A New Book on Qatargate Reveals Central Role of Qatar’s Minister of Labour and His Algerian Consigliere in Alleged Corruption Scandal

A New Book on Qatargate Reveals Central Role of Qatar’s Minister of Labour and His Algerian Consigliere in Alleged Corruption Scandal

The investigation into Qatargate, the biggest alleged corruption scandal to hit the European Parliament in years, has not yet yielded all its secrets. In Qatargate*, a new book by Louis Colart and Joël Matriche, the two investigative reporters for Brussels daily Le Soir reveal the central role played over several years by Qatar’s Labour Minister Dr. Ali bin Samikh Al Marri and his right-hand man Bettahar Boudjellal in the alleged money-for-influence scheme which rocked the European Parliament. 

“Qatar thought about the plan for months, or probably years: FIFA, buying PSG Football Club, the deal with the Unions, the ILO. The European Parliament was one link in the chain of its strategy of influence,” a source close to the Belgian investigation is quoted as saying in QatarGate.

A letter of intent between Dr. Al Marri, then president of Qatar’s National Committee on Human Rights, and Pier Antonio Panzeri, President of the European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights and one of the scandal’s main protagonists, mentions the “organization or follow up of the ILO Conventions,” thus suggesting that Doha’s efforts would reach as far as Geneva. The book does not reveal, however—it is not its focus—if Qatar’s alleged bribing of members of the European Parliament and of the then head of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) did, indeed, extend beyond the European institutions, to which the Belgian investigations are limited. “The biggest alleged corruption scandal of European democracy has not yet revealed all its magnitude,” the two well-sourced investigative reporters write, hinting at possible further disclosures.

Most of the revelations about the scandal will not be new to those who have followed the Qatargate saga as reported by Brussels-based media. But what makes their book a worthy read—without taking any credit away from their reporting—is that their investigative work is backed by documents emanating from the Belgian police and the country’s counter-espionage services. It is these leaked documents, excerpted at length below, that seem to leave no doubt that Dr. Al Marri and his consigliere Bettahar Boudjellal are the alleged mastermind and corruptors in the Qatargate affair. 

Presumption of innocence prevails, the co-authors of Qatargate rightly insist, both in their book and in an interview with The Geneva Observer today. But it is striking to read, based on police interrogations quoted in the book, that the two men were allegedly always deeply involved in doling out massive amounts of cash money to European members of parliament, in selecting union leaders to “support financially” in a “lobbying” effort whose sole obsessive purpose was to burnish Qatar’s image and quash the criticism of its human rights record.

As the book documents, such criticism was indeed toned down as a result of Qatar’s actions, and praise was elevated in Brussels. The position of the ITUC, once highly critical, softened. The ILO in Geneva, largely relying on the ITUC assessments, turned from “fierce critic” to “ally,” according to the New York Times—an accusation the organisation has vehemently rejected.

Reading Colart and Matriche’s book, which reveals how far—and to what potentially illegal lengths—Qatar was willing to go in its efforts, might leave readers in Geneva uneasy, particularly at the ILO. Recall that Qatar presided over last year’s International Labour Conference, and note that the organization has repeatedly praised progress made by the country in its labour practices. It is also in the process of extending its technical cooperation agreement with Doha. In the light of all this, didn’t the ILO—and other international organisations—end up freely offering Doha that very legitimacy it so craves, and allegedly paid to obtain from the European Parliament? All the while when, according to unions and NGOs, the plight of the poor migrant workers in the country is not improving.


With the World Cup Spotlight Gone, Has Qatar Made Progress on Its Promised Labour Reforms? No, Says a Global Union in a Recent Internal Report; Yes, Says the ILO—Calling Them “Significant”
Locally international

An interview with Louis Colart and Joël Matriche

Philippe Mottaz: You have written about the investigation of Qatargate, the largest alleged corruption scandal in the European Parliament. You rightly insist that the presumption of innocence must apply to all. What surprised you most, however, both about the alleged corruptors and the alleged corrupted?

Louis Colart: The first stunner is that the alleged corruption involves massive amounts of cash money. The investigations may uncover other non-cash transactions, but [this amount of cash] is unusual in corruption cases, leading some to believe it was deliberate, as tracing cash is difficult. The investigation has revealed large cash withdrawals from the bank account of the Qatari Embassy in Brussels.

The second surprise is the extent to which non-European countries—authoritarian regimes—are determined to go in trying to burnish their image in Europe, and in public opinion. In this case, [the alleged corruption was in order] to quash or water down resolutions critical of their human rights record.

 Joël Matriche: Discovering how permeable the European Parliament and its members were to foreign influence, particularly through the so-called “friendship groups,” was a real eye-opener. [According to the European Parliament, its members “occasionally form unofficial groups to discuss relations with non-EU countries. These ‘friendship groups,’ sometimes sponsored by lobbyists or foreign governments, are not official European Parliament organisations.”] This is just flabbergasting. Imagine the levels of temptation for some members of parliament whose morals might be flexible? What’s easier than to return from a trip with a Rolex on your wrist, or a gold necklace? The system is being reformed, but these “friendship groups” have always operated in a very opaque way, particularly regarding foreign travel.

PHM: Focusing on Qatar and its role in the alleged corruption scheme, how did it all start?

LC: We know this from one of the main protagonists of the scandal, Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former Italian Member of the European Parliament [and founder of the NGO ‘Fight Impunity’] who decided to cooperate with the Belgian authorities. He told the investigators that, back in April 2018, he was approached by Dr. Ali bin Samikh Al Marri [now-Qatari Minister of Labor], who was then the Chairman of Qatar’s National Committee for Human Rights. Panzeri himself was the Chairman of the European Parliament Sub-committee on Human Rights. A few months earlier, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt had started a de facto blockade of Qatar. The blockade was immensely damaging to the image of Qatar on the world scene and, according to Panzeri, led to Doha mounting a large diplomatic offensive. Now, what is not clear is exactly when and how the relationship between Al Marri and Panzeri was transformed from a simple exchange between two people dealing with human rights issues to an alleged paid relationship. 

PHM: Minister Al Marri is of particular interest here in Geneva, as he is Doha’s main interlocutor with the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which, since 2018, has had a cooperation agreement with Qatar and an office in Doha, funded by the government. Panzeri’s assistant, Francesco Giorgi, kept an Excel spreadsheet listing all the expenses that went to Qatar’s “lobbying” efforts. You obtained the document. Is there anything relating to Geneva in it?

LC: No, not that we can tell.

PHM: An arrest warrant was initially issued against Dr. Al Marri, but was later suspended. Why? 

LC/JM: It is difficult to say with absolute certainty given the ongoing investigation. But we did reveal that the fate of a Belgian citizen held hostage in Iran was discussed, and possibly negotiated, between the Belgian Prosecutor’s Office and Qatar. It’s a high-stakes political game. There has been contact between the Belgian authorities and Doha. The Belgian Federal Prosecutor admitted publicly that in his entire career he had never been under such pressure before, from within his own country and from others. The suspension of the arrest warrant helped Minister Al Marri assume the Presidency of the International Labour Conference.

PHM: Some media reports indicate that the investigation into Qatargate might be fizzling out, and may not lead to convictions. What do you say?

 LC/JM: It is difficult, if not impossible, to predict what will happen. We know that at least six people have already been indicted and the investigations are ongoing. There may be more indictments coming. We may end up with out-of-court settlements. Justice works at a much slower pace than journalistic investigations. We wanted to tell the story because, let’s face it, it’s a great story, but also because we thought it was important to lay out the facts and, with the European elections coming up in June, to shed light on the European Parliament.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

Excerpts from QatarGate: Investigation and Revelations on The Scandal that Shakes Europe

Pier Antonio Panzeri’s First Meeting with Dr. Al Marri

Pier Antonio Panzeri, a former Italian Member of the European Parliament [and founder of the NGO ‘Fight Impunity’], is one of the main protagonists of the Qatargate scandal. After his arrest, he decided to fully cooperate with the Belgian authorities. (The G|O)

In June 2017, the coalition countries [that had imposed a blockade on Qatar] cut off everything: their borders with the country, trade routes, the antenna of Al-Jazeera, its TV channel... The world's fifth-largest gas exporter would not allow itself to be bullied in this way. In the months that followed the blockade, Doha launched an unprecedented diplomatic offensive. An offensive that found an echo in Europe, [where] a small team of opportunists […] tried to take advantage of the situation.

In the offices of the Belgian Federal Judicial Police, Pier Antonio Panzeri recalls this pivotal period: “At that point, Qatar decided to open up to the world. So, they sent ambassadors all over the world. At that time, I was chairman of the Subcommittee on Human Rights (DROI) at the European Parliament.” 

As President of DROI, Panzeri has a sort of Qatari counterpart. His name: Dr Ali bin Samikh Al Marri. A high-ranking dignitary of the emirate, from an influential clan within the monarchy, the man whom Panzeri and [fellow corruption suspect Francesco] Giorgi nicknamed, in their cryptic conversations, the Dottore (the doctor), was then the chairman of Qatar's National Committee for Human Rights. On its website, this organization claims to enjoy “complete independence” from the Gulf state. Does it really? In an authoritarian monarchy such as the one that rules Doha, this committee is more like a polished showcase for public diplomacy—or even an office of influence. The chairman of the European Parliament's Rights Committee must have known this.

Al Marri sets out to meet Antonio Panzeri. He takes the first step and comes to Brussels to shake hands. The Dottore got to know Mr. Panzeri, with his boastful air and bonhomie. He was a bit of a boor, too, with his disdain for foreign languages. A man with a long career as a trade unionist, which adds to the Italian’s stature in Al Marri's eyes. The Qatari lobbyist is inevitably seduced.

“In 2018, Al Marri decided to meet me,” Panzeri continues in his filmed interview. “I met him in Brussels and received an invitation to Doha; I accepted, asking for an agenda for the visit, which took place in the spring of 2018. My assistant Francesco Giorgi and I both went.

“We had several meetings, notably at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Labour. At the end of this visit, we decided to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the Human Rights Subcommittee and the Qatar Human Rights Agency.”

In the official photo from April 8, 2018, the Italian is looking straight ahead. His two clasped hands rest on the armrest of a carved, gilded seat. Seated on an identical armchair, the Prime Minister and Minister of the Interior of Qatar, receiving Panzeri, stares at him from under his immaculate white dishdasha, no doubt overjoyed to receive the Old Continent’s “Mr. Human Rights” in these times of blockade.

The website of The Peninsula—the English-language Qatari daily newspaper—is enthusiastic in relating the results of Panzeri’s visit to their country: “The Chairman of the European Parliament’s Human Rights Committee [...] praised the reforms undertaken by the State of Qatar to promote human rights,” it reads. Protection of workers, future organization of the 2022 World Cup, international credibility of the Qatari Human Rights Committee... The report spells out the praise lavished by Panzeri on his hosts. The article contains no less than six paragraphs dedicated to Doha’s utmost preoccupation of the moment: denouncing the “siege” of their hated neighbors. “Mr. Panzeri stressed that the blockade [...] has negative impacts on people and affects human rights, so it is incumbent to expose the destructive effects of any violation of these rights to public opinion.”

As for the MOU, it exists. A simple A4 sheet, drafted in English and signed by both protagonists on April 26, 2018—the day Al Marri attended a committee meeting in the European Parliament for the very first time. [This was also] an opportunity for [him] to complain about the blockade suffered by his emirate, in front of a Panzeri nodding in agreement from his presidential seat.

The two-line Memorandum of Understanding promises “an exchange of experience and expertise” between the members and teams of the Committee and the Commission; ditto for the organization or monitoring of conventions, “including those of the ILO,” the International Labour Organization, the UN agency for workers’ rights—which, four days later, will open its office in Doha.

“It was a protocol, a letter of intent that was submitted to the European Parliament's Human Rights Committee. The aim was to develop multilateral relations and monitor the progress of reforms in Qatar,” explained the Italian during his interrogations.

The European Parliament has denied ever having official knowledge of the “precious” document. In short, it is a phantom agreement, which no MEP other than the signatory himself appears to have validated.

A phantom document perhaps, but nevertheless much appreciated by the Qatari side.

Francesco Giorgi’s Spreadsheet

Francesco Giorgi was Panzeri's aide. He is also Eva Kaïli's companion: A Greek MEP, Käili was vice-president of the European Parliament before being forced to resign when Qatargate exploded. (The G|O)

Francesco Giorgi [Panzeri’s aide] created a four-column spreadsheet in a password-protected file on his Google Drive: a digital document with a bright future.

The first date on [the list] is April 26, 2018, the day of Ali bin Samikh Al Marri’s first official visit to the European Parliament. In the “events” column, Giorgi notes in English: “Hearing of the President [of Qatar’s Human Rights Committee] before DROI.” In the “subject” column, he details the purpose of the hearing: “Violations of Qatari citizens' rights under the blockade,” and in the last column, marked “follow-up,” Giorgi digs in: “Call for action by the European Parliament—pointing the finger at Bahrain for refusing to accept the [visit of the] DROI delegation planned for May.”

The second row of the spreadsheet records the signing of the memorandum of understanding between Al Marri and Panzeri.

Confronted with a printed copy of the file found on his computer and listening attentively to three interviewers from the Central Office for the Repression of Corruption, Francesco Giorgi explains his mentor’s strategy to the police. The signing of a memorandum of understanding is “the most important action in Panzeri's file about Qatar,” says the young Italian. “It’s the first time such a memorandum has been signed. Such an agreement sealed Qatar's legitimacy with the European Parliament,” he insists.

Pier Antonio Panzeri’s gesture did not involve compensation. Still, it was not disinterested, according to Giorgi: “There’s no agreement yet for remuneration at this date,” the assistant tells the investigators, “but Panzeri felt that this was the gesture to make for future remuneration; it’s the key to entry into negotiations.” The Italian duo wasted no time. “Negotiations on remuneration took place during the visit in May and beyond.”

Antonio Panzeri was less precise about dates than his loyal aide but told the same story to the police: “Francesco Giorgi and I agreed to do some lobbying work.” The fee negotiated with Ali bin Samikh Al Marri? One and a half million euros for the period 2018-2019. In cash. The two men will split the payment 60/40; Panzeri, the boss, will get the 60%, and Giorgi will get the rest.

A month after signing the April 2018 Memorandum of Understanding and the Qatari's appearance before Parliament, Antonio Panzeri and Francesco Giorgi returned to Doha for a second time. The former trade unionist rehearsed and refined his pro-Qatari and anti-blockade rhetoric, much to the delight of Qatar’s state media. The two men were received like princes. And for them, the real purpose of the visit became concrete. Francesco Giorgi confesses to the police that “there was an agreement on remuneration with Qatar after the visit to Doha. The first payment was made in the first half of 2018, before the end of June 2018.”

His contact is a man called Boudjellal Bettahar. The Qatari dignitary [Al Marri] never travels without his “right-hand man,” nicknamed l'Algerino—“the Algerian.” With a doctorate in international public law from Lyon III University and another in international human rights law from the Catholic University of Paris, Boudjellal Bettahar was in his fifties when he met the two Italians. He is an essential link in his boss Ali bin Samikh Al Marri’s network: he speaks English and French, in addition to his mother tongue, Arabic. We don't know when this Franco-Algerian became such a precious asset up the Qatari’s sleeve, but he stayed with him when the latter was called to the post of the Minister of Labor for the emirate shortly afterwards.

Targeting the Unions

The other Qatari obsession emerging from [Giorgi’s spreadsheet] can be summed up in two words: workers’ rights. 

“In 2018, we were renewing the presidency of the global union [the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the great global umbrella for hundreds of workers’ organizations]. At one of the meetings, there were four of us: with me were Francesco [Giorgi], Al Marri and the Algerian [Bettahar],” recalls Antonio Panzeri in front of a camera from the Federal Police. The alleged “mastermind” of the interference operation in the Brussels and Strasbourg parliaments is about to make revelations that will go far beyond the seat of European democracy. 

“[ITUC Secretary General] Sharan Burrow was seeking reelection, and I was asked about the Italian woman who was running against her. […] I told them I knew her, because we’d been involved in the same trade union. They told me they would be happy to meet her and help her.”

Panzeri finally drops the name of the Italian woman going up against the outgoing ITUC president: Susanna Camusso. Camusso spent nine years as the head of the Italian General Confederation of Labor (CGIL, the country’s largest trade union from 2010 to 2019). She is now an Italian senator. The woman whom the former activist Panzeri is about to implicate is well-versed in union negotiations.

“I spoke with her in Milan, and she said she was available for this meeting. The meeting took place a few weeks later, in June 2018. […] Present? Me, the Algerian, Al Marri, [Camusso], her assistant, and Francesco Giorgi. We didn’t talk about money but about helping African and Middle Eastern unions. During a [previous] meeting, we had decided on €600,000. This amount came from the following assessment: unions from many countries can vote if their dues are in order, and many countries that could have supported Camusso’s candidacy were behind in their payments.”

Susanna Camusso, 62 years old at the time of the ITUC leadership context, remembers the lunch but not the menu as described by her host. “I was contacted by Mr. Panzeri, who introduced me to the representative of a Qatari NGO involved in human rights. Given that [Panzeri] was President of the DROI at the time, I had no reason to doubt his word nor to question the commitment of the NGO towards human rights in the country.” […] The “NGO”—in fact, Qatar’s Committee on National Human Rights—“never asked me to support Qatar’s government, and money was not discussed,” the former Secretary General of the Italian Union Federation repeatedly stressed.

However, money, and in large amounts, was dropped on Brussels. […] “The €600,000 were given to me in a bag, on Place Plasky, by the Algerian [Bettahar],” Panzeri told police. “This is the bulk of the money that was found at my apartment,” he explained during his interview.

From Qatargate: Enquête et révélations sur le scandale qui ébranle l'Europe, par Louis Colart et Joël Matriche. Editions HarperCollins France. (Non traduit) © HarperCollins 2024.