THE MEETING THAT CHANGED EVERYTHING
In truth, Angus decided to accept Suleiman’s invitation to meet when he was half way through reading the Newsweek article. Some things were just too intriguing to be ignored. Before checking the references he called up his constituency office and swore Jean and Mary to secrecy. Over the next day and a half he didn't mention anything to anyone. If this was to be a superbly put together scam, he wanted it to be as private as possible. The prospect of a year's worth of relentless piss taking didn't particularly ring his bell.
A beaming woman on the reception desk of the Balmoral directed him to Meeting Room Three on the second floor and his knock on the door was answered quickly by a warm smile and an outstretched hand. The Qatari had swapped his Saville Row finery for a pair of well-worn jeans and a pastel shirt.
“Minister. I am so glad you were able to come. Please. Come in.”
Angus scanned the room and was encouraged by what he saw. A corner table carried a selection of cheeses and bread rolls. A coffee pot waited on a tray. A bottle of what looked like very old Scotch indeed hinted at very serious money. But not ostentatious money. Discreet money. Money with a touch of class.
“Would you like to eat something now or would you prefer to wait?”
“I'm fine for now. Maybe some coffee?”
“Of course. Take a seat.”
Suleiman fixed two coffees and set them down on the low table between two comfortable leather chairs.
“OK. Shall I start? I don't suppose you will want any small talk?"
Angus smiled. “I would rather not.”
“Fine. I will start with one or two basics. I am Suleiman Al Khalidi, I am forty three years old and my country is Qatar. Most of what you read in the Newsweek article is broadly true. Only two of the facts are relevant and important to our meeting. I am indeed a close friend of our Sheik. We have remained close since school. And I do indeed do my very best to serve my country. I think this gives us something in common."
“Yes. I hope it does.”
“Good. Now. Our two countries. It seems to me we have many things in common. We are both small. We have both managed to free ourselves from London rule. And of course, we were both blessed with vast reserves of fossil fuel. However, here is where our two paths travelled in rather different directions. We achieved our independence from London before the oil boom and this enabled us to keep the huge revenues for ourselves. Sadly it took you rather longer and London was able to steal the lion's share of the revenue from your oil."
Angus smiled at an analysis he wholeheartedly agreed with. It might have been lifted from any stump speech he had given in either Indyref One or Indyref Two.
Suleiman returned his smile. “Would you mind if I briefly tell you a story which I think will throw some light on how we Qataris have tried to carve out our place in the world?”
“I wouldn't mind at all. The floor is all yours.”
“Good. I will go back nearly thirty years. Then as now, the Middle East was a volatile, precarious place. We were a tiny country with a population of less than a quarter of a million. We had many enemies who would have liked nothing better than to find a way to steal our wealth: Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt. Vast countries with more power than we could ever dream of.
'So we needed a friend. A minder. A big brother who would make our enemies think twice before taking any drastic action against us. At this time the Americans had their main base in Saudi Arabia and it was causing huge tension. The House of Saud didn't want them to leave, but the internal pressures were becoming overwhelming. We saw a huge opportunity in this situation. If we could only persuade the Americans to move their main air base in the Gulf from Saudi Arabia to Qatar, then we would have found the big brother we so desperately needed.
'We went about managing this task in a rather unique way. We had a huge asset. Money. Lots and lots of money. So we decided to use it. We spent a billion dollars and built the absolute best air base in the world. It had everything. Superb runways capable of landing any plane. strengthened hangers able to withstand just about any blast. A control tower straight from science fiction. Fabulous quarters and recreational facilities for the personnel. Once the base was finished, we invited the Americans to come and have a look around. And we told them it was theirs for the taking. It was our gift to them. No money required. All we asked for was their protection.
'They accepted our offer. Of course they did. They didn't even think of looking our gift horse in the mouth. And for the last thirty years we have stayed safe. Our enemies tried to squeeze us dry in 2017, but they didn't dare to invade us. Without the protection of the American base we would have been absolutely helpless.
'So what is the moral of my little tale? What do I hope it says about my country? Well, this is how I see things. And I am quite certain the Sheik shares my view. We cannot protect our people with territory and weight of numbers. We have little or no hard power. All we have is our money and our brains. We must use both to their full potential."
Suleiman paused and took a careful sip of coffee whilst Angus waited for the pitch to continue. It did.
“Two years ago the Scottish people had the chance to choose a lifeboat rather than staying on a sinking ship. They chose the lifeboat. They chose to face the danger of the stormy waves rather than the prospect of going under the water along with the rest of the UK. It was a good choice. A brave choice. The right choice."
“I'm glad you think so.”
“I do. Wholeheartedly. Of course, things have been difficult. London was never going to allow it to be easy. But you have found a future to aspire to. There are no guarantees of a happy ending, but at least you have found a way to put the destiny of Scotland into your own hands. I don't think anyone regrets this?"
“Oh, there are a few. But most of our people are still on board. The way things are in England right now isn't exactly an advert for going back to the way things were.”
“No. Absolutely not. Now. I think it is high time I got to the reason for this meeting. I am fairly sure what I am about to say will pretty much blow your mind. All I ask is for you to hear me out and then you can pick me to pieces. Is this acceptable?”
“It is. Fire away. My mind is ready and waiting.”
“Last year's climatic changes hit Qatar much harder than we admitted. It took all of our resources to survive. Every single crop failed and without massive air conditioning, human life would have been impossible. My country became a furnace. The Sheik gave me an assignment. I was to seek out the best expert opinion in the world. Were these climate changes here to stay? Would every summer in Qatar be as desperate as the one we had just lived through? What would be the consequences for our people and our economy? What I discovered was sobering. Terrifying in fact. I found scientific opinion to be unanimous. Our future was to live in a furnace forever. Never again would we be able to produce any of our own food. We would have to import more or less everything. The outlook for our economy was similarly bleak. The dramatic rise in both global sunshine hours and global sunshine intensity will turbo-charge the already booming solar power industry. Of course you know this better than me. It is your field."
Angus nodded. It was his field. Suleiman continued.
“Demand for fossil fuels will not end altogether. But it will fall very dramatically and the price of both gas and oil will fall to a level which makes extracting them economically ridiculous. Without revenue from fossil fuels, Qatar has nothing. We will be nothing. A quarter of a million doomed people trying to live in an oven. I had no choice other than to tell the Sheik our future is desperate in every regard.
'He pondered my findings for several days and then gave me a further mission. He asked if I would be willing to undertake Project Noah. The clue is in the name of course. My people do not face extinction through a great flood. Instead we are destined to bake. The Sheik asked me to find my people an Ark. To find it at any cost."
“Bloody hell. So no pressure then.”
Suleiman chuckled. “It is a rare pleasure to speak with someone who knows the true meaning of this kind of responsibility.”
“I have an inkling of where you are headed here, Suleiman. Would you like me to share it?"
“Is Scotland your preferred Ark option?”
“And as things stand you only have a single card to play. One chance to find a viable future for your people.”
“Money. Your vast treasure trove. Except it really isn't so very vast after all. Because without any revenue from gas and oil, it will just keep going down every year until it will eventually run out."
“And then you will be completely screwed.”
“We will be.”
“So what do you have in mind Suleiman?”
“Oh, I have lots of things in mind. Shall I run through them one by one?"
“I think that would be a good idea.”
“Let me refresh our cups first." Suleiman gathered his thoughts whilst pouring coffee. How he dealt with the next few minutes would determine whether or not his people had a future. He tried to clear his mind of just how impossibly high the stakes were.
“OK. Here goes. Number one. We propose the Scottish Government issue £250 billion worth of 20 year Treasury Bonds at the same interest rate as German Government bonds. My government will buy them. All of them."
Campbell all but spat out his coffee. “Holy bloody Christ. That would put us in the black for years. Where's the catch?”
“I hope the catch will not seem too bad. We would require every one of our people to become eligible for dual citizenship. We will require the Scottish government to allocate land and planning permission for the building of four new towns to accommodate those of my people who want to climb on board the Ark. All construction costs will be paid for by my Government. Such an undertaking will provide a huge boost to the Scottish economy. My Government will also commit to fully cover any welfare costs our people will require for the next thirty years. After that, we believe they will be fully integrated."
By now Campbell's eyes were gleaming. He spoke without even thinking of carefully choosing his words in a proper ministerial manner. "Four brand new towns of 60,000. Bloody hell Suleiman. We could use every one of the new renewable technologies. They could be the first fully self-sufficient towns in history. It would be beyond ground breaking. Go on."
“You probably are not aware of this, but Qatar has always been rather secretive about the real extent of our sovereign wealth fund. Most analysts have guessed at a figure in the region of $800 million. Their guesses have always been on the low side. The real figure is actually around $1.5 trillion.”
“Indeed. But what is having money worth if you have no place to live? Nothing. As I have already indicated, we are willing to spend a sixth of these reserves on 20 year Scotish Government bonds. We will need to reserve at least the same amount to cover cost of developing the four new towns for our people. If your people are agreeable to our offer, we will have solved the problem of finding our Ark. Which brings me to the next problem we must address. In time, what is left of our wealth fund will dwindle away to nothing and we will not be able to top it up with income from the sale of fossil fuel. Our small country has no other resources.
'As you are probably aware, we have made considerable investments in a number of diverse sectors for many years. Banks, motor companies, a football club. These investments are bearing us modest fruit, but not nearly enough. So. It is time for me to lay out our second proposal.”
“So there's more?"
“Oh yes. Much more. And I hope this will have particular appeal to you Angus.”
“I'm all ears.”
The Arab sat back and set himself for the next section of his pitch.
“Both of our countries have benefited from the most sought after commodity of the last few hundred years. I speak of fossil fuels of course. First coal. Then oil. Then gas. Maybe we have benefited more than you. But this long era is finally drawing to a close leaving a very big question on the lips of mankind. What will be the next oil? Well, before last year's drought the Sheik gave me the task of finding the answer to this question."
“He certainly gives you some pretty stiff homework."
“This is very true. Anyway. I am 90% sure in my own mind that I have found the answer. Would you like to hazard a guess, Angus."
The Scot smiled. “Water.”
“Very good. Give that man a merit badge. Water. The last few years have shown man has the ability to find alternatives to fossil fuels. We are nothing if not adaptable. But we cannot manage without water. Water is an absolute requirement for human life. Without water, not one of us can survive for more than a handful of days. Access to dwindling water supplies will be the greatest cause of war in the next century. And as the world wakes up to the sheer extent of our utter addiction to water, we will also wake up to the fact we will have to start paying by the litre. Just like we pay for oil and corn and kilowatts of electricity and gold. Water will enter the global commodity market alongside all the other staple raw materials of life. It will become the most sought after commodity. It will become the new benchmark. A few hundred years ago everything revolved around silver and gold. Then it was gas, oil and uranium. The future will be all about water."
Suleiman stood and collected a large carry case from the corner of the meeting room. It was the kind of thing an architect might use for plans or an artist for a portrait. He cleared the low table and pulled out a large relief map of Scotland from the bag and laid it down.
Angus gave a low whistle. “Impressive.”
“The wonders of 3D printing. So. I think when we both look at this we see different things. You see your country. Of course you do. It is what you have fought for. It is your home. But I see something rather different. Would you like to know what I see Angus?”
“I see the greatest water collection system on this planet of ours. For now I will merely point out three particular points on the map. I will start here. Loch Glass. A truly beautiful place. I have visited. Worthy of a postcard. But I am afraid I don't see Loch Glass for its postcard potential. I see a collection tank. A huge collection tank. Now, look at the area all around. The mountains and the lochs. The famous Highlands of Scotland. So many poems and songs and stirring tales. Heroism and tragedy. Soaring hope and murderous oppression. History and geography and literature and folklore all rolled into one. A mystical place. A beautiful place. But this is not what I see Angus. I see something rather different. I see this and this and this and this..."
He tapped the map with a well-manicured forefinger. And each time he tapped, he tapped a loch. Small lochs and large lochs and medium sized lochs and tiny lochs.
“Imagine they were all connected together, Angus. Like an electricity grid. Imagine they were all connected by a vast system of underground pipes which could carry millions and millions and millions of litres of fresh Scottish water. Millions and millions of litres of fresh Scottish water which would flow for every second of every minute of every hour of every day...."
Suleiman was a preacher now. A prophet. A firebrand priest and imam all rolled into one. The thought of all those millions of litres of Highland water lit him up.
And he was speaking fast now. Almost breathless. Angus felt like he was on a rollercoaster.
“OK. Next. Here.”
“Invergordon. One of the world's finest deep water ports sheltered by the Cromarty Firth. A port capable of playing host to any ship. The greatest ships. Are you getting there Angus...."
The Scot focussed with a small frown. “The greatest ships as in the supertankers, yes?”
“Oh yes. The supertankers. The biggest ships mankind has ever constructed. Have you any idea how much these ships can carry?”
“Not really. A hell of a lot.”
“Oh yes. A hell of a lot indeed. Two million barrels of oil. Which is 300 million litres of oil. These ships have made sure the lights of the world have stayed on for a hundred years. And now? Now their race is all but run. I know this and you know this. Qatar and Scotland still have plenty of oil to fill these ships but we have barely a customer left who wants to buy our oil. And those who do want to buy are not willing to pay a price which makes it worth our while to fill one of these magnificent vessels. The companies who own these vessels have been quietly writing them off for years. They no longer appear on balance sheets as assets. Instead they are liabilities. Funds are being set to one side to cover the costs of decommissioning."
Now Angus was smiling. “Which would mean, and I am speaking hypothetically here, the owners would be very open to offers from anyone to take such a huge potential liability off their hands.”
“Absolutely they are. We have been quietly signing deals for the last six months. The ship owners think we are crazy. They think we are in denial. They think we are Arab fools who blindly believe the demand for oil will last for ever and a day. No doubt they are laughing at our folly.”
“I dare say they are. And let me guess. So far the total amount you have paid for your new fleet of supertankers is a big fat zero.”
“How many have you managed to get hold of?”
“Holy Christ. How much can one of these tankers carry?”
“2 million barrels of oil. 300 million litres of water.”
“OK. Take a city of a million. How much water is needed per day?”
“It used to be an average of 500 litres per head. But things are changing fast since last year's global drought. Most experts expect the average per person usage to fall to about 100 litres per day."
Angus forced his brain into mental arithmetic mode. "OK. Let's see if I can get this. The water on one of these tankers would keep a city of half a million going for about a week. So it would need two tankers to keep the taps on assuming a week to get to Scotland and back?"
“You're in the ball park.”
“So the forty tankers you already have are enough to supply twenty cities of half a million? How many more ships do you think you'll be able to get your hands on?"
“We aim to build up a fleet of a hundred. Enough for fifty of your cities. Enough for 25 million people. On average, people in Europe pay $4 a day for their gas and electricity. We expect the cost of water will soon be a little higher. Shall we say $5 a day? Which means in the very roundest of figures our fleet of tankers will be capable of delivering enough water to generate an income of about a billion dollars a week."
Angus was speechless. Suleiman smiled. "And that would only be the start of course. Over the next decades, we anticipate building many, many more tankers."
A silence settled. The politician saw no point in putting it off any longer and poured himself a tumbler of Scotch. He offered to fix a drink for Suleiman who gave a 'why the hell not' shrug. Once the drinks were fixed they sat back down.
“So Suleiman, you have completely done my head in. You best tell me what you have in mind."
“Of course. What I have in mind Angus is the greatest business partnership in world history. It will be a 50/50 partnership between the governments of Scotland and Qatar. We will commit a trillion dollars from our sovereign wealth fund and 100 hundred tankers. Your commitment will basically be the lochs and the mountains and the sea. But there is still more. Shall I continue?"
“Once the collection system is up and running we will be moving endless millions of litres of water through a succession of lochs. We will basically be using gravity to move the water downhill all the way to Invergordon. So?"
Angus caught up quickly. “So there will be an opportunity to slot in Hydro Electric power stations every step of the way.”
“There will. The collection system has the potential to generate vast amounts of electricity. Far more than Scotland could ever consume. Not that you have any great need for extra power. You are already well on the way to being self-sufficient. But a little bird told me you have a neighbour who might well be in the market for all the power they can lay their hands on. Ring any bells?"
“Because the Hinckley Point nuclear power station is never going to happen.”
“Quite correct. My sources tell me they are already making plans for power rationing.”
Angus chuckled. “Your sources.”
“Oh, I have some very good sources."
“I bet you do. I'm sure you're not the only guys to have noticed England is about to be in the market for a whole shed load of electricity. Surely there will be others looking to get a piece of the action?"
“Oh, there will be. There will be plenty. But realistically they wouldn't stand a chance of competing with us. Britain is still an island and it always will be. You are already hooked into the English grid. Believe me, we will be the only realistic show in town."
“What is your projected income from selling electricity?"
“25 billion dollars per annum.”
“So. $75 billion a year from the water and the electricity combined, right?"
“Which we would split 50/50?”
Angus shook his head in something approaching wonder. "I can see why the Sheik has you as his 'go to' guy. This deal gets you and your people the whole thing. You are using your cash reserves to get yourselves a new place to live and a long term income which will allow you all to keep living the life you've become accustomed to."
“And you will get a huge injection of cash which will stabilise the Scottish Pound on a permanent basis. Then you will get a huge annual income boost which will equate to £7000 per Scottish Citizen. I haven't even begun to go into the huge boost your economy will receive once we embark on building four new towns and all that pipework. We would be keen to see if the new tankers we will require can be built on the Clyde. Think of the jobs, Angus. Think of the wages. Think of the tax take...."
And now a slow smile spread across the Scotsman's face. He saw the future and he liked what he saw. He saw a future where his country would become the envy of the world. This was indeed a near perfect partnership for both parties.
“Suleiman, you know and I both know I cannot say yes to all this on behalf of my country. But I can certainly say yes on behalf of myself. A resounding yes. So long as the small print holds up. So if you would like to shake my hand I can promise you I will fight like hell to make sure this happens. Good enough for you?"
“More than good enough.”
And so the two men shook hands on a wet February evening in 2025 in a small meeting room in the Balmoral Hotel. As it turned out, Angus barely had to do any fighting at all. He took Suleiman's gift horse to the Cabinet two days later and the Scottish Government felt no need to look too closely into its mouth. A formal treaty was signed with great ceremony three months later while an astonished world looked on with complete amazement.
The next few years saw the Scottish economy grow more quickly than any economy on earth. The value of the Scottish pound soared. By 2028 over 200,000 Qataris had taken up their Sheik's offer of an Ark and upped sticks. The people of Scotland welcomed their new guests with open arms. Well of course we did. We have always been a canny lot.
One more thing.
In 2029 my best friend Julie's dad became the new First Minister of Scotland.
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