The powerful Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, is set to meet senior royals on a visit to London this month that will give him a chance both to present himself as his country’s modernising face and experience British protests over Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and its conduct in the three-year Yemen civil war.
The visit, already announced in principle by Boris Johnson, was discussed by the two men when the foreign secretary went to Riyadh last week. It is expected MBS, as he is colloquially known, will also visit Paris and Washington.
They will be his first forays out of his country since the start of an anti-corruption purge on 4 November that saw hundreds of Saudi potentates and businessmen arrested in the Ritz Carlton hotel on “corruption charges”, and as much as £100bn confiscated for the kingdom’s use in exchange for the opportunity to check out.
The London trip is likely to be one of the most sensitive diplomatic visits this year. The UK is keen to endorse the MBS 2030 vision, an attempt to turn Saudi Arabia into a market-based economy less dependent on oil while ministers hope for a bonanza for the City of London by winning the planned stock market flotation of Aramco, the state oil group valued at anything up to $2tn (£1.4tn), over rival bids from Wall Street and the far east.
In an interview with the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya television channel this week, Johnson stressed the UK’s links with the [Persian] Gulf and a burgeoning personal relationship with the crown prince. “The relationship between Britain and Saudi Arabia is historic. It’s more than 100 years old. It’s an extraordinary partnership. It’s a partnership based on a common view of the world in many ways, not every way, but in many ways.”
He added: “Reform in Saudi Arabia, the custodian of the holy places, will be a change in the whole Islamic world, and what’s happening now is of momentous importance.” The liberalisation of women’s right to drive and attend football matches and the opening of cinemas are all seen as part of a genuine effort to distance Saudi society from a harsh brand of Wahhabism.
Johnson, once broadly an advocate of British neutrality between Iran and Saudi Arabia, has in recent months increasingly echoed the anti-Iranian mood coming from the White House and Riyadh. “Saudi concerns about Iranian-supplied missiles fired by [Houthis] from northern Yemen are absolutely valid in the UK government’s eyes”. Arms deals also remain a mainstay of the relationship.
But there are also areas of tensions between Saudi Arabia and the UK that diplomats are reluctant to air in public.
The UK, in common with France and Germany, has doggedly resisted Saudi and US pressure to abandon the Iran nuclear deal. The issue of nuclear proliferation is also rearing its head. Like Tehran, Riyadh wants the right to produce nuclear fuel on its soil by enriching uranium and reprocessing plutonium from spent reactor fuel. The Bush and Obama administrations rejected such requests, fearing the kingdom could use these technologies to build nuclear weapons. The Trump administration may take a different view, or even find it does not have the leverage to stop the kingdom.
In Yemen, the UK has been pressing the Saudi-UAE coalition fighting to restore the [resigned] president, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, to power to recognise that there is no military solution. Yemen is a diplomatic disaster zone, with UAE-backed southern secessionists this week fighting pro-Hadi forces inside Aden.
Britain has helped persuade Saudi Arabia that an all-out blockade of Hodeidah, the main port for aid into the rebel-held north, was not only destroying lives, but MBS’s international reputation. A stronger UN inspection regime has been agreed, and the number of ships entering the port has risen to eight a week, six for food and and two fuel. The Saudis have also pledged $1.5bn of aid.
The UK would also like to see Saudi Arabia cut its losses in another conflict – the blockade of Qatar. If the Saudis thought the blockade would lead to internal chaos in Qatar, and a chance to intervene militarily with US support, they have miscalculated.
The Qatari economy, built on liquid gas exports, has proved more resilient, and in a visit to Washington the emir returned with a US commitment to deter and confront any “external threat to Qatar’s territorial integrity that is inconsistent with the United Nations charter”. The US is also expanding its giant airbase in Qatar.
Finally there is the issue of human rights, on which it might be said there is “a values gap” between Riyadh and London.
British lawyers have in recent days submitted complaints to the UN human rights council on behalf of more than 60 Saudi activists who were detained last September and in some cases have since disappeared. The submission from the former director of public prosecutions Lord Macdonald QC and Rodney Dixon QC calls for Saudi Arabia to be suspended from the council because of the “deteriorating human rights situation” in the kingdom.
Most of the 60 who have been detained are politically active or involved in monitoring human rights abuses. Referring to the Riyadh Ritz arrests, Dixon said: “Our report should serve as a timely reminder that a much less glamorous and less publicised wave of arrests took place just two months prior to that in September 2017, with significantly harsher treatment of those detained who in many cases have been kept in solitary confinement in notorious prisons without access to their families or any lawyers.”