Saudi Arabia's crown prince gets the royal treatment for UK state visit

  • The U.K. is bending over backwards to welcome Saudi Arabia's crown prince as he starts a three-day state visit aimed at deepening economic ties between the two countries.
  • Banners promoting Saudi-U.K. links have appeared in London, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is known, arrived on Tuesday.
  • MBS will dine with the Queen and Prince Charles and WIlliam, Duke of Cambridge.

The U.K. is bending over backwards to welcome Saudi Arabia's crown prince as he starts a three-day state visit aimed at deepening economic ties between the two countries.

Banners promoting Saudi-U.K. links have appeared in London, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MBS as he is known, arrived on Tuesday evening.

He is due to have lunch with Queen Elizabeth II on Wednesday and dinner with Prince Charles and the Duke of Cambridge, William, in the evening.

He is also due to meet Prime Minister Theresa May and ministers, including Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, at the prime minister's residence in Downing Street, Wednesday.

Meetings over the next three days are expected to focus on defense, security and economic ties, Downing Street said as it issued more details of the crown prince's visit.

The two countries are set to launch a "Strategic Partnership Council" aimed at fostering closer economic and cultural relations, with billions of dollars worth of potential deals within the partnership.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's schedule on Wednesday:

  • 12:30 p.m. — Queen Elizabeth II receives the crown prince at Buckingham Palace
  • 3:45 p.m. — Crown prince arrives in Downing Street
  • 4 p.m. — Bin Salman meets Theresa May
  • Evening — Prince Charles and Prince William host a dinner at Clarence House

His visit is the first to the U.K. since he became crown prince in June 2017 (he is also defense minister) and since Saudi Arabia started its "major program of domestic reforms," with the U.K. government hoping for deeper relations with the Middle Eastern superpower.

Mohammed bin Salman gestures during a press conference in Riyadh, on April 25, 2016
Fayez Nureldine | AFP | Getty Images
Mohammed bin Salman gestures during a press conference in Riyadh, on April 25, 2016

"Saudi Arabia is among the largest political, diplomatic and economic powers in the Middle East, and the visit will usher in a new era in our bilateral relations with one of our oldest friends in the region," the U.K. government said in a press release Tuesday.

Saudi Arabia appears to have seen the visit as an opportunity for good public relations, with large ads taking out in a number of national newspapers. Financial Times journalist Peter Spiegel remarked on the prominent pro-Saudi segments in Wednesday's press.

Business deals

Mohamed Abdelmeguid, a Saudi Arabia analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), said he was sure new Saudi-U.K. commercial partnerships will be signed during the visit but noted that "Brexit creates a lot of uncertainty for foreign investors." He added that this could be sufficient to derail planned investments before they reach execution level.

The planned initial public offering (IPO) of state oil giant Saudi Aramco (London is competing with New York to be the stock exchange where the company is listed overseas) is also expected to be discussed, the EIU's Abdelmeguid said.

"London will be competing with other capitals over the forthcoming (Saudi Aramco) IPO so there is probably going to be some talk about the listing. He will need to announce something soon though, as we are already in March and Saudi officials had previously suggested the IPO was planned for mid-2018."

The 32-year-old crown prince has made waves in Saudi Arabia for the economic and cultural reforms he has promoted since being named heir to the throne, the most notable reforms ranging from the much-vaunted "Vision 2030" to diversify the economy away from oil, to lifting a ban on cinemas and women driving in Saudi Arabia.

The U.K. government said Vision 2030 will provide opportunities for British businesses in sectors including education, entertainment and health care "where they have world-class expertise."

"It also includes plans for Saudi Arabia to become a global investment powerhouse and the crown prince's visit will help explore ways in which Saudi Arabia can build on its investment in the U.K. in sectors such as infrastructure," the government added.

Aside from overseeing radical departures from tradition in the religiously conservative country, the heir to the Saudi kingdom also instigated a crackdown on corruption that saw ministers, businessmen and even fellow princes arrested and detained in 2017.

His youth and enthusiasm for reform work in his favor, in a country where the majority of the population is young and eager for work. Out of a total population of around 32.5 million people, the majority are in their mid-30s or younger, according to government data.

The state-controlled Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said the crown prince is being accompanied by a delegation including the Saudi ambassador to the U.K., the country's minister of commerce and investment, minister of health, minister of energy, minister of education and the economy and culture ministers.

Critics and protests

Yet Saudi Arabia is not without its critics, who lament its poor record on human rights, draconian executions of political prisoners and military intervention in the civil war in Yemen, a conflict that has caused a humanitarian disaster in the country and one which is seen as a proxy war between the kingdom and its regional rival, Iran.

Prime Minister May has been criticized by political opponents in the U.K. for inviting the crown prince and human rights protesters have said they are going to hold demonstrations in London during the visit.

A lorry with a banner protesting against the visit on Wednesday by Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia drives around Westminster.
Matthew Chattle/Barcroft Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images
A lorry with a banner protesting against the visit on Wednesday by Mohammed bin Salman, Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia drives around Westminster.

Arms sales between the U.K. and Saudi Arabia are a moot point for protesters. The Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) is among a broad range of human rights groups planning to protest at Downing Street on Wednesday afternoon. It said in a statement that a Populus poll of 2,000 people (carried out for CAAT) showed that only 6 percent of the U.K. population supported arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

CAAT states that U.K. government data it has compiled show that since the Saudi-led coalition began airstrikes on Yemen in 2015, "the U.K. has licensed £4.6 billion ($6.3 billion) worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, including £2.7 billion worth of ML10 licenses (aircraft, helicopters, drones) and £1.9 billion worth of ML4 licenses (grenades, bombs, missiles, countermeasures)."

The U.K. government said that the meeting "will help to enhance our co-operation in tackling international challenges such as terrorism, extremism, the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Yemen and other regional issues such as Iraq and Syria."