Why is Mark Drakeford going to the World Cup?
Labour’s first minister of Wales Mark Drakeford has faced plenty of criticism from opposition party leaders for his decision to attend the World Cup in Qatar.
This criticism only intensified when UK Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer announced he was boycotting the World Cup due to the country’s human rights record.
Speaking to journalists today for the first time since announcing his intention to go to Qatar, Mr Drakeford told me the decision to attend the tournament was a “challenging” one.
In the end, it was the rare opportunity to market Wales at their first World Cup in 64 years that clinched it for ministers, despite concerns over human rights.
The Welsh government, however, already has strong links with the Qatari regime.
It has an office there and, in 2018, a new direct service between Welsh government-owned Cardiff Airport and Doha was unveiled by Qatar Airways, which is owned by the Qatari government.
Attracting long-haul destinations was a key part of the attempts to reverse the fortunes of the struggling airport, and it was later revealed the government had given the airline at least £1m of taxpayers’ money to “market Wales” as a destination to the world.
But the direct link was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic and last year the airport was valued at just £15 million, less than a third of what the Welsh government paid for it.
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The first minister insists that attending the cup is a chance to “shine a light” on human rights abuses, but he also told me he will be lobbying senior executives from state-owned Qatar Airways to re-open the air link to Cardiff.
There are also reports that Qatar is investing millions of pounds to expand a major gas terminal it part owns on the west coast of Wales, allowing South Hook in Milford Haven to deal with up to 25% more Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) by 2025.
Mr Drakeford insists he will use all the opportunities he has to “raise the values that matter to us here in Wales,” but it’s clear another motivation is to nurture a relationship with an important Welsh trading partner.