On his first official visit overseas, hotfoot from Egypt, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) arrived in UK for a three-day tour to a mixed reception. Boris Johnson, Foreign Secretary, greeted MBS with a handshake and a hug on his arrival at Heathrow. Citizens had been prepared for the visit of the reforming Prince by a slew of promotional advertisements in the mainstream media, also on billboards alongside the major highways and on the side of black cabs in central London, all bearing the message MBS is bringing change to Saudi Arabia. It is a fact that MBS has planned ambitious economic reforms envisaging Saudi Arabia as a global hub connecting three continents, Asia, Europe and Africa; societal renewal including increasing women’s participation in the Saudi Arabia workforce from 22% to 30%, expanding the scope of e-government and a return to moderate Islam; all these are clearly defined in Vision 2030, which both Prime Minister Theresa May and Johnson firmly support.
Following the inaugural meeting of the UK-Saudi Arabia Strategic Partnership Council at No 10, May announced, “The meeting agreed a landmark ambition for around £65bn of mutual trade and investment opportunities over the coming years, including direct investment in the UK and new Saudi public procurement with UK companies. This is a significant boost for UK prosperity and a clear demonstration of the strong international confidence in our economy as we prepare to leave the European Union.”
The visit has produced some meaningful results for the UK-Saudi Arabia partnership, including a commitment to work together in East Africa, which will see British development experts working closer with Saudi counterparts in the Horn and East of Africa, where both countries are already helping to lift people out of poverty. The new partnership will see a joint commitment of £100 million between the two countries to further economic development. The UK’s contribution will include allocations from existing country budgets. Britain and Saudi Arabia have already taken a step closer to a multi-billion-pound arms deal for 48 Typhoon aircraft made by BAE Systems on Friday, touching on the most inflammatory element of their relationship that has mixed warm diplomacy with angry street protests, agencies reported.
London’s Stock Exchange is still in the running for the IPO of Aramco, the Saudi Arabian mega oil company. Al Falih, Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Energy, Industry and Mineral Resources and chairman of Aramco, indicated a preference for London over New York, but the timing of the flotation is uncertain.
Although experts call this not quite a state visit, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II entertained MBS for lunch in Buckingham Palace and later that evening MBS met with HRH the Prince of Wales and HRH the Duke of Cambridge at Clarence House. On Thursday, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby welcomed MBS to Lambeth Palace; it is understood they discussed the promotion and flourishing of different faith traditions and MBS’ commitment to interfaith dialogue within the Kingdom and beyond. The Archbishop emphasised the crucial role that Saudi Arabia could play in protecting minorities across the world and voiced the concern of many in the UK about the humanitarian situation in Yemen. Johnson congratulated his counterpart, His Excellency Adel Al-Jubeir on the development of a plan for the reconstruction of Yemen after any settlement of the conflict.
On the issue of the conflict in Yemen, there were several protests around Downing Street and Parliament Square; vans and buses carried slogans against the visit and the supply of UK-manufactured weapons. In the House of Commons, Jeremy Corbyn demanded an immediate ceasefire in Yemen and suspension of UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia. BAE Systems are hoping for an order of 48 Typhoon fighter jets, thought to be worth £10 billion.
On International Women’s Day, Theresa May and MBS agreed to explore ways the UK can support Saudi Arabia to progress and intensify the recent reforms for women, particularly on women’s rights, and on universal human rights, where the Prime Minister noted particular concerns in the case of Raif Badawi.
As if to confirm the importance of the “United Kingdoms” on Tuesday, the Bureau for Investigative Journalism (BfI) discovered that Jolyon Welsh, a senior British diplomat is working for Consulum whilst on the Special Unpaid Leave scheme from the Foreign Office. Consulum is the Strategic Communications Consultancy based in UK-Qatar-Bahrain and UAE, and founded by former Bell-Pottinger executives. MBS is known to be a client. BfI wrote, “The revelation raises fresh questions about revolving doors between Whitehall and PR firms acting for foreign governments.”