Roger Lewis describes the warm relationships and soft power underpinning the hard business case that brought Qatar Airways to Cardiff Airport
That’s what Abdulbasit, the Chief Executive of the Qatar International Islamic Bank exclaimed, with a smile, sitting with his colleagues in their beautifully minimalist office in downtown Doha, welcoming and resplendent in their elegant thobes.
‘Beddgelert,’ he repeated, in a friendly yet inquisitive tone.
I was nonplussed, as we say in Cefn Cribwr.
It was Monday June 27th 2016, and after 18 months of visits to Doha, here I was again, mixing and mingling with the wonderful people of Qatar, just as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) had advised me to do way back at the start of 2015.
‘You have to keep coming down,’ I was told. ‘Build up trust and confidence. Get to know them, and let them get to know you.’
Eighteen months on, those words still resonated, and I was still moving and shaking, slowly building up our relationships in order to convince Qatar that
direct flights from Doha into Cardiff Airport could work.
And so there we all sat, smiling, on that hot summer Monday morning. Three days after Brexit!
I had just introduced myself to the senior members of the Qatar International Islamic Bank, along with my colleagues: there was Des Clifford, the ever supportive Director of The First Minister of Wales Office; Andrew Mitchell, the sophisticated former British Ambassador to Sweden, now on sabbatical from the FCO, and our adviser; along with His Excellency Ajay Sharma, the shrewd British Ambassador to Qatar, with his Embassy colleague, Michelle St Clair, our astute guide.
After my initial surprise at the outset of our meeting, a wonderfully animated conversation ensued about that gloriously sad canine saga, which all agenda readers know so well, but which left Ajay, Andrew and Michelle ever so slightly bemused.
It transpired that Abdulbasit’s father had an interest, years ago, in a farm in North Wales; he personally had visited Wales, he knew our stories, he had seen our mountains, and he had met our people. He was a friend even before we met that morning.
Alongside Abdulbasit sat a Qatari colleague whose nephew had studied at Swansea University, a decision to attend based upon the positive previous Welsh experiences of another family member.
You could not make it up.
The power, the attraction, the welcome of Wales had gone before us.
As we left, Abdulbasit asked, ‘Mr Roger, Brexit?’
I slowly replied, ‘the people have spoken, and we must respect the will of the people.’ There were smiles all around. I had done my homework.
This encounter was not an isolated experience during our visits to Doha. Over the course of three years, time and again we met Qataris who knew of Wales and spoke warmly about their experiences. Their perceptions of us had mainly been drawn from either their own or family members’ time spent at Welsh universities, which had led them to travel around Wales. I was told that Wales attracts more Qatari students than any other country.
Now I am reluctant to define what our attraction is in terms of ‘soft power’. I feel slightly uncomfortable packaging my country and fellow citizens in what may appear as a rather arrogant or self deluding exercise, or to do so for insincere or manipulative reasons. Perhaps as I get older my inner snowflake may be awakening. But I do believe that we should tell our story, and tell it with a passion, when the time is right.
It’s our Welsh story. A story about our land and our legends, our hills and our valleys, our rich and at times sad past and our confident and ambitious future.
Let’s talk about a Wales that yes, was built on our carbon wealth underground (just like Qatar) – but we, like Qatar, are reinventing ourselves. Read the Qatar 2030 Vision, which mirrors our own desires for connectivity, innovation and skill development.
And yes, Wales continues to be a land of poets and musicians, singers and storytellers. Let’s shout about Welsh National Opera and the Hay Festival, and let’s try and explain our obsession with a game played with an oval ball!
We need to tell our story to our potential friends and our future partners across the world – to share what we believe to be important to us – the things that have shaped us, the things that move us, the things that binds Wales together – our humour, our dragon flag, our sense of community, our togetherness, our caring natures and our magical language.
I suppose the jargon phrase is ‘to be authentic’. As my Mam always told me, ‘just be yourself!’
And that’s what we did in Doha with our Qatari friends.
We were ourselves.
Yes, we had to temper our sense of humour, our language and our behaviour. Respect is everything. Sensitivity to another culture, mindful that you are a visitor in someone’s home country is critical. And let’s not forget it’s not all about us; Islamic art, horses and falconry and the fabulous Arabic food became regular talking points. Eventually a hug and an embrace with a warm smile followed. Simple stuff. But if you back up honest, robust and transparent business data with a vision and an ambition and a drive which is compelling and attractive, coupled with real strategic alignment, it is amazing what you can achieve.
The person who ultimately made the decision to launch the Doha to Cardiff service was His Excellency Akbar Al Baker, the Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive, known in the industry as ‘The Chief’. He is the suave and sophisticated genius behind the vision for Qatar Airways and Hammad International Airport. A man with a passion for detail and a hunger for success. It was he whom we met on every visit to Doha, and who most certainly put me through my paces. And he too had visited Wales, back in 2011, for the opening, by Her Majesty the Queen and the Emir of Qatar, of the South Hook Liquid Gas Terminal in Milford Haven – the vital energy link between Qatar and the UK.
It wasn’t our Welsh soft power that has delivered a daily Qatar Airways service between Cardiff and Doha from May 1st 2018. It was the robust and detailed numbers which outlined a solid sustainable business case for the service, brilliantly assembled by the team at Cardiff Airport, and forensically challenged by Qatar Airways.
Most importantly, the fact that Cardiff Airport is owned by the Welsh Government was critical in building the confidence for the long term future of our business relationship. The First Minister of Wales personally visited Doha in early May 2017, to shake hands with Akbar Al Baker the week after ‘The Chief’ had announced the new route. Make no mistake, without Welsh devolution there would most certainly be no Cardiff Airport and most definitely no daily service from Wales to the Gulf.
But over the three years which it took to deliver the deal, what opened the door and what kept the door open, what allowed us to return time and again, was our confidence in being ourselves. It was Wales, and Qatar’s experience of all that was Welsh, that provided our glorious narrative and which captured the hearts and minds of our dear Qatari friends and which allowed us to be invited to the table. Powerful stuff.
This article originally appeared in the welsh agenda issue 60. Join the IWA here to receive the welsh agenda as it is published.
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