UK to focus on areas of agreement as Saudi crown prince arrives
The Saudi crown prince, , will arrive in the UK on Wednesday for what is effectively a state visit that will include lunch with the Queen, dinner with the Prince of Wales and the Duke of Cambridge, a day at the prime minister’s rural retreat, Chequers, and attendance at a meeting of the UK national security council.
The trip, which , is the prince’s first foreign tour as heir to the Saudi throne and is seen as his chance to project the kingdom as a determined to take up its status as a major G20 economic power.
A coalition of UK human rights groups are planning to protest against the visit outside Downing Street, calling out rights abuses in the kingdom, as well as the UK government’s arms sales and support for Riyadh’s intervention in the war in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians and driven the .
Despite the demonstrations, however, British officials hope the visit will shift the Saudi relationship beyond traditional spheres of security and defence so the UK can capitalise commercially on the recent social and cultural reforms inside the deeply conservative country.
Saudi efforts to diversify the economy away from oil revenues will provide new opportunities for British firms in health, technology, entertainment, sport and education. Both Saudi and UK officials are predicting handshakes on bilateral contracts worth more than $100m (£72m) over 10 years.
No breakthrough is expected on the UK’s bid to stage the , the world’s largest oil company, on the London Stock Exchange. Saudi sources said they did not expect a sale this year. “It is a huge issue and we are still looking at it,” said the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir.
Neither is one expected on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in the war in Yemen, or its foreign policy disputes with Lebanon, , or its regional rival Iran.
Bipartisan support for Saudi actions in Yemen has broken down in both the US and the UK recently. Jubeir told the Guardian that had always accepted there was no military solution to the conflict, and denied any split in war objectives with its close political ally the United Arab Emirates.
“I do not see any division between UAE and Saudi – we both support a united Yemen, we both support the legitimate government, and both want to deny a foothold for Iran in ,” he said.
Tensions also exist between the UK and the kingdom over continued .
The UK will focus on areas of agreement with Riyadh, on the need for a supplementary agreement on the Iranian ballistic missile programme and possible sanctions in the wake of a UN panel of experts finding that in breach of a UN arms embargo. The UK tends not to highlight passages from the same recent UN experts’ report that condemns Saudi airstrikes as a .
Jubeir admitted the war had damaged the kingdom’s reputation, but did not comment on civilian casualties.
“We made mistakes when the crisis began. We did not have a very effective strategy,” he said. “The perception was the richest Arab country attacking the poorest Arab country. Nobody likes wars, including us. It is a situation that was imposed on us. It is not an aggressive war, but one of defence to prevent a country being taken over.”
The foreign minister insisted reforms introduced by the crown prince over the past year, , had not produced pushback from the religious establishment. “You cannot achieve your objective of an open, modern dynamic economy if 50% of women are not participating,” he added.
In an interview with the Arab paper Asharq al-Awsat, the UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said: “We feel strongly that this is the beginning of change in the whole Islamic world. We strongly admire what Prince Mohammed is doing, and we want to engage in and support what is happening. He is a man of tolerance and mutual respect.”
Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, struck a critical note, telling the BBC’s Today programme that Saudi airstrikes were launched every 93 minutes in Yemen and a child died from preventable causes every 10 minutes. She challenged Saudi claims that Yemen portswere no longer blockaded, adding the UK was “in a unique position to lead our international friends to stop the war in Yemen”.
Thornberry also challenged the extent of the prince’s domestic reforms and expressed worry about the rate of executions in Saudi Arabia.
The Muslim Association of Britain urged May to put human rights at the heart of her discussions with Bin Salman, saying “recent superficial measures”, such as allowing women to drive and opening cinemas, should not mask an absence of democracy and a continued crackdown on political dissent.
In an open letter to the prime minister, the MAB also urges her to tell the crown prince “directly and in no uncertain terms” of the UK’s views on Saudi’s role in “destroying the lives of millions of Yemenis, and eventually crushing a fledgling democratic experiment”.