x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 September 2017

Qatar co-opting London taxis for its propaganda

The dispute between Qatar and its regional neighbours has been taken to the streets of London. 

The taxis have been spotted in front of The Shard, pictured, and on Edgware Road in London. Neil Hall / Reuters
The taxis have been spotted in front of The Shard, pictured, and on Edgware Road in London. Neil Hall / Reuters

In a profession that prides itself on negotiating its way out of tight spots, the drivers of London's black cabs should be able to spot an international diplomatic dispute a mile off. But some of their number appear to have fallen into a trap set by Qatar last week as it sought to take the regional crisis to a new stage.

In a bizarre twist to Qatar's proxy propaganda battle, its media have taken its dispute with its regional neighbours to the streets of London.  A report on Al Jazeera Arabic suggested that black-cab drivers were backing Qatar in the dispute over its support for extremist groups, which has led to a boycott by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt.  A London-based correspondent delivered his report with a black taxi in the background carrying a wraparound pro-Qatar message on the bodywork. The taxi was parked in front of the iconic Shard, the 95-storey London skyscraper funded by Qatari money.

Qatari media have also featured photos of a line of five black cabs and a van, all carrying the message “Lift the Blockade Against the People of Qatar”, on Edgware Road, a major thoroughfare in central London which is popular with Middle Eastern residents.

A Twitter hashtag #WeStandWithQatar has claimed that more than 200 London taxis were displaying the message. But other social media users hit back with photos of taxis carrying commercial advertisements, such as for a Saudi football match, and Etihad and Emirates airlines.   Bodywork advertisements have become increasingly popular as a revenue earner for drivers of the estimated 22,500 black cabs in London, fetching about £2,500 a year, according to industry estimates.

The drivers are self-employed and can decide whether or not to display advertisements.  Britain's Advertising Standards Authority said it had no rules against political messages on public transport as long as they were not “misleading, harmful, offensive or irresponsible”.

Spokesman Matt Wilson said there had been no complaints about the Qatari message, although the regulator has previously investigated tourism advertising campaigns linked to Israel and Cyprus which featured destinations that were in internationally disputed territories.

It was not clear who had paid for the anti-boycott messaging on the London taxis. The Qatari embassy did not respond to emailed questions and the agency which placed the adverts declined to comment.

Qatar has previously used taxis to promote the country and its tourism. A tourism campaign in 2015 showed a series of London cabs parked or driving through famous tourist destinations in the UK capital. Another campaign said that drivers had been “briefed on Qatar” and 400,000 branded receipts were printed promoting the Gulf country.

The head of a taxi firm, who declined to be named, said he preferred the cabs he used to have no adverts on them at all. “We do a lot of wedding work,” he said. “People don’t want them.”