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Saudi crown prince winds down UK visit after a mixed reception

  • The crown prince's reforms have ushered in sweeping changes across Saudi Arabia; notably allowing females to drive, and the lifting of a 35-year-old ban on cinemas.
  • But the 32-year-old Bin Salman has also stunned onlookers, especially with the 2017 purge that saw the arrests of over 30 princes, businessmen, and government ministers.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Hamad I Mohammed | Reuters
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman

Stories of Mohammed bin Salman's state visit to the U.K. took a bipolar approach in the British press this week.

Some accounted for the Saudi crown prince's reformist agenda sweeping through the historically conservative nation. Others spoke of protests coupled with the visit, highlighting human rights abuses in Yemen. Some were simply left perplexed by the PR drive from the Middle Eastern nation, which saw Bin Salman's face plastered on billboards and black cabs in London.

The crown prince's reforms have ushered in sweeping changes across Saudi Arabia; notably allowing females to drive, and the lifting of a 35-year-old ban on cinemas. But the 32-year-old Bin Salman has also stunned onlookers, especially with the 2017 purge that saw the arrests of over 30 princes, businessmen, and government ministers.

In the U.K., there are some who have used the visit to forge better ties between Britain and Saudi Arabia. For example, Chris Innes-Hopkins, the executive director at the Saudi British Joint Business Council (SBJBC), an independent and private sector-led body, hosted a number of high level executives from Saudi Arabia off the back of the trip. He saw the moment as a means to build a mutually-beneficial partnership of long term investment and trade.

But more specifically, it was the impending Saudi Aramco initial public offering (IPO) that sent the most tongues wagging. Especially amongst the finance buffs of the City of London which has been shortlisted for the international portion of the state oil giant's listing.

The flotation could be the largest in history and is a topic attracting not only the attention of British investors, but also of the U.K. parliament. James Slack, spokesperson for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May stated that the visit would usher in a new era of bilateral "relations focused on delivering wide-ranging benefits."

But, Rachel Reeves, a Labour party politician and the chair of the Business Committee in the House of Commons, is less eager for London to pursue the listing.

"It's easy to see why the City (of London) and highly-remunerated advisors cheerlead for this listing, but the U.K. currently has strict corporate governance rules and it's vital these aren't watered down in a bid to attract Saudi Aramco. This risks our world-class reputation for corporate governance and could ultimately damage the U.K.'s attractiveness to foreign investment," she told CNBC via email.

Aside from discussions on the Aramco IPO, were headlines of the Saudi prince eyeing billion-dollar investment deals for the U.K. Wednesday evening headlines verified the success of the trip, boasting a goal of around £65 billion ($90.3 billion) of investment in the coming years.

May said in a statement: "This is a significant boost for U.K. prosperity and a clear demonstration of the strong international confidence in our economy as we prepare to leave the European Union."

But there are skeptics that these announcements would ever see fruition, with the Financial Times noting on Thursday that President Donald Trump's deals with the country last year have yet to fully materialize.

In October 2017, Saudi Arabia impressed at the Future Investment Initiative conference in Riyadh by announcing plans for a $500 billion business zone reaching into Jordan and Egypt. However, speaking to Reuters, some executives said they "remained concerned about Riyadh's ability to execute its plans." Though, they chose not to be named to avoid risking their chances of winning business.

Christopher Davidson, author of "After the Sheikhs," a book that explores the collapse of Gulf monarchies, has also questioned this week's announcements.

"I would be cautious if I were in Number 10 (Downing Street) or the White House to really expect Saudi to come up with this," he told CNBC.

"History tells us it can't. From Saudi's perspective, their promises are being lapped up, both whom, for their own reasons, need to score points at home by saying they have big international trade partners."

Friday is set to be the last day for Mohammed bin Salman's U.K. trip, but his "Vision 2030" expansion continues with an official visit to the U.S. on March 19.