Supporting P&O crews means standing up to power of Middle East dictators – Brian Wilson

What Edward Heath referred to as “the unacceptable face of capitalism” occasionally breaks through the mask in all its stark ugliness.

This week’s face belonged to a senior executive at P&O. Four months ago, the firm was telling employees: “It’s not just a job, it’s a career… it’s family.” Yesterday’s message was that they were all sacked with immediate effect.

Of course, the manager given that task is only an unpleasant countenance behind which lies a ruthless owner, a nasty piece of work who among his minor baubles also counts a large chunk of Lochalsh, Sheikh Maktoum of Dubai.

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For avoidance of doubt, the website of P&O owner Dubai World states: “We are committed to generating value for our shareholder, the Government of Dubai, with a corporate philosophy in line with the vision set by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum… based on sustainability, best ethical practices and integrity.” Aye, right.

Is there any minister today who shares Heath’s ability to call out “the unacceptable face” and do something about it? The lead is unlikely to come from the top. To be fair though, the transport minister, Robert Courts, who spoke in the Commons, sounded genuinely angry.

So too did Tory MP Huw Merriman, who chairs the Commons transport committee. “The parent DP World needs to understand that the British public will not do business with companies who treat their employees with such contempt,” he declared.

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Well, maybe the British public won’t, though a boycott of P&O is unlikely to last long. A more relevant question is whether the British government will continue to do business – big business – with DP World and His Highness the Sheikh?

Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum is vice-president and prime minister of the United Arab Emirates, and ruler of the Emirate of Dubai (Picture: Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty Images)

By yesterday, the white flag was out, a minister called James Heappey delivering the message: “It's shoddy to do that… Sadly it is the case that the government cannot force an employer to continue to employ people that the employer has said it doesn't want to employ.”

“Shoddy.” There’s a word to strike terror into even the hardest of hearts. I suspect its mildness was not inadvertent. Overnight, there will have been frantic lobbying from the Foreign Office along the lines of “we cannot go to war (of any kind) with Dubai”.

The rather sad truth is that Britain is in thrall to the worst despotisms of the Middle East – and they know it. There is literally nothing they cannot get away with because the ingrained doctrine is that we are strategically dependent upon them. “Shoddy” is the worst we dare say.

A veto on Dubai World investment in the UK? Return of furlough money? Sanctions against sporting events sponsored by DW including the European golf tour and F1? Don’t hold your breath. The shoddy storm will pass.

Whether the ruler of Dubai is taking revenge for a High Court ruling in London last year which destroyed the Sheikh’s image as a benign, Brit-friendly man of the turf has become a matter of speculation. That kind of thing is not supposed to happen.

The court found he had orchestrated abductions of two daughters – one off the streets of Cambridge – and subjected his youngest wife to a campaign of intimidation. The shocking facts of the Cambridge case were known to UK authorities for years but it took the High Court to spell them out, while the Sheikh remains unsanctioned.

This week, Boris Johnson went to Riyadh to plead for more oil. In advance, the Saudis executed 81 people. As Johnson chatted amiably with the ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, the name of Jamal Khashoggi was as far from his thoughts as those of Skripal and Likvinenko a few short months ago. Diplomacy must continue.

I know that ethical foreign policies are easier said than done. At some point, however, it needs to be faced up to that subservience to Middle East dictators reflects a putrid relationship which will eventually backfire – just like uncritical love of dirty Russian money.

The “shoddy” treatment of P&O workers offers an immediate test of whether there is stomach for that fight. I would love to be pleasantly surprised.

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