. We call on our Gulf friends to get firmly behind Kuwait’s mediation efforts to resolve the dispute,” she said.
Fears have also been expressed about loans granted by Qatari banks, also operating from Mayfair addresses, to a range of front organisations operating in Britain. The funds are used to organise and promote “agitprop”. The term from the Soviet Union describes a mix of front organisations engaged in political activity and propaganda outlets that disguise their true purpose.
Posing as non-government organisations and campaign groups, these organisations use the financing to secure high-profile speakers from the worlds of politics and law for events held in parliament and other prominent venues.
“The loans are stretched or never repaid or the organisations closed down and the loan is cancelled,” the source said. “There is a pattern where they then start up with a similar name having washed the money away.”
Another tactic has seen charities set up to provide platforms for social media training to bolster propaganda outlets and community messaging, according to the source.
Several Qatar-backed events are planned in the British capital next week alone. One involves a newly formed “research centre” that has contributed to conferences in Geneva and London since its formation.
A hallmark of these events is live broadcasts on pro-Qatari television channels or slick videos that are uploaded to the internet. Another source said emails hacked by Qatar had been published by Doha-funded news outlets, which presented the material as independently reported information.
The delegation also raised with Mr Burt information on a number of Iran-backed activities that similarly targeted their embassies and officials. While the British government has been under growing pressure to adopt a complete ban on the Lebanese group Hezbollah, the group has grown its presence in the UK. Photographic evidence showed more than 50 Hezbollah flags, which has a Kalashnikov rifle as its centrepiece, were flown at one recent rally outside the Saudi Arabian embassy.
Meanwhile a separate Iranian-backed group has begun a campaign of hijacking the exterior of public buildings, including the Houses of Parliament, to project messages of hate and political slogans targeting the Arab countries. Despite the regularity of the ambush marketing campaigns, the authorities have not intervened against the activity, said the source.