By Anand Holla
With great power comes great expectations — and neither appears to be in short supply for a celebration of such great magnitude and variety as the upcoming third annual Great British Festival.
At the British embassy — which is organising the fortnight of festivity in partnership with the British Council and the UK Government’s GREAT campaign — dissolves into a flurry of activity in preparations, Ajay Sharma, UK ambassador to Qatar, is understandably a most busy man.
In the run-up to the Festival that traverses the finest of British culture, education, tourism and business while highlighting the strength of the country’s relationship with Qatar, Sharma is visibly excited about the range that’s on offer. At his residence that hums with sophisticated futuristic coolth, Sharma settles for a conversation and lets us in on his well-rounded perspective.
Admittedly, UK-Qatar cultural ties run deep. With the Great British Festival, which will run from March 6 to March 19, how are you trying to bring something different?
My starting point for all of this is that Qatar and the UK have a great deal of shared history and that a lot of Qataris know the UK extremely well. One of the things that we are trying to do in this embassy, in the way that we promote the UK-Qatar relations, is to draw on that experience and the history of the UK and then use that as a springboard for either showing new sides to the UK, or developing further existing areas with the UK. Culture is an important tool, not just because it’s something that people enjoy but also because it captures what a country is about.
What we are trying to do in this Festival is showcase to Qataris what the UK is all about. Some of it they will know but some of it will be different. That’s the balance that I am trying to get in this Festival — the things that people know and associate with the UK, and also showcase the things that they haven’t seen before about the UK. So it’s very similar to Qatar, in the sense that when I think about Qatar, I think about the mix of the old and the new, tradition and innovation. I think that’s something which also, when I think about the UK, comes to mind — we are creative, we are also historic. And that’s why this Festival, which is about those traditional elements of the UK, but also new elements of the UK, is so important for Qatar and our relationship.
Be it for tourism or to study there, Qataris have been increasingly frequenting the UK. What is your reading of the Qataris’ affinity towards the UK?
I have always been struck by how many Qataris visit the UK. The latest figures from VisitBritain will show that there continues to be a significant increase in the number of Qataris visiting the UK. But it’s not only the Qataris who visit the UK, own property there, or study there, I think there’s a generational connection with the UK. It’s not just about what people are doing now but also what their families have done, what their parents have done. That gives us an extremely rich backdrop and context for trying to promote UK-Qatar relations.
Qataris feel comfortable with and positive about the UK. My challenge is to make sure that it continues from one generation to the next. Culture and the British Festival is one way of achieving that. It will help us consolidate the feelings that the current and previous generations have had about the UK but also developing that positive feeling about the UK. Culture encapsulates what a country is, which is what makes this Festival so important.
What, in particular, do you feel draws the current generation of Qataris to the UK?
I think one of the things that draw Qataris to the UK is the nature of cities. I think they feel that they are welcoming, dynamic places, and in that sense, they feel they are quite like being back in Qatar, which is a dynamic, welcoming, friendly place. I think the other reason why they go to the UK is the language. Qataris have an amazing grasp of English. The level of language is also something which drives that and the ease they feel in English. The third thing is that the UK, while its role has changed over the years, continues to be a major international space. If you are from another country, you will be able to make contact with people from other countries and feel that you are at the centre of either global trends or global movement or innovation, and being part of that is something that anyone feels they can experience in the UK. In short, the dynamism, the friendliness and the global nature of the UK is what attracts Qataris in the same way that those qualities attract people to Qatar.
What is your impression of Qatar from the experiences you have had here?
I have been struck by how dynamic the place is and by how active people are. As a British ambassador to Qatar, my day is filled with a variety of activities which, in a way, are only a small part of what is going on here. Across the board, whether it is education, culture, trade, politics, humanitarian issues, there’s always something going on in Qatar that’s important for the UK to either understand or to be part of. I found the Qataris to be friendly, welcoming, engaged and knowledgeable. In that sense, they are helpful interlocutors for me as an ambassador or for my team as an embassy to have. We can do a lot with this place. The opportunities are as big as our ambition. The challenge for me and this embassy and the UK is to convert all that goodwill and positive feeling about the UK into something which is tangible for the benefit of both the UK and Qatar. It could be a successful World Cup in 2022 — we really want Qatar to host an amazing World Cup — and we want to be part of that, because Qatar is a partner for us, and we want to help and share in these important global events.
The Festival features everything from traditional British spring fetes to a football tournament, activities in malls and hotels and a range of events marking the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. What were the criteria to chalk out such a varied programme?
For me, what was important was to showcase different aspects of Britain and British culture. We range from the food to the theatre, from film to the music, from science and archaeology to Alice in Wonderland. I’m really pleased that we have been able to work with our partners to deliver that because it’s not something we can deliver on our own as an embassy. So it’s terrific that we have malls participating, showing off what Britain has to offer in terms of great shopping or hotels participating in showcasing British food — and I’m pleased to say that the reputation of British food has changed for the better in recent years!
The British community appears to feel quite at ease here in Qatar.
We have 25,000 British nationals here, which is sizeable and the community continues to grow. It’s a sign that how our historic relationship with Qatar, which perhaps goes back 200 years, has continued to develop and deepen in lots of different ways. Many of the British expats have either been here for a long time or want to stay here a long time. I think that’s a great indicator of how the UK-Qatar relations are going from strength to strength.
If you were to share an instance or an experience that sort of encapsulates your idea of what Qatar is, what would it be?
When I went to the Museum of Islamic Art, it was interesting because it was a beautiful building and modern from the outside, and a beautiful building from the inside as well and the collection was amazing. It summed up for me what I love about Qatar, which is this modern, dynamic edge, this sense of culture, history and identity from the region and the Islamic world, and an ability to put it all together in a way that works, whether you are a resident or a visitor. Another example is when I went to Halal Festival in Katara, I was struck by the really warm and positive atmosphere and a strong sense of tradition and culture, but also a desire to share this with people who are not from Qatar and with the new generation. This is a really interesting example of Qatar — a country preserving its culture, celebrating it and passing on that culture to the next generation in a very positive and open way, which is easy for outsiders like myself to appreciate and to understand.
So what are the immediate plans to engage with the community?
We are always engaging with the British community, which is incredibly important to the embassy. But my role goes wider than this. My role is about promoting the relationship of our two countries and hence all the events we try and do are about that. Sometimes it focuses on the British community, sometimes it focuses on our Qatari friends and contacts, and sometimes it’s about bringing them together. At the end of the day, I see myself as a facilitator. We can create the context and the connections. We can deliver in certain areas. But the real delivery has to be done by the people. And I hope that events like the Great British Festival will really help strengthen that connection and make it easier for people to deliver for a better UK-Qatar relationship.
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